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Anatomy of a Banjo

 

It’s safe to say there are a lot of components that make up a banjo. Of course, this means there’s also a comprehensive lingo to understand too which can often be confusing, especially if you're a beginner and new to the wonderful world of the banjo.

Not sure what the ‘coordinator rod’ is, or confused which part the ‘heel’ is? Take a look through our Anatomy of a Banjo interactive diagrams below to enhance your understanding of this wonderful instrument…

 
 
 
5-String Banjo
Anatomy of a Banjo - Front
Nut
Fingerboard Binding
Frets
Octave / 12th Fret
Resonator Flange
Resonator
Head
Armrest
Tailpiece
Machinehead / Tuning Peg
5-String Banjo Open-Back - Front
Anatomy of a Banjo - Front
Headstock
Fret Inlay / Marker
Fingerboard
5th String Tuner
Tension Hoop
Bridge
5-String Banjo Open-Back - Back
Anatomy of a Banjo - Front
Volute
Neck
Heel & Heel Cap
Tension Hook & Nut
Coordinator Rods
Rim / Pot

Glossary

5th String Tuner

Exclusive to 5-string banjos, the 5th string tuner is located at the fifth fret of your banjo. So, why not run the full length of the neck like the other four strings? In short, as the fifth string of your banjo acts as a drone / root string (most commonly tuned to G), it doesn’t need to be under the same tension as other strings.

Tracing banjos back to their early days in the 17th and 18th Centuries, strings were often made from delicate gut materials that would easily break under tension. It was therefore unnecessary to risk breaking the fifth string by placing it under undue tension when running it at a shorter length to the fifth fret worked perfectly well.

The fifth string features a mini nut called a ‘pip’ that guides the string to a geared machine head and tuning peg. This tuning peg works in exactly the same way as those situated at the headstock by keeping the fifth string under tension and in tune. It is turned to tune the string to a desired note just as the other four strings are.

Armrest

As the name suggests, you can rest your arm on this piece of material at the upper section of the banjo body. The armrest makes banjos more comfortable to play, as well as ensuring the banjo head’s natural resonant movement isn’t obstructed by your arm - therefore ensuring you’re not dampening the sound produced.

Not all banjos come fitted with arm rests, however the majority of Barnes & Mullins banjos feature them as standard.

Bridge

The bridge is a piece of material – commonly wood – that sits on the banjo head and quite literally forms a bridge that elevates the strings above the banjo head and distributes strings at the correct spacing over the head and fingerboard – allowing them to be strummed and picked.

The bridge plays a keys role in your banjo’s intonation. Essentially, intonation refers to the relationship between the position of the bridge in relation to the overall length of the string (scale length). If your bridge isn’t positioned incorrectly – and remember, banjo bridges aren’t fixed to the body like guitars, so they can easily move – it can cause chords to sound odd despite the banjo being in tune. 

Adjusting the bridge can affect the tone, volume and the height of the strings, also known as the action, of your banjo.

Remember! To ensure your banjo reaches you in its optimal playing condition, each Barnes & Mullins banjo is inspected and set up by our expert technical team in the United Kingdom before making its way to our retail partners.

Coordinator Rods

Coordinator rods run from the base of the rim – the circular wooden piece that makes up your banjo’s body (also called ‘pot’) – through the centre and into the banjo neck. Their primary purpose is to connect the neck of your banjo to the body, but they can also be adjusted to alter the neck angle of your banjo to change its action and the way it feels to play.

Coordinator rods aren’t visible on resonator banjos as they’re hidden by the resonator – you’ll have to remove the resonator to get to them. They are visible and more easily accessible on open back banjos.

Some banjos feature one coordinator rod, others feature two. Although it does add a little more weight to banjos, a second coordinator rod enhances the stability of the body of the banjo. It’s common for bulkier and weightier resonator banjos to feature two coordinator rods. Where two rods are used, only one is used for neck adjustment – the second simply acts as an additional support mechanism.

To ensure the highest level of playing and tonal stability, the majority of Barnes & Mullins banjos feature two coordinator rods.

Fingerboard

The fingerboard (also called ‘fretboard’) is a thin piece of wood that sits on top of the neck. The banjo strings run along the length of the fingerboard and banjo players press the strings down onto the fingerboard to change the vibrating length of each string and achieve certain notes.

Commonly made of wood materials such as ovengkol, ebony, rosewood and maple, the fingerboard features strips of metal called frets positioned at precise intervals along a banjo’s fingerboard that divide the banjo fingerboard into sections, producing different notes.

Fingerboard Binding

Fingerboard binding is a common feature of many banjos. It serves several functions including providing a stronger fingerboard edge to protect the wood from splitting and taking the brunt of any hits and dings that can easily occur. It helps seal the fingerboard edges and frets for a smoother and more comfortable playing experience. Plus, it offers some attractive contrast to the neck and fingerboard.

All Barnes & Mullins banjos and banjo ukuleles feature a fingerboard binding. 

Fret Inlay / Marker

Fret inlays / markers are not just for decoration - although they certainly help to give banjos a great aesthetic. Their primary function is to serve as a visual aid to guide your hand to certain notes along the fretboard. Fret inlays can be found at frets 3, 5, 7, 10, 12 (Octave Fret), 15, 17 and 19 on standard 4 and 5-string banjos.

Barnes & Mullins banjos feature a selection of decorative and plain dot inlays depending on the model and series.

Frets

Frets are strips of metal – commonly made from nickel – positioned at precise intervals along a banjo’s fingerboard (or ‘fretboard’). They essentially divide the banjo fingerboard into sections with the section closest to the headstock at the top of the neck referred to as first fret, the next as second fret, and so on down the fingerboard towards the body.

Banjo strings produce a different note depending on which fret the player depresses the string onto the fingerboard at. (Known as 'fretting')

4-string tenor banjos generally feature 19 frets with 4-string Irish/Gaelic banjos commonly featuring two fewer with 17 frets. 5-string banjos most commonly feature 22 frets.

Head

The banjo head is the circular section that makes up the ‘top’ of the banjo. Much like a drum skin, the head is under tension and can be adjusted to produce different sounds using the tension hook and nuts situated around its perimeter.

The banjo head is one of the most important aspects of a banjo set up as it plays an important role in its tone and playability. Most modern heads are made from synthetic materials, but animal skins were used in the past. The majority of Barnes & Mullins banjos feature Remo Weatherking® heads.

Headstock

The headstock (sometimes called the ‘peghead’) is located at the top of the banjo’s neck and houses the tuning pegs / machine heads. Like the tailpiece does at the base of your banjo, the headstock and machine heads serve as the top anchor point for the banjo strings.

The headstock is also where the make of banjo is commonly displayed, and it also features a truss rod cover that can be removed to gain access to the truss rod adjustment running internally down the length of your banjo neck - this is used to adjust your banjos ‘action’.

All Barnes and Mullins banjos feature our logo on the headstock and series name inscription, eg. ‘Perfect’, ‘Empress’, ‘Troubadour’.

Heel & Heel Cap

The heel is where the banjo neck meets the banjo body (‘rim’). The heel features long screws that internally attach the neck to the banjo rim. A critical point in a banjo’s design, a sturdy heel and tight screws ensure a solid instrument, in turn ensuring excellent intonation, tuning stability and playability.

Machinehead / Tuning Peg

Banjo machineheads (also referred to as ‘tuning pegs’) are generally geared mechanisms that hold the banjo strings under tension and are turned to tune the banjo’s strings.

Banjo machineheads / tuning pegs generally come in two forms – geared and planetary. Geared machineheads feature worm-gears and turning buttons that protrude from the side of the headstock with the gears either exposed (open-gear) or encased (closed-gear). They are easy to turn for quick and accurate instrument tuning.

Planetary machineheads / tuning pegs provide an excellent level of tuning stability and can generally be found on higher-end banjos such as our Barnes & Mullins Rathbone, Empress and Troubadour models. Their pegs are located behind the headstock rather than to the side.

Neck

The neck is a long piece of shaped wood that connects the body of your banjo to the headstock. It supports the fingerboard and strings and is navigated by your fretting arm when playing.

Banjo necks can be made from many different types of wood and often feature a satin or gloss finish. Barnes & Mullins banjos predominantly use mahogany, maple and walnut necks.

Nut

The nut on a banjo, and any other stringed instrument for that matter is a piece of hard material – often made from bone, wood or a synthetic material – that sits between the fingerboard and the headstock. It features slotted grooves that guide the banjo strings over fingerboard in the correct spacing relationship to one another as well as to the overall width of the banjo’s fingerboard.

The nut acts as one end of the vibrating length of banjo strings (the other being the ‘bridge’) and is designed to spread the strings across the headstock to their respective machineheads / tuning pegs evenly – which all helps maintain a stable and accurate instrument tuning.

*Nut width refers to the physical width of the nut and therefore also the fingerboard width at the headstock. This varies depending on the number of strings an instrument features and is also an indicator of an instrument’s string spacing. EG. A 6-string banjo naturally has a wider nut than a 4 or 5-string banjo.

Octave / 12th Fret

This fret indicates a complete octave. An octave is the distance between one note and the next note (either higher or lower). G to G for instance. For example, the note produced by fretting a string at 12th fret is the same note – one octave higher – than playing the same string open (unfretted).

Resonator

The resonator is the bowel-shaped back piece of the of the banjo, commonly made of tonewoods such as mahogany, maple or walnut. It makes ‘resonator banjos’ louder as it acts as a sound board.

Like an acoustic guitar, it helps project the sound forward out of the front of the banjo, as opposed to an open back banjo where some of the sound escapes through the back towards the player, therefore producing a softer, quieter sound.

Resonator Flange

The resonator flange attaches the resonator to the banjo body. It also isolates the assembly into one unit to ensure all parts of the resonator produce a strong and resonant sound.  

Resonator flanges are commonly chrome but can be made of other materials and finishes, as in the case of our Barnes & Mullins Troubadour banjo which features an antique gold flange and hardware.

Rim / Pot

The banjo rim is a circular piece of wood or aluminium that acts as the core of your banjos body and upon which all other parts – the tension hoop, flange etc - are attached to. It creates the sound chamber and provides the main attachment point for the neck of your banjo. The pot refers to the complete assembly of these parts that make up your banjos body.

Commonly made from tonewoods such as walnut or maple, the banjo rim material plays a part in your banjo’s overall tone and sound. Barnes & Mullins banjos features a range of aluminium, walnut, mahogany and maple rims.

Tailpiece

The banjo tailpiece serves an important role in maintaining the tension in the strings, and therefore the overall delivery of your banjos tone and volume.

The tailpiece forms an anchor for banjo strings at the base of the banjo before the strings pass across the bridge and over the fingerboard to their respective machine heads / tunings pegs at the headstock.

Tension Hook & Nut

Tension hooks and nuts (also called ‘brackets’) run around the perimeter of the banjo rim and tension hoop and are responsible for tightening the head of your banjo to produce different sounds. Most banjos feature anywhere from sixteen to twenty-four tension hooks/nuts that are attached to brackets on the underside of the rim.

They are easily adjusted using a hex key – like that commonly used to adjust drum hardware.  

Tension Hoop

The tension hoop (also referred to as the ‘stretcher band’) is secured tightly using the ‘tension hooks’ and serves to help maintain tension in the head of the banjo.

Volute

A volute is located on the joint between your banjos neck and the headstock. It is used to provide additional support and tuning stability to instruments with an angled headstock.

Many Barnes & Mullins banjos feature volutes.