Feature:
September 2003
All That Twang, What is That Thang?: A Brief History of the Banjo and It's Major Changes Through Time by Steve Meier
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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 D.

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