- Confused between open-back and closed-back (resonator) banjos?
- Wondering which one you should get?
- All your banjo questions – answered.
Are you wondering how to pick your first banjo? Completely confused about what you should get, and unsure what the difference is between the two types of 5-string banjo? Then you’ve come to the right place.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. This has been an ongoing debate in banjo circles for as long as banjos have been in existence. The best thing to do is look at the music you want to play and then decide which banjo suits that music the best.
What is the Difference Between Resonators and Closed-Back Banjos?
- While pretty similar in design, the main difference between a resonator banjo and an open-back banjo is that the resonator banjo has a back to its body that is concave.
- Additionally, the resonator or closed back has a little bowl-shaped resonating chamber at the back, while the open-back banjo does not.
Let’s have a look at each one and dive further into the differences between each.
As I mentioned, the resonator banjo has a curved bowl attached to the back. This is “the resonator” and what it does is cause the sound from the banjo to bounce against the resonator and be projected back to the listener. Essentially, the resonator works as a built-in amplifier, making the resonator banjo significantly louder than the open-back.
That volume is what made the resonator a favorite amongst bluegrass players. Because banjo is often played as a lead in bluegrass, it is essential that it can be heard over other instruments. Obviously, if you need a little more volume, then pick-ups and amps are always options.
In terms of sound, the resonator is distinctly twangy, with a bright and loud sound. The action on resonators is usually quite low, as they are played with fingerpicks.
The resonator is usually a little bit heavier than an open back. Something to keep in mind if, like me, your back objects after long jam sessions.
It is also typically the more expensive of the two, so if budget is your main concern, that might also be something to keep in mind.
An open-back banjo, as the name suggests, has an open back. That means that, unlike the resonator banjo, there is no resonating bowl at the back of the instrument.
The lack of a resonator means that the sound from an open-back banjo is not reflected back to the listener, but rather into the player’s body. This means that there is a significant difference in volume between the two banjo types.
Open-back banjos are used to play traditional and folk music. In these more traditional music genres, the banjo does not play as lead, so volume is less important. As a result, the open-back has a much quieter and mellower warm tone.
Traditional music plays the banjo in the clawhammer style. Usually, a melody note is struck with the thumb or plucked, and the other strings are strummed in a downward motion. That means that players need a little more room between the fretboard and the strings. That’s why the action is usually a little bit higher on an open back.
Which One Do I Choose?
Okay, so now we have covered the basics of each instrument. How do you choose which one is right for you?
Well, as I mentioned, this one’s all about the music. The type of music you make, the sound you want, and how you play, whether you prefer playing to a crowd or jamming alone, will all be large determining factors in your decision.
If you want to play bluegrass, then you are definitely going to want a resonator banjo. You would be hard-pressed to find a pro bluegrass player who doesn’t have one. Similarly, if you are looking for that really bright and twangy banjo sound, then a resonator is for you. Just remember that the resonator back does add a little weight to the instrument.
But if you are looking to play alone, or play traditional music or acoustic indie, then I would opt for the open back. That warm, mellow tone is right at home in those spaces.
You might also want to opt for the open back if you are on a tight budget. These are typically the cheaper of the two, and you are likely to pick up a higher quality used open-back than a low-budget resonator.
So there you have it. I hope that gives you a little more of an idea of what to look for in your banjo shopping. Happy strumming folks.
A little more banjo information before you go…
Now that we have talked about what kind of banjo might work for you as a player, let’s talk a little about the basics.
Is an Open Back Banjo Better?
No, they are different instruments with different characteristics. They are usually used in different musical settings and are each suited to the thing they do.
Open-back banjos used in traditional music need a mellower softer tone, while bluegrass players need that bright twang.
Can you add a resonator on an open-back banjo?
Yes, you absolutely can. As a matter of fact, you can even buy retro-fitting kits to add a resonator to your open back banjos. A number of suppliers such as John Deere, have conversion kits on offer.
Why a 5-String Banjo?
The 5-string banjo is the one you are most likely to see because it is the most popular amongst players.
How are Banjos Tuned?
A standard 5-string banjo has an open G tuning. This means that the strings are tuned from the 5th string to the 1st:
G – B – G – B – D.
That means that when you strum the strings, you will be playing a G chord.
We call the 5-string banjo’s tuning a re-entrant tuning. That means that the tuning doesn’t progress from high to low, as you would find on a guitar or bass.
On the banjo, the lowest pitched string is the D on the 4th string. This is sometimes called the bottom string because it has the lowest pitch, not its position.
How do you tune a Banjo?
When you are starting out, I would advise that you get a chromatic tuner, because that will make getting to playing a lot simpler. However, if you want to take it seriously, learning to tune by ear will do you nothing but good as a musician.
To do that, you will either need a reference pitch or be able to tune one string. From there you can tune by interval, making sure that all the strings are in tune with each other.
Don’t forget to check out Banjo vs Guitar and Banjo vs Ukulele (Differences & Which Is Right For You?).