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Choosing A Banjo

Our thanks to Wayne Rogers of Gold Tone Banjos for his kind permission to reproduce this article.

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Which Style Banjo Should I Buy?

Many customers call us asking about learning to play and buying a banjo. Some are unaware of the many different types of banjos, which are available.

There are numerous styles of banjo music and banjo techniques, which I will attempt to briefly explain. Your main concern as a beginner should be to pick the correct banjo for the style of music you plan to play. If your not certain you should listen to many different styles of banjo music--much can be found on the numerous banjo web sites.

Five String Banjos

Bluegrass

Presently the most popular style of five string is the bluegrass style. This is played on a banjo with a resonator. The tone preferred is loud and attacking as you normally play with other bluegrass instruments. The right hand is a three finger style, played with finger picks and was popularized by the legendary Earl Scruggs. The style is not difficult to learn but requires much practice to achieve the desired fluency and tempo. One advantage to this style is that it lends itself very nice to jamming as most players have a similar bluegrass repertoire. There are numerous bluegrass festivals around the world and a very strong bluegrass community.

Clawhammer.

These are all very similar styles and is probably best known by the playing of Grandpa Jones on Hee Haw. It is a very old style of playing and is now very popular with old timie and folk enthusiasts. It is normally played with an open back banjo (no resonator), as the tone desired is plunky and mellow. Many different banjo tunings are used to facilitate easy fingering, as most songs are played with a melody similar to fiddle. The right hand attack is much different than bluegrass, as finger picks are not used. Generally, the middle finger strikes the string with the back of the fingernail, followed by a thumb stroke of the fifth string or in drop thumb the fourth, third or second string. This style is relatively easy to learn and is also well suited to vocal accompaniment.

Folk Style

This style is a combination of clawhammer and "up picking" and was popularized by Pete Seeger. It is played without finger picks and usually mixes melody playing with chord accompaniment. Very often a long neck banjo is used because it maybe tuned lower to better suit vocal ranges. There are many variations of this style and may be played on an open back or a resonator banjo.

Classical Style

Classical Banjo played on a five string is normally played without finger picks and sometimes even played on a banjo with nylon strings. There is a distinct technique involved and plays a standard classical repertoire. (Bach, Mozart, ect.) This style may be played with or without a resonator.

Four String Banjos

Tenor

Tenor banjo is always played with a plectrum (pick) and uses a strumming style. It is the typical banjo for New Orleans style jazz sound. This four string has a shorter neck than a five string as the tuning is higher and is an excellent rhythm instrument for jazz bands. Its sound must be loud and piercing to compete with other instruments in the band. Single string melodies are sometimes played but most often chord melodies requiring much left hand movement are used. These banjos typically use a resonator for the increased volume. Tenor banjo playing requires much practice for the left hand but the strumming style of the right hand is easier.

Irish Tenor

Very similar to a tenor banjo, but uses a seventeen fret neck instead of the nineteen fret neck. The shorter neck allows a higher tuning so the songs are better suited to the keys of Irish music (G, D, A, etc.) The style is played with a plectrum and often played with rapid single string melodies. Normally you do not use a resonator as the sound desired is mellow but with a quick attack. The Irish Tenor is regaining popular in the USA as many mandolin players use it as an alternative instrument. In this style the string gauges are much thicker and is tuned an octave lower than a mandolin.

Plectrum Banjo

The neck on a plectrum banjo has the same scale as a five string neck but eliminates the fifth string. A plectrum may be used in either melody playing or chord accompaniment for vocals. It may be play with or without a resonator. It normally uses a G tuning (similar to a bluegrass banjo) and the chords are easier than a tenor banjo. The plectrum banjo is popular in certain parts of the USA, but is probably the least popular of the above styles.

Alternative Banjos

These include the six string banjo (Gold Tone's Banjitar), the Banjo Mandolin, the Bass Banjo, the Ukelele banjo, and even a dobro banjo. They all use a banjo style body but the neck and tuning is the same as names they simulate. They allow the guitarist, mandolinist, bass player, uke player, and dobro player to achieve a banjo tone without relearning a new instrument. These instruments are welcome at jam sessions and are becoming more popular and are now being used in many different styles of music.

 
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