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Play an MP3 clip of 'If the Creek Don't Rise' as arranged for banjo.












Click to see RiverboatMusic.com's tips for buying the Bluegrass banjo you can afford.













Click to go to home page.What is a Bluegrass Banjo?

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™

Our article "What Kind of Banjo Do I Want?" describes the main kinds of banjos and what they're good for. Since I wrote that article, though I've notice a number of 5-string banjos that I would NOT use for Bluegrass described as "Bluegrass banjos." Yes, all "Bluegrass banjos" are 5-strings. And you can learn Bluegrass on any playable 5-string. But not every 5-string banjo is a "Bluegrass banjo."

The difference between a "Bluegrass" banjo and a "non-bluegrass" 5-string, has to do with construction more than anything else. They CAN BE PLAYED THE SAME.

What is Bluegrass, Anyway? - Bluegrass banjo originated with Bluegrass, a music style largely invented by Bill Monroe after he was exposed to black blues guitar players. Bill, a mandolin player, subsequently introduced "blue notes," mostly flatted thirds, fifths and sevenths to what had previously been called "Old Timey" or "Mountain" music. "Bluegrass" was born.

Bluegrass Banjo started including flatted thirds and fifths. They usually went by very fast and were almost always "resolved" up a half step to a full third or fifth. As an example, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which is in the key of G, starts with a Db-D-D Db-D-D combination that is so fast, most people don't even hear the different notes. To get the "lightning-fast" note changes such playing demanded, banjo players like Earl Scruggs and Don Reno made other adaptations that included more fingerpicking and less strumming.

Scrugg's picking style became so well known that for decades, people made a distinction between "Scruggs Picking" and "everything else." By the late 1970s, though, banjo had fallen out of favor with pop musicians, so about the only place you heard it was in Country or Bluegrass bands, where Scruggs picking and related styles (like "Reno picking") were all but universal.

Nevertheless, many picking styles preceded "Scruggs Picking," and some of those are still played in folk-, "Old-Timey," or ethnic-oriented music circles. "Frailing" and "Clawhammer" playing use more strumming. In fact, when you hear classic Folk Revival groups like the Kingston Trio or the New Christy Minstrels, the strumming is so predominant that you have to listen carefully to realize that some of the notes are also being picked individually.

How do You Make a Banjo Louder? Now let's talk construction. Long before "Scruggs picking" became the "default" way of playing 5-string banjo, banjo manufacturers introduced two improvements to allow banjo to compete in volume with other instruments (often in other music styles like Jazz).

This photo of a Deering Sierra banjo with the drum head and resonator removed shows the tone ring on top of the pot. Click for a bigger picture.Tone Rings - One improvement was the "tone ring," a brass ring inside the banjo that was pushed up against the head to amplify the sound. In the photo the right, you can see the tone ring sitting on top of the wooden pot. By the way, the photo is of a Deering Sierra banjo that I partially disassembled to install a Kavanjo pickup.

Technically the ring that sits between the head and the pot is the "tone ring." Some of these actually bulge under the head. Others are more-or-less a plain ring of steel or brass. The main point is that they come between the head and the pot and keep the wooden pot from absorbing (and deadening) the vibrations from the banjo's head.

The other ring - the one with the big holes in it, is really the top of the resonator, which has been pulled off to allow me to replace the banjo's head. The technical name for it is "resonator flange," and on better banjos it is cast, then machined. It is not a tone-ring. But lots of manufacturers over the years have made banjos without true, under-the-head, tone rings and claimed that the piece attached to the pot is a "tone ring." It's not the same thing - it doesn't sit between the head and the pot.

This Dean 'Backwoods Two' banjo substitutes one big piece of metal for the pot and resonator flange.  Some manufacturers call this the 'tone ring.'  Click for a bigger photo.A Cost-Saving Substitution - To make it more interesting, several mass-manufacturers of banjo-like instruments have abandoned wooden pots and cast the pot and resonator flange out of one big piece of metal. To save money, they didn't bother making the outside edge of the resonator flange round. Instead it has sharp points. Banjo pickers call these "pop-top" banjos because the shape resembles the old pop bottle tops. As long as you keep the resonator on these banjos, they will play loud and have much more sustain than a backless banjo, so this kind of construction has become the default for beginning and intermediate banjos intended for the Bluegrass market. But to claim that they have "tone rings" is - to my mind - a gross misrepresentation.

Resonators - The other big improvement in the early 1900s was the resonator, a round wooden box fastened to the back of the banjo, usually a couple inches larger than the banjo diameter. The notion is that the sound coming from the back of the banjo head will reflect up around the pot (body). That's why banjos with resonator flanges have holes in the flanges - to let the sound through.

This resonator banjo has no resonator flange or tone ring.  But it's still louder than it would be if you took the back off. Click for bigger photo.Without a resonator, the sound coming from the back of the banjo gets lost in the player's skin and clothing. So even a resonator banjo that has no tone ring or resonator flange (like the Ibanez IB 50 at the right) will be louder than a backless banjo. By the way, most starter banjos that were designed during the Folk Revival were made this way, before Bluegrass wannabees demanded louder banjos and the "pop-top" banjos (shown above) were introduced.

That said, the stamped-steel brackets holding the resonator on are a sign that this is not a professional Bluegrass instrument, even though you can play Bluegrass on it. If you have a strong back and you're looking for a "true" Bluegrass banjo to play professionally, you'll want a one-piece cast resonator flange like the one shown two photos above.

Dual Coordinator Rods - Underneath the head, where you can't see them are one or two coordinator rods that help keep This photo of a Deering Sierra banjo with the drum head and resonator removed shows the dual coordinator rods, a must-have for a banjo of this weight. Click for a bigger picture.the banjo's pot round and help control the angle of the head. Back in the "gut string" days, this rod was often wooden. Today it is usually steel, with threaded ends. In backless banjos and in cheap banjos of every kind, there usually only one. But the pot assembly of a true Bluegrass banjo, with all that extra metal and wood is quite heavy. So, higher-end Bluegrass banjos all have two coordinator rods.

Note: Big, heavy sustain rings, one-piece cast resonator flanges, and resonators add real weight to a Bluegrass banjo. So in addition to be loud, higher-end Bluegrass banjos tend to be very heavy. This is one reason why starting youngsters out on a backless, tone-ring-less banjo isn't a bad idea, even if their goal is to play professional Bluegrass music eventually. They can learn the licks and picking patterns and tunes on any playable 5-string without causing permanent back damage.

How Long Do You Want The Notes to Sound? Tone rings and resonators improved not only the volume of the instrument, but also the sustain.

Sustain isn't a problem in Jazz banjo (what most folks call Dixieland today), because the chords those players use have no open strings - each chord automatically stops ringing when the next cord is fretted.

Similarly, sustain isn't a big problem in Bluegrass banjo, because you're only playing one or two notes at any given time, and if any of the open strings keep going after you've changed to the next chord, they'll probably more-or-less blend in, since the chords in Bluegrass songs tend to be harmonically related (G, C, Dsus4, and Em, for example).

When Is Sustain Bad? When you're strumming. "Clawhammer" and several other kinds of traditional banjo playing involve strumming and open strings. This means that you might have multiple notes sustaining after you've changed cords. In some cases, it may be hard to tell that you've even changed chords. For that reason, some players have taken to calling any 5-string without a resonator or tone ring a "Clawhammer banjo." Unfortunately, in 2014, hardly anybody knows what "Clawhammer" is so the term is meaningless to all but the initiated.

The term "open-back" means that there is no resonator, and almost every "open-back" banjo is also "missing" a tone ring, so the term "open-back" makes sense to most musicians. Who would anyone want an "open-back" banjo? Anyone who uses patterns that involve strumming - like Clawhammer or Frailing - or who wants an authentic sound on pre-Bluegrass "Old-Timey" music. Or, for that matter, anyone who wants to practice any kind of banjo music without keeping people three doors down awake.

Who wouldn't want an open-back banjo? A Bluegrass player, that's who.

A Note about Tuning Pegs - originally, banjos were home-made instruments with "friction" pegs stuck through the back of the head. As long as the strings were "gut," you could keep them in tune fairly well. But when the strings went to metal, more strength was required. On many banjos, friction pegs were replaced by geared pegs, sometimes called "machine heads." A Grover Sta-Tite machine-head tuning peg assembly, one of the best of its kind actually. Click for bigger photo.

The cheapest kind of geared pegs were the kind used by guitars, with an exposed worm gear. These caused the knobs you used for tuning to stick out the side (unless you had a slotted-head banjo, which was going out of style by then.) Ironically, some banjos that went to these machine head tuners kept a friction tuner on the fifth string, because the gear would be too obvious on the side of the neck.

To maintain an "authentic" appearance, manufacturers figured out something called "planetary" tuners. These stick out the back, but they have internal gearing that Click for bigger picture.helps them turn easily and hold their tuning better than friction tuners. In fact, you can tune a banjo with planetary tuners faster than you can tune a banjo with machine-head tuners. Since a lot of banjo players in those days would change tunings for certain keys or songs, that was a definite advantage. Then one well-known picker worked out a solo during which he would tune a couple strings down and up in time to the music, and a mess of other pickers learned that you couldn't do that kind of thing with a machine-head banjo. So when you see the list of "requirements"A closed machine-head 5th-string tuner. Click for bigger photo. for a true Bluegrass banjo, planetary tuners are often added to the list.

By the way, most 5-string banjos today use a "geared" (machine head) tuner on the fifth string. It's enclosed so you can see the gears, but they're so reliable compared to friction pegs, that most pickers would rather have them than something "prettier."

A planetary 5th-string tuner. Click for bigger photo.In case you want a more consistent look, you can get a planetary tuner for your fifth-string. But you'd have to get a pretty good one to serve you as well as an equivalently-priced machine head peg. A flakey tuning peg on your banjo's fifth string can make you rue the day you were born.

Planetary tuners cost more than machine head tuners. Good planetary tuners cost a lot more than machine head tuners. So you might draw the conclusion that if you see a banjo with planetary tuners, it is an "upgrade" instrument. Usually it is. But cheap import planetary tuners will not hold their tune nearly as well as equivalently-priced machine head tuners. So if you're looking at "midrange" banjos, don't automatically assume that the one with planetary tuners is the better instrument. (I've had banjos with planetary tuners that sucked and banjos whose open-geared machine head tuners were solid and consistent.

Short List of Things to Look For

At the Low End - Here's a reminder that you can learn bluegrass on any playable 5-string. So even if you plan to learn bluegrass, you can certainly start on a banjo without all those features.

In the Middle - Also, if you are an intermediate player just getting started playing "out" with Bluegrass jams or Bluegrass bands, you can may get by for a time with a "pop-top" banjo - one of those that has a solid metal pot with points radiating out that the resonator fastens to. They don't have great tone, but they're loud enough to keep up with an unamplified Bluegrass band, and can be made louder with a twenty-dollar piezoelectric pickup without damaging a priceless instrument.

The resonator version of Deering's Goodtime Special Classic 5-String Banjo has all the features of a professional Bluegrass banjo except the dual coordinator rods. No, it won't compete with their professional models, but is far more playable than anything else in the same price range.

A big step up from that is Deering's Boston. The Boston's pot is made similarly to pop-top banjos, but is otherwise made like Deering's wooden-pot professional models, so it's loud, has far better tone, and is much, much more playable than any pop-top. I've seen any number of Country recording and touring acts using these, and they frequently turn up on the Opry stage. It's not cheap, but it will take you pretty far, and properly taken care of, will last your lifetime and your kids' lifetime..

Optimum - Here's the list of things you would expect to see in a professional Bluegrass banjo.

  • Wooden Pot
  • Planetary tuning pegs, with a geared peg on the fifth string
  • Tone Ring
  • Solid cast resonator flange
  • Dual coordinator rods

Frankly, I would include "not made in China," based on what I've seen in the last few years, even from formerly reputable brand names. Within a few years, China may be the world's best maker of high-end banjos, but they have a long way to go as I write this.

Again, knock-off banjos have been made with all the features of professional Bluegrass banjos exept quality. So having all of the features I discuss in this article doesn't mean it is worth owning and playing, but it might be.

By the way, since I keep mentioning Deering, I have to put in a plug for their Deluxe and Sierra models. I have a 20-some-year-old Sierra 5-string that the previous owner beat the beejeebers out of, and it still plays and sounds like new.

Summary of Your Choices

The short version is:

  • Everybody - When I say "playable," I mean a banjo that has a straight neck, level frets, and reasonably low action so you don't need to develop herculean strength in your left hand to play. It should also keep in relatively good tune, and not be so flimsy that it changes tune whenever you draw a breath. As you move "up the scale," the playability and reliability should improve, but starting out on a banjo that even your instructor or banjo-playing friends can't make sound good will just be a waste of time. Sometimes this is just a function of the banjo not being "set up" properly, a universal problem with beginning banjos you buy from discounters. But there are so-called banjos that would, frankly, make better canoe paddles.

  • Non-Bluegrass Player - If you want to play a picking style that includes a lot of strummed notes (like Frailing or Clawhammer), you may be perfectly happy with a backless, tone-ring-less banjo (as long as it is playable).

  • Total Beginner - If you are a beginner, in no danger of playing "out," you can learn on any kind of 5-string that is playable.

  • Beginner or Intermediate Addicted to Bluegrass - If you are specifically interested in learning Bluegrass, you should probably start on a banjo with a resonator at least.

  • Beginning Performer, Bluegrass Focus - If you're starting to play "out," a resonator banjo with a metal resonator flange would be nice, even if it's lacking a tone ring. A pop-top banjo (the kind with a one-piece metal combined pot and flange) will also be loud enough to play "out" on a budget. In this range, planetary tuners are nice, but you don't have to have them.

  • Semi-Pro, Bluegrass Focus - If you're starting to make money playing "out" and want to get a more professional instrument, consider upgrading to a banjo with a wooden 3-ply (or more) pot, separate metal tone ring, and separate metal resonator flange. By the time you migrate to a banjo with a real tone ring, quality planetary tuners will be standard.

Note: In all of these classes of instruments, you can save serious bucks if you buy used, and you may save a classic instrument from a slow death in somebody's attic. Often, in my area (Southwest Ohio), you see good intermediate banjos going for the store price of starter instruments. And occasionally you see a professional instrument going for the store price of intermediate instruments. But it is critical that you know what you're looking at or have a friend along who knows banjos. Much of our article on "Buying Used Guitars" applies to banjos as well. And when you get a banjo, even if you buy it new, you want to check out our article "Setting up a Five-String Banjo."

Update for 2015

Since I wrote this article, a number of people have e-mailed me to tell me how much they appreciated the explanation - all they were getting from the music stores in their area were vague nonsense that seemed designed to steer buyers toward the most expensive banjo in the store for no other reason than a bigger commission. I've also helped a few pick out used banjos that would serve their purposes.

If you know what you're looking at, it's possible to find a good Bluegrass banjo without spending a fortune. For example, the Fender Leo banjos that were made in Japan in the 1970s had all the important Bluegrass banjo features. I actually was looking at one locally when I wanted to upgrade, but the dealer wanted too much (it was pretty beat up). Then he sold it to a mail-order customer, packed it badly, and got it back in spinters. I asked if he'd sell me the pot assembly and he knocked $100 off because it didn't have a neck any more. I said, "Never mind." A regional guy in Craig's list had the best Japanese Aria banjo for sale, again with all the requisite bells and whistles. You might not know Aria, but they were pretty solid clone instruments in their day. He wanted $345 for it, and I guarantee you couldn't get a better new bluegrass banjo for under $1200. (Aria also made some not-so-great banjos at the lower end, so don't just go by the name.)

Click to see RiverboatMusic.com's tips for buying the Bluegrass banjo you can afford. I've also added a "buyer's guide" page listing a few banjos worth considering.

Note About Mail Order Listings - A brick-and-mortar music store I occasional order from once "ripped me" for linking to Amazon and similar vendors who add no value to the transaction, drop-shipping instruments right out of the shipping container to your house with no inspection, much less setup. Apparently I am personally responsible for putting locally-owned music stores out of business. The problem with that logic is that in many parts of the country, it's impossible to find a locally-owned store where they know anything to speak of about banjos or carry anything that wasn't made in China.

If your local store carries these instruments, understands them, and adds value by setting them up, please support them, even if it means spening more than you would have ordering by mail. If your visit to the music store convinces you that they know nothing more about banjos than you do, do as you think is right.

Note about Deering - I have tested banjos from most major companies, and owned several. But at this time in my life I keep going back to Deering because they are constantly innovating, and often find ways to plow their high-end features into their lower-level banjos. Offline, they've been very helpful to me with questions about my new and old instruments alike.

As an example the resonator version of Deering's Goodtime Special Classic 5-String Banjo wasn't available when I first wrote this article. But I doubt you'll find a more playable banjo with most Bluegrass features for anywhere near the price. (I'm thinking about getting the non-resonator version to use professionally as my "openback.") Having evaluated even some of the best Chinese-built banjos, I have to say that there's a lot to be said for buying an instrument that is made in this country and properly set up before it is shipped to your house.

Update for 2016

Deering's "Classic" Goodtimes have been so well received that they have begun upgrading the line to "Artisan" banjos. As far as I know, these are mechanically identical to the "Classic" line, but they have a more traditional-looking engraving on the head and the maple fingerboard has been stained clear through, so that it won't get light spots where you wear through the stain like the fingerboard on the "Classic" can. As of this writing (May, 2016), they have not upgraded the Goodtime Special Classic 5-string to a Goodtime Special Artisan 5-string yet, but when they do it will be a nice thing to see. In the meantime the standard Goodtime Special II has almost all of the same features except for the dark stain. Whatever you do, get the "Special" version though - it includes a tone ring, and, having owned Goodtimes with and without the tone ring, I can testify that there is a big difference.

There are other excellent brands, of course, and some excellent custom builders; you will not offend me if you shop among other brands and providers. But the features professional Bluegrass players expect to have on their banjos don't change from one brand to the next.

Conclusion

Please get in touch.if you want to share photos of a unique instrument or ask any related questions.

Whatever road you decide to travel, I am certain that it will be made more fun with a properly chosen and set-up banjo or banjo-like instrument. :-) you as well.

And please stay in touch!

- Paul Race

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.


All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is copyrighted © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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Note: Creek Don't Rise (tm) is Paul Race's name for his resources supporting the history and
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