Banjo Adjustments for Improved Tone – Rich Simmons and Colin Blair
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.
Old timey, open back banjos produce tone in a different way.
Most old time players prefer natural skin for the head. Drawbacks to natural skin include an extreme susceptibility to humidity. High humidity can result in a loose head and poor tone. Low humidity can actually cause the head to crack and tear. For that reason Fiberskyn, a synthetic material, is gaining greater acceptance in old time circles. It approximates the tone of natural skin without the humidity concerns.
Most old time banjos do not have a tone ring. In fact, a tone ring produces a richer tone that is undesirable in old time music. A few models offer a scalloped tone ring as a middle ground between an old time banjo and a bluegrass banjo.
Old time banjos do not have a resonator. This is probably the easiest defining characteristic of these two instruments. Banjos in old time music provide a rhythmic background, whereas bluegrass banjo tends to be out front of the band playing lead lines.
Just like the bluegrass banjo, the tension hoop is made of steel and is used to provide even tension on the head.
With the myriad of moving parts and the real potential to do damage to your instrument, we recommend that all adjustments be made by a qualified technician or experienced players.