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Lots of pictures of banjo skeletons and guts: a short course in
5-String Banjo Anatomy
© Frank Ford, 7/5/98; Photos by FF, 6/19/98

I've organized this tour along very general lines, featuring the two major styles of five string banjo, so you can compare some of the differences and similarities.

Here's a resonator, or Bluegrass banjo:

Notice that it has a resonator (the back) which reflects the sound in a forward direction. The resonator banjo maximizes tonal volume, sustain and sharpness. It weighs almost three times as much as a good guitar! (Yes, lots of Bluegrass banjo players complain about back trouble.)

Its predecessor, the "open back" banjo, is sometimes known as an "old time," "frailing" or "clawhammer" banjo, referring to the styles of music commonly associated with it:

Open back banjos weigh significantly less, and have a different sound because of their construction. They have no resonator to project the tone, and their lighter weight causes them to be less "metallic" sounding with less sustain to the notes. In general, these are desirable characteristics for their style of music. There are more subtle differences as well, and a lot of different styles of both resonator and open back banjos.

The most special part of the five string banjo is the fifth string, of course, and its short length sets the five string banjo apart from most other fretted instruments.
The fifth string actually starts at the fifth fret and the tuner is jammed into the side of the neck at that point:

Traditionally, the fifth string tuner, or "peg" is a friction device, with a screw adjustment right in the center of the button that controls the amount of friction holding the peg in tune.

Modern better quality instruments have a geared fifth string peg:

This one has a 12:1 gear ratio and tunes very easily and smoothly. If your banjo doesn't have a geared fifth string peg, you would do well to consider one! It's generally a cheap and effective upgrade.

Unlike those on guitars and mandolins, the tuners on banjos are universally called "pegs." That's because the early instruments really had tapered pegs that were jammed into the wood of the neck, and held there by friction. These early pegs worked well for the gut strings that were popular on banjos before 1900.

This old timer has a fancy fifth string peg carved from bone:

It is over a hundred years old now, and the peg works just fine with the nylon strings that replace the original gut ones. Use steel strings on this banjo, and the higher tension will make tuning quite a fight indeed!



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