There are two types of roads a man can take in America. One going west and the other heading south. I’ve dreamt of taking both, but the South has always seemed to be more exotic, more unexplored, something newer, despite being as old as the world. Well, not really the world, but the United States mostly.
I don’t mean the big cities and their maddening white noise. What beckons me south is the sweet sound of music, true country, where the banjo and guitar meet on the porch of an old house and wherein the middle of the night men and women dance the jig drunk on the moonlight and the moonshine. Yes, the banjo scene from Deliverance partially inspires me to travel down with the Mississippi every time I watch it. And yes that movie is also the reason why I don’t do it.
I also know that these things don’t happen, not ever since probably the 1950s or maybe even earlier, but movies and fear are my big weakness, and having seen that movie at a too-young age has become a very strong demotivator fella. Lucky me though I do not have to go way down south. After all the Banjo has traveled northeast and around the world so I don’t really need to travel down south to hear the best banjo. Not only that, but the banjo, which you stereotypically think is as US-country as it gets, is actually a worldly instrument. So much so that you can find banjos all over the world.
What’s The Best Banjo
History of Banjo
The origins of the magical Banjo might surprise you a little more than you expect. Before it became the staple of United States country music, the instrument existed in many places, in different forms. The first modern iteration of the instrument was found on the Caribbean islands, around the 17th century. Like many things that the American culture loves to boast about, the instrument was brought over to the new world by the involuntarily displaced.
These men and women who would live their lives in slavery found rare peace in bringing parts of their ancient cultures with them when coming to the western hemisphere. When they finally got onto Caribbean ground they built iterations of the ancient versions of the Banjo that can still be found in the western parts of the African continent. From there the instrument reached the continent, the southern plantations, and the ears of the white settlers. These people learned to play the instrument from the slaves, as children or adults.
In the end, the banjo began permeating the culture of the united states, with the actual history of the instrument giving way to the belief that the instrument was born in the backwoods and the hidden nooks and crannies of the South. Now the instrument, with its true history known well, stands as one of the most valuable American instruments. No true Americana setting is complete without a banjo kept in mind as the sound of the instrument has become as patriotic and proud as the bald eagle.
The many versions of the banjo that were created by nations and tribes in Africa do have multiple cousins around the world. The Japanese shamisen, the Persian tar, the Moroccan Sintir, and the Georgian (not the state) Panduri share many similarities with the banjo. The shape of the body, the number of strings, and the sound the banjos make are all similar. The modern stands apart from these instruments, as the materials used for the construction of the instrument have changed. The sound, as a result, has become more emphasized and unique. Still, the past and the distant cousins are to be remembered as the reason modern music exists the way it does.
The banjos of the old had a more or less simple structure. Composed of a body made of a gourd, and elongated neck and fretboard and the peg where the tuners were located. The number of strings ranged from three to 6. The structure of the modern banjo has changed, making it more complex and in turn, giving it a more unique sound.
The Peghead and Tuners
The top end of the Banjo is called the Peghead. This part of the instrument is where the tuners for the strings are located. There are two types of tuners – Planetary and Guitar style, with the guitar style tuners sticking out to the side, while the planetary go through and are behind the peghead. At the bottom of the peghead is where the nut is located, aligning the strings as they travel toward the body.
Fingerboard and Neck
The fingerboard is usually made of highly durable wood, so it can take wear from playing the instrument for many years to come. This is where the frets and inlays are located on the fingerboard of the banjo. The length of the neck of the banjo depends on what type of instrument it is. This part of the instrument is also made of wood, with the truss rod located under the neck of the banjo. Stabilizing the neck of the banjo, the truss rod also allows the player to adjust the height of the strings from the fingerboard to what the player prefers.
The pot, or the body, of the banjo is part of the instrument that has undergone the most change over the course of history. Once made out of gourds and wood, the modern banjo is constructed very differently. The pot, nowadays, might remind you more of a snare drum than of a gourd or even a pot.
The pot is made of several parts: the Tension Hoop, the Head, the Tone Ring, the Rim, the Flange and for resonator variation for banjos, a resonator in the back. Some banjos will also have a handrest for playing comfortably. Each one of these parts plays an important role in the sound of the banjo.
- This part of the banjo acts as the soundboard, vibrating as the instrument is played. Alternative thicknesses of the head produce different sounds, meaning that you, as the player, can customize your sound by changing the head.
- Tension Hoop
- The tension hoop keeps the head of the banjo tight. The hoop is put over the head of the banjo and tightened by using hooks and nuts. Different levels of tightness will produce different effects. There are many materials these hoops can be made of.
- Tone Ring
- This part of the banjo is one that affects the sound of the instrument the most. Different materials will produce different sounds, with wood being more rounded and warm, steel being more crisp and bright, and brass will have a more powerful, highly projecting sound. Think well when choosing the tone ring as it will have an important effect on the instrument.
- The rim is the architectural heart of the instrument. This is where most of the banjo comes together, with every part of the pot hanging on the rim. Which is why the rim should be sturdy. It also plays a role in the sound of the banjo.
- The flange helps every part of the pot to stick together, while also serving as the attachment point for the resonator through the use of thumb screws.
Not all banjos have a resonator. In those that do, the resonator serves a very specific purpose. It acts as a soundboard and a reflection board for the sound of the banjo to spread better, louder, and towards the front.
The banjos that do not have a resonator tend to have the sound come out toward the back of the instrument. Sometimes this results in the body of the player absorbing some of the sounds, making it either quieter or less tonally distinct.
Types of banjo
The banjo, despite having a strong root in country music and bluegrass music culture, is a very versatile instrument. It can and has been used in many different genres to different ends. There are also a number of different versions of the modern banjo, all of them being very versatile but also very specific in their sound.
4 String banjos
The four-string banjo is what you think of when you hear lively banjo music. Used a lot in Irish banjo music, the instrument has also found use in Traditional Jazz. These banjos are traditionally tuned tenor, which is the best Irish banjo sound you can get.
- 17 Fret Tenor Banjo
Most often referred to as the Irish Tenor banjo.
- 19 Fret Tenor Banjo
More often used in Traditional Jazz, but also present in Irish Banjo music.
- Plectrum Banjo
The plectrum banjo is known as such for the fact that it is played with a plectrum, also known as pick. This banjo is usually played fast and is the instrument you think of when you imagine an old country musician playing the instrument.
The 5-string banjo is one of the more manufactured types of instrument. This one has a fifth string, which is often shorter than the other four, and the tuner which is somewhere along the middle of the neck. This is one of the most versatile types of banjos, gracing many genres such as folk, jazz, bluegrass, country, gospel, and even rock and roll with its presence. Definitely worth having and even more valuable to know how to play, you might find a 5 string banjo to be one of your best friends in your musical journey.
The six-string banjo is gaining popularity in the world of music thanks to its structural similarity to guitars. With all instrumentalists seeking to draw from a larger part of the musical world. The 6-string banjo is the easiest to learn after guitar, with tuning similar to the guitar easily available. Despite this, the instrument retains the sound integrity of the banjo, remaining as twangy and typical as any other banjo.
The only difference between a parlor banjo and a five-string banjo is the size. Parlor banjos were originally made with travelers in mind. People would visit crowded bars and perform there, staying out on the road for long stretches of time. Today, these small size instruments are often used as beginner instruments for children. Lightweight and small in size they are comfortable to practice and even more comfortable to carry.
These banjos look like giraffes and truly are the giants of these instruments. Standing at a staggering (not really, I just like to exaggerate) 32 7/64 inches, this guitar has several stand-out features. Originally it was made to play folk music. Today the fact that it lends itself to special tuning makes this one of the more versatile and favored instruments by musicians who hate being confined to a single genre of music. Ever since its birth and the decline of the folk music era (which by the way is making a great comeback) the instrument has been used in genres such as bluegrass, and country as well as to different techniques, such as strumming and clawhammer.
The 12-string banjo does exist and yes, it sounds as strange and unique as you could ever imagine. I mean if you have heard the 12-string guitar, you’ll know that the harmonies created with the help of extra strings are exceptional. The same goes for the banjo. The result of the new strings is something of a dreamy effect on the sound of the instrument. The sound is much more harmonic and subdued, lends itself much easier to strumming, but at the same time emphasizes every tone so much more. A lovely instrument overall.
Best Banjo Brands
What do you value in a brand that succeeds at producing banjos? Its southern vibes, the quality or overall value? The answers can vary from musician to musician and I can’t really talk about this subject with generalization in mind. What I can do, though, is to share my experience and attitude. I truly believe that brands that are founded and controlled by musicians always have a player-oriented approach. Gold Tone is a perfect example of that. This company was established by Wayne and Robin Rogers who have put a lot of effort into designing each and every model. Their team works like a machine – each member of the staff has their own task to fulfill. Someone sands frets, another one puts together certain details and so on. The final prototype is tested by the musicians themselves to make sure they are as good as possible. Their banjos are meticulous and powerful. You can rely on them even in the most important moments because the chances of them failing you are really low. Even though they have factories abroad, each new prototype of the banjo is designed and built by Wayne himself in Titusville, Florida. They use high-quality wood to make sure the tone is pure, authentic and dimensional. For me, Gold Tone Banjos have the level of craftsmanship that all manufacturers should look up to.
Speaking about the owners that play banjos themselves, Deering is another brand that was born as a result of the passion of Greg Deering. He got introduced to wood by his father when he was only two. Of course, he couldn’t work on it properly, but it’s how he started appreciating wooden crafts. He started playing banjo at the age of 13. At the age of 19, he started repairing these instruments and gained in-depth knowledge about the way they were built. He and Janet (his wife) established the company in 1975 and it has been a family business ever since. The company is only 44 years old, yet you won’t notice that it’s still young once you play their banjos. They grew rapidly, as they never ceased to turn to innovation and development. In 2009 they launched Eagle II which was equipped with a Twenty-Ten tone ring. It turned into a real success because it elevated the tonal qualities of their banjos. This brand caters to those who are looking for supreme instruments. As a beginner, you might not be willing to splurge, but as you mature professionally, you should check out wonderful models from Deering. After all, these babies might actually change your life!
It’s time to turn to Recording King – a brand that was established back in the 1930s. You might think that those dates aren’t important, but in reality, they do carry a certain amount of significance. This company was founded in the golden era of musical instruments. During those times, they crafted acoustic, and one of the best classical guitars. Since this company doesn’t focus merely on banjos, Recording King started producing both of these instruments. Take a quick look at their banjos and you’ll notice their quality immediately. Those prime models are pure artwork – they are scrupulous, exquisite, and simply beautiful. Don’t even get me started on tone, because that’s the territory of unworldly satisfaction. Recording King banjos sound like magical instruments that emit wonderful notes no matter how you strum those strings. I know, I know, I’m exaggerating just a bit, but I can’t help it – these puppies are mind-blowing. The brand offers a wide selection of models that range from classic to dirty. You can select the one that suits your style and budget, but trust me, it won’t be an easy choice. No matter which one you pick out, Recording King Banjo will definitely be amazing!
The more I think about it, the more I realize that there is no point in being afraid. Judging by how I am now, accidentally, an adult I should be able to overcome the fear and finally do what I’ve always wanted. Get in my car and just go. Drive through the Appalachians, along the eastern coast, head into the mainland, across the Mississippi deltas, and through the rust belt of the Americas. How hard can it be? How scary can it be? I don’t think there is much risk to it beyond running out of gas and being stranded in a desert for about three hours. As a reward though I get all the fun of musical tourism. I get to see the real country, the real people of the small, distant towns. Maybe, if I am lucky, I will even get to see the real local musicians, the old men who still play their music the way they did 50 years ago, without being lured by fame and popular culture. Maybe I’ll get invited in for a slice of apple pie or the kindly farmer’s wife will give me some peaches for the road. And if I do get lucky maybe I won’t be hunted.
Most importantly though, if I do the road trip, maybe I will end up finding the quiet boy who spends his time in the evenings overlooking the woods from his dad’s porch. Sitting in the rocking chair, contemplating his existence, breathing the dry southern air with sweat gathering on his brow. His fingers move incessantly, his practice remaining uninterrupted for hours so that he can be the best banjo player. I hope I get to hear him practice. I hope I get to find out what the banjo really was made for. Maybe, you’ll be the kid (unless you’re like 30) playing one of the banjos above. Maybe I won’t have to leave town at all to hear you play it.