To get the best tone out of your banjo, it helps to
understand all the working parts of your instrument
and how they affect tone.
Banjo Part Diagram
The diagram at right illustrates the major parts of
a bluegrass banjo; that is, a banjo with a resonator
as opposed to an open back banjo. We'll focus our discussion
on the parts in and around the pot since they are most
responsible for the banjo's tone.
The head is a skin or synthetic material that covers
the pot and is responsible for most of the banjo's tone.
Clear heads tend to produce a very bright and snappy
tone and are best suited to ragtime or jazz styles.
Frosted heads are the head of choice for most bluegrass
players. These heads provide a more muted, plunky tone
that fits well with the style.
The tone ring is a major component of the banjo's tone
as well. The head sits atop the tone ring. The way the
tone ring touches the head helps define the tone of
the instrument. Flat top tone rings touch the head the
least and therefore provide more surface area of the
head to vibrate. For that reason, flat top tone rings
provide a more appealing tone. Arch top tone rings touch
the head the most and therefore produce a flatter, less
brilliant tone. The advantage of an arch top tone ring
is greater projection.
Most tone rings are made of brass due to its ringing
qualities. Tone rings made from other alloys are still
available, but tend to be less desireable.
The resonator projects the sound forward and gives
the banjo its presence and cutting power in bluegrass.
Woods vary, but mahogany is most common. While replacing
your resonator is possible, resonator choice is more
likely to made when comparing instruments to buy.
The tension hoop is made of steel and is used to provide
even tension on the head. Circling the head, it is held
in place by 20 or more brackets hooks. Even tension
is key to acheiving a clear, balanced tone.