What Type of Banjo is Right for Me?
Which Style Banjo
Should I Buy?
By Wayne Rogers
People often call us to ask about learning and buying a banjo. Some are unaware of the many different types of banjos available today. There are numerous styles of banjo music and banjo techniques, which I attempt to briefly explain below. Your main concern as a beginner should be to pick the correct banjo for the style of music you plan to play. If you're not certain you should listen to many different styles of banjo music, much of which can be found online.
Five String Banjo
Bluegrass [Sound Sample]
The most popular style of five string music is bluegrass. This is played on a banjo with a resonator, and the preferred tone is loud and attacking as you normally play with other bluegrass instruments. The right hand plays "three finger style" using finger picks (this style 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 (speed). One advantage of 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, (Frailing, Drop thumb) [Sound Sample]
This "folky" style is probably best known from the playing of Grandpa Jones on Hee Haw. It is a very old style of playing and is now very popular with "old time" 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.
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 banjo played on a five string is normally played without finger picks and sometimes even played on nylon strings. There is a distinct technique involved and a standard classical repertoire. (Bach, Mozart, etc.) This style may be played with or without a resonator.
Four String Banjo
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. A resonator is typically used, since the banjo's 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. Tenor banjo playing requires much practice for the left hand but the strumming style of the right hand is easier.
Irish Tenor [Sound Sample]
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 the instrument is tuned an octave lower than a mandolin.
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 [Sound Sample (Banjitar Swing)]
These include the six string banjo (Gold Tone's Banjitar), the Banjo Mandolin, the Bass Banjo, the Ukelele Banjo, and even a Dobro Banjo. Most 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 as they are being used in many different styles of music.