Banjo For Beginners

The ultimate guide to banjo for beginners.

Banjo Resonators

There are many types of banjos, those with resonators, without, tenor banjos, electric banjos, and all sorts of other specialty banjos (try googling banjitar, or bass banjo for example). If you aren’t really familiar with banjo anatomy, I would recommend you first check out that page. This article is going to be terminology heavy, so it would be helpful to know some of the terms.

The original ‘banjo’ was a gourd instrument (If you are interested in the history of the banjo, read that article). When the instrument followed the slave trade and came to the US, banjo players began to make their instruments out of wood instead of a gourd. The banjo became fairly popular, and banjo manufactures developed. Many of the early banjo players were performers, and needed their instrument to be fairly loud, something the resonator helped with. The banjo spread from the minstrel shows into the living room, and the resonator became a de facto feature.

A resonator is usually a wood circle with raised edges that attaches to the rim and head of the banjo. Most banjos have a removable resonator, so the banjo can become an open-back banjo. Woods of resonators generally match the wood of the neck, and can include Rock Maple, Cherry, Ash, Mahogany, and a myriad of others. Different woods have different sound qualities. For more information on how the different types of wood vary in sound do a search of wood acoustics.

The resonator works by bouncing the sound created by plucking the string. The sound waves are transferred to the head, which sends them to the resonator where they exit through the sound holes and bounce off the head. The reasons the banjo doesn’t have as much sustain as a guitar, for example, are twofold. First, the banjo has many sound holes along the rim and these provide many exits for sound waves. Second, the head of the banjo doesn’t sustain sound well. It transfers sound very fast and directs sound out the sound holes.

The most obvious advantage to a resonator is the increase in volume. The resonator makes the banjo noticeably louder. Also, the resonator actually decreases sustain, and makes the banjo more clean sounding. This is because the resonator catches the sound waves transferred from the head of the banjo. By removing the banjo resonator, the vibrations from the head can be heard for longer. Think of it this way: the banjo resonator makes the banjo louder at the cost of sustain. Playing without a resonator means a more folky, traditional sound. Most bluegrass players use a resonator, but it’s a matter of personal preference. I would encourage you to play with a resonator and without to see what you prefer. Happy picking!

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