Another spin-off of the plectrum banjo was developed
in the early 20th Century. This was known as the Tenor
Banjo. The need for this instrument arose from the plectrum
players who desired an instrument that catered more
to the styles played at the time in Ireland and England,
as well as to some entertainers in America. As a result,
the length of the neck was shortened and the tuning
was altered to something akin to the fiddle.
Fortunately for us, all three of these banjos (the
5-string, Plectrum, and Tenor) have not died out. Today
they are used in many different musical genres and in
many different countries.
But enough storytelling
Here's the breakdown of the basic differences between
the three types of banjos:
The Plectrum Banjo: It has a full-scale neck with 22
frets. Most often it also has a resonator (that wooden
bowl on the back) and a tone ring (a metal ring placed
under the head that affects the volume and tone). It
has four strings and is played with a pick. The strings
from high to low are tuned: D G B C.
The Tenor Banjo: It usually has the same construction
as the Plectrum (resonator, tone ring, four strings,
etc.), but the neck is shorter and has between 17 and
19 frets. From high to low, the strings are tuned: Either
A D G C or E A D G (often by Irish musicians).
The 5-String Banjo: The 5-string actually can be broken
down into two major types: the Open-Back and the Resonator.
Open-backs are generally more simply constructed. These
banjos are less expensive because they require fewer
materials and are easier to make. They are popular among
Clawhammer players and Old-Time musicians. Clawhammer
players who seek a more "plunky" tone often
put skin or synthetic-skin heads on these banjos and
can even use nylon strings. Usually open-backs don't
have a tone ring, either. Old-Time musicians use a number
of tunings, but these seem to be the most popular: The
standard g D G B D, the modal g D G C D, or the "Double-C"
g C G C D.
Resonator Banjos are much more complicated. They too
have 22 frets and five strings, but that's where the
real similarities end. As the name suggests, they have
resonators, the wooden back that projects the sound
forward. They always have metal strings. Most have a
tone ring, but all have a flange (that's the metal around
the body that extends to the edge of the resonator).
This feature can be highly decorative, but is primarily
used to attach the resonator to the banjo. The heads
are synthetic and are stretched much more tightly than
on an open-back. This is preferred by Bluegrass musicians
for the volume and "pop" that it gives when
using finger picks. The standard tuning is: g D G B