Eager to learn about the banjo? Wondering what makes a banjo ‘the best’? Well check out this guide to the banjo and all things banjo related as I’m sure I’ll try to answer any questions you’re sure to have.
Which is Better? A Four String, or a Five String Banjo?
Let’s start with the obvious. There is no such thing as the ‘best banjos’ for one thing. The reality is that the question you’re wondering is ‘which banjo is the best for me’? Well then, let’s start with the basics.
There are two types of acoustic banjos most commonly used in various styles of music today. These are the five string and the four string banjos. Now, you’re probably wondering ‘four or five strings? What kind of difference does one string make’? Well you’d be surprised. The simple answer is that these are two different styles of banjo, often used to play different styles of music and can be played in completely different ways.
Five string acoustic banjos are native to North America. They’re most commonly used to play various styles of folk, Country-Western, bluegrass, and are long enough instruments usually having 22 frets. The format of having five strings was designed specifically for playing bluegrass and Country-Western melodies, so the five string banjos are considered ‘better’ at playing American bluegrass than four string banjos are.
Both five string and four string banjos come in two distinct styles – open back or resonator. Both are great in their own respect, but resonator banjos have a cover (made from different kinds of wood) on the back of the body, projecting the sound of the banjo more. This in turn makes the tone shimmery and bright. In contrast, the open back banjos have a more mellow and softer tone. Each type has their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to playing and oftentimes comes down to the player’s personal preferences when picking one to play.
The four string banjo, specifically the Irish tenor banjo, is smaller in size and is considered the best banjo type to play traditional Irish music. Similarly though (and somewhat confusingly), plectrum banjos are also four string banjos and are more often used as a rhythm instrument playing chords instead of single notes, but more on that later.
Where Did the Banjo Come From?
Even though banjos are most commonly referred to as an American or Irish instrument, the roots of the banjo actually stem from Africa. A number of acoustic instruments from Africa shared a similar design: a frame made with a stick and a gourd covered, with an animal hide, and strings on top to produce sound. One particular instrument though, the ‘akonting’, thought to be the first prototype of the banjo was (and still is) made in central and western Africa.
However, it was brought to the U.S. through the slave trade and fluctuated in popularity over the years until eventually becoming a well known and played instrument. If you want to learn more about the history of the banjo, make sure to check out our blog post:
What’s an Irish Tenor Banjo?
Despite not being from Ireland originally, the banjo has made itself very well known in Ireland. Due to the very plucky, twang-like tone of its signature sound, the banjo has been famously adopted as a popular melody-playing Irish instrument. This is because the nature of its sound allows the banjo to be heard clearly even when played over instruments.
The Irish tenor banjo evolved from American four string banjos, and adopted the tunings of GDAE, CGDA, and DGBE. GDAE is the most common typical Irish tuning, and is the same tuning as a mandolin and a violin. CGDA, a fifth lower, is the same tuning as a viola and cello and is considered the ‘standard tenor tuning’. Since the range of these two tunings is wider than the DGBE counterpart, they’re often considered the best banjo tunings catered towards playing Irish music.
The DGBE tuning, also known as ‘Chicago tuning’, is quite unique. Following the format like the first four strings of a guitar, this tuning lends itself to anyone familiar with the guitar layout, or have played a five string banjo before, as this tuning is the same ‘Open G’ used on a five string without the actual fifth string.
Whether or not you pick one of these tunings, comes down completely to player preference as there are advantages and disadvantages with each tuning. The first two tuned in fifths have a wider range than the Chicago tuning, yet the Chicago tuning may be easier to play for those with guitar or five string banjo experience.
Standard Tenor Tuning
(Image from https://zinginstruments.com/how-to-tune-a-banjo/)
Irish Tenor Tuning
When Dixieland jazz started to emerge from New Orleans in the early 1900s, standard banjos started to change with it. Instead of being used as a solo instrument, they started to be used as an accompanying rhythm instrument. During this transition though, the fifth string was removed in order to play chords easier.
Eventually this version of the banjo was dubbed the ‘plectrum banjo’ as it was strummed like a guitar with a plectrum (a guitar pick). The high twang produced by the banjo helped its notoriety as it was able to cut through the sound of the brass instruments playing all of the melodies in a Dixieland jazz band.
Taking Care of Banjo Heads
It’s always a good idea to look at our banjos to make sure they’re kept in the best condition possible. Since the body of a banjo is essentially a drum with strings attached, it begs the question ‘do I need to be changing the banjo head skin of the banjo body’? Well the good news is that unless you’re being particularly reckless with your banjos, most banjo heads tend to be quite durable and could last from anywhere from a couple of years to a few decades of use without needing to change it out. That being said, like a regular drum head, you should consider tuning the banjo body as well to ensure the banjo body sounds as incredible as it could be.
It’s also beneficial to know that if your banjo has an archtop tone ring, then you need a low crown height head. If the tone ring is a flathead though, then it needs a medium or high crown height head. With that said, different heads made from various materials will have different timbres. Some of the most common would be:
- Top frosted: crisp tone favoured by bluegrass players.
- Bottom frosted: favoured by the four string tenor banjos due to its deep and bass-like tone.
- Renaissance: honey coloured skin which gives the tone a bright touch and lots of sustain.
- Clear Head: thin and bright tone.
- Black Head: thicker and more mellow with lots of bass.
It’s important to note that certain factors such as the types of wood used to construct the banjo (such as curly maple or mahogany), the resonator rim-material used, whether or not it’s open back, as well as the type of banjo head, can heavily influence the type of sound that the banjo produces.
Banjo-Hybrids, What’s the Deal?
Over the years, the format of various banjos has been altered and changed in certain cases to mix both aspects of the banjo, and other string instruments. Not all banjos are acoustic, and some of these hybrids have become very popular in both studio and live settings. Some of these are:
- Banjitars (a.k.a. Guitjos, ganjos, six-string banjos): a six string version of a banjo tuned like a guitar. These instruments lend themselves well to any guitar players looking to dabble in the banjo sound without learning an entirely new instrument.
- Electric banjos: although not as unorthodox as other options such as the banjitar, some electric banjo models look pretty eccentric and can look quite different from their acoustic counterparts. Spanning from models that look like a regular banjo with a pickup, to models having a body that blends the standard circular resonator with an electric guitar-like aesthetic as well.
- Ukulele banjos (sometimes called a ‘banjolele): similar concept to the banjitar, a ukulele banjo is a mini banjo with four strings tuned to a ukulele’s tuning of GCEA.
- Mandolin-banjos: certainly less common than the banjo-ukuleles, a mandolin-banjo as the name implies is an eight string instrument tuned akin to a mandolin but using a banjo resonator or open back body instead.
Snapped a String? No Need to Panic
Like all stringed instruments, the strings in a banjo need to be changed every so often for fresh ones to keep the tone and feel of the instrument at its peak. Changing strings also helps reduce the chance of snapping a string as well, which as we all know, can bring a lively trad session to an abrupt end (which is certainly not what we want).
Just like the guitar for example, ideally you should change your banjo strings every three months or so, but this may fluctuate depending on how much you’re practising. If you’re only playing for a couple minutes a day, your strings will last almost forever, but if you’re absolutely battering your banjo and playing for hours on end regularly, then the strings might need to be changed sooner.
Also, pro tip: restringing your banjo a few days prior to a gig reduces the chances of snapping a string by a substantial amount!
So, What kind are Considered the Best Banjos?
Well, there’s no specific answer to which banjo type is the best, as it’s completely subjective. However, there are certain things you might want to consider when it comes to what kind of music you want to play. The tunings and format of five string banjos are great to play a lot of Country and bluegrass music as I’ve mentioned. While on the other hand, the four string tenor banjo’s simplicity makes playing chords much easier, and the tunings have a much wider range than the typical five string tuning.
That being said, none of these rules are set in stone and banjos can be used as very versatile instruments. There are many musicians who play and have played all sorts of genres with all sorts of different banjos. What’s most important is what banjo is best for you at the end of the day.
Interested in Picking Up a Banjo Yourself? Check our Online Store for Top Quality Options!
We have a plethora of great top-quality banjos available at our shop here at McNeela. Our range spans from classic 5 String Banjos, to our famous Irish Tenor Banjos and everything in between! We also sell a wide variety of other stringed acoustic instruments suitable for session gigging, or studio use such as: guitars, violins, bouzoukis, mandolins, ukuleles, harps, and many more. All of these are made from incredible high quality materials, at affordable prices, promising to suit your every need.
If you’re looking for more information on banjos in general, or any other aspect of Irish music, be sure to check out our many different blog posts all about our instruments.
- Switching to Traditional Irish Music from Classical Music – 13 Mistakes to Avoid
- What’s the Difference Between a 5 String Banjo and a 4 String Banjo?
- An Irish Tin Whistle Buyer’s Guide