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Types of Banjos

One of the most rewarding aspects of playing the banjo is the number of different types of banjo there are available for you to explore. Although 5-String banjos are the most widely played, 4-String and 6-String models offer even more fun ways to learn additional tunings, techniques and musical styles. Our range of Barnes & Mullins banjos includes a wide selection of 4-String Tenor, Irish/Gaelic, 5-String, 6-String and even banjo ukuleles.

But before we get into that, let’s understand the fundamental differences between the two main types of banjo design.

‘Open Back’ & ‘Resonator’ banjos – what’s the difference?

You will have seen banjos referred to as either ’open back’ or ‘resonator’. Quite simply, these terms refer to the body design. Open back banjos contain no back piece, leaving the internal components of the banjo such as the coordinating rods (the rods running from the base into the neck) visible.

Resonator banjos feature a bowl-shaped piece that is affixed to the back of the banjo meaning the back is closed and you can’t see the inside the body.

See our Anatomy of a Banjo page HERE

What difference does it make to the overall sound?

As the name suggests, ‘resonator’ banjos resonate more than open back banjos and therefore produce a louder sound. Open back banjos are quieter and more subdued tonally as some of the sound escapes through the back towards the player. The design of resonator banjos means the sound is captured in the enclosed chamber (‘pot’) and propelled forwards out of the front of the banjo – making them naturally louder and brighter.

For those of you who have experienced playing an open back and resonator banjo side by side, you’ll have immediately noticed a marked difference in their tonal character and volume.

So, which banjo should I choose?

The answer really depends on what type of player you are and what style of music you’re playing. Clawhammer banjo playing is a traditional style that generally lends itself well to an open back banjo. Clawhammer playing employs a percussive technique where the index or middle fingers are used to strike the strings rather than finger picks – with the hand in a ‘claw’ shape. This technique naturally produces a softer sound than ‘Scruggs’ playing (we’ll get to that in a moment), and therefore suits an open back banjo’s sound and timbre. You can learn more about common tunings used in Clawhammer playing HERE

Whereas open back banjos and their common Clawhammer style of playing make for excellent accompaniment instruments, resonator banjos are generally used for styles such as bluegrass where the banjo sits at the forefront of the overall sound. ‘Scruggs’ playing is a term used to describe the bluegrass style after Earl Scruggs introduced a new pioneering way of picking the banjo on his 1945 appearance on the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. The Scruggs style uses three-fingers with fingerpicks on the index and middle fingers and a thumbpick for a fast-tempo and lively style best suited to thebrighter and louder resonator banjo.

Let’s talk strings… Do I want a 4-String or 5-String banjo?

4-string banjos are also referred to as ‘plectrum’ or ‘tenor’ banjos and are generally used for lively styles such as Traditional Jazz (Dixieland) and Irish Music. They are played with a pick (or ‘plectrum’) in either an accompaniment strumming fashion or by picking individual melody notes – much like a guitar.

Traditional 4-string banjos feature 19 frets (22-23” scale length) and are usually tuned to C,G,D,A (4th to 1st) - although many other tunings can be employed. Find out more about tuning your banjo HERE. They are commonly used for Traditional Jazz styles.

Irish Tenor (‘Gaelic’ or ‘Celtic’) 4-string banjos feature 17 frets and a scale length of 20”-21.5”. They are most commonly tuned in ‘Irish tuning’ G,D,A,E (4th to 1st) but many players also tune them in 5ths like a viola or cello (C,G,D,A). Their shorter scale length makes playing typically fast Irish fiddle styles and songs slightly easier, therefore making their use more common among these types of style and musicians.

4-string models make for excellent introductory instruments to the world of banjos given their use of fewer strings, shorter scale length options and versatile playing styles. We have a range of unique 17 fret and 19 fret 4 string banjos at Barnes & Mullins. View them all HERE 

 

5-String banjos feature 22 frets with the 5th string tuning peg at the 5th fret. They have a scale length of 26”-27”. 5-string banjos are the most commonly played and versatile type of banjo and can be used for all manner of musical styles including bluegrass, country, gospel, jazz, folk, classical and rock. Their most common tuning is open G (G,D,G,B,D) but as with all banjos, there are many alternative ways to tune your 5-string banjo.

5-string banjos with a resonator are the standard for bluegrass playing with open back models widely used for clawhammer, as we’ve already looked at above.

We have a beautiful selection of Barnes & Mullins 5-string banjos, including our Rathbone electro model.

6-String Banjo… what is it and can I play it like a guitar?

In a word, yes!

As musicians, our appetite to experience and explore new styles and sounds naturally extends to wanting to pick up exciting new instruments we’ve not played before. With many guitarists often looking longingly at the banjo but perhaps being slightly apprehensive about giving one a try given their unfamiliar tunings, or their slightly alien 5th fret tuning peg, the 6-string banjo bridges this gap perfectly.

6-string banjos are tuned the same as 6-string guitars - (E,A,D,G,B,E) – and therefore allow all you guitarists out there to transfer your existing understanding, skill set and licks to the banjo seamlessly. You’ll be amazed at how the new tone and sound of a 6-string banjo gets your creative juices flowing too… Licks that can then be transferred back to your guitar! The two instruments work in excellent harmony together.

Take a look at our Barnes & Mullins ‘Perfect’ 6-string banjo HERE