Banjo anatomy, just like any other instrument, is much more than the sum total of its parts. A rudimentary knowledge of the parts of a banjo is very helpful to understand exactly how the music is created by this stringed instrument.
Many hybrids of the Banjo have become popular and because of the different string orientations and setups, parts can vary. While it’s impossible to cover the Guitarjo, Banjolele, and other variations in on article, we will get a banjo beginner a solid understanding.
Generally, the banjo usually consists of a wooden rim with a hoop that is under tension. it often times closely resembles a drum head. The strings are usually metallic in nature, but nylon threads are not unheard of either.
That is the simple way of describing the parts of this bluegrass powerhouse. We’ve gone into MUCH more detail below!
The Parts of a Banjo
Also known as the peghead, this piece of wood is mounted at the end of the neck. Its main responsibility is to house the four tuning pegs but it also the place where the nut is mounted.
The nut is instrumental in holding the banjo strings in place. It is usually mounted on the base of the peghead and strings are routed through its holes. Generally, nuts are made of bone, hardwood or plastic.
The tuners are responsible for the tension applied to the strings so they play the correct notes. At the peghead, the strings of a banjo are attached to the tuners. This is one of the parts of a banjo you’ll find on most stringed instruments.
Tuners can be of two different types – planetary gear type and friction peg type. Musicians have been known to prefer the former as a more reliable option.
5-string Banjos have a peg about half way up the neck that is responsible for the low G string (in standard tuning).
This 5th string, which is normally tuned an octave lower than the 3rd string (also a G) is what is responsible for a lot of the “droning” sound attributed to modern bluegrass Banjos.
The neck usually consists of a metallic truss rod that helps in adjusting intonations and also provides rigidity to the instrument. It is usually made from Maplewood and is ideally crafted from a single piece of wood. However, in economic models, several pieces of wood glued together and laminated to save money.
The Fingerboard is a thin piece of wood that is stuck to the neck. The frets and position inlays are mounted on the fretboard pressed onto them. Most fingerboards are made of a harder piece of wood due to the repetitive contact with the strings.
This piece helps connect the neck to the pot assembly by two bolts called “hanger bolts”. It is critical that the heel cut matches the height of the bridge being used.
Standard bridges are 5/8s of an inch, but if the heel cut or bridge is far off this number it can cause problems with the action of the strings.
Tension Hoop, Tone Ring and Rim
The Tension Ring is a thin piece of metal that wraps around the head of the banjo to helps maintain the correct tension in the head unit. The tone ring and rim dictate the quality of the banjo’s sound by manipulating its dynamics and tonal range.
The rim can be made of metal or wood, the metallic rims are usually found in the older models. The tone ring is positioned between the rim and the headstock.
The Banjo Head is a piece of mylar or skin that is draped over the pot to produce the sound. This is the piece tightened down by the Tension Hoop and is attached to the bridge and armrest. Especially with beginner banjos or cheap instruments, this is one of the big money saving pieces.
Heads vary depending on the thickness of the material used and each one has a distinct effect on the sound. The following video does a great job discussing the differences.
The Bridge is a critical part of the Banjo as it transmits the vibration of the strings into the head which produces the head. A standard construction is a piece (often maple) topped with ebony that is 5/8ths of an inch tall.
This like many of the parts of the Banjo is highly customizable. For a fairly simple piece of wood, there are many misconceptions about the bridge, BanjoBridge has a great article dispelling many of them.
The Bracket Hooks
Banjos can have anywhere between 12 and 24 hooks, though you should be looking for at least 16. This helps hold the tension rim in place and are often used to secure the flange.
The flange attaches the main pot to the resonator and comes in several different styles. One, two, and twenty-four piece, as well as tube flanges, can all be used depend on the type of resonator.
In modern five-string banjos, resonators have become increasingly popular. A resonator is basically a metal plate that is mounted to the back of the banjo body. It helps in improving the quality of sound by projecting the sound forward and also introduces a punch to the music, thereby creating a large number of possibilities for ensemble settings.
The tailpiece connects the end of the strings to the back part of the head. It is important that your tailpiece is made of a non-vibrating metal so that it doesn’t muddle the sound. Early tailpieces were made from a metal like brass, but most are now made with a steel alloy to alleviate the vibration problem.
This piece has no effect on the sound of the banjo as long as it’s installed correctly, it is simply there to make playing the instrument more comfortable. The material of the armrest can be wood or metal.
The Final Note
There you have it! The banjo is one of the more complicated of the stringed instruments, thanks mostly to the pot assembly and the different configurations and materials that can be used to produce different sounds. For more information about the banjo please check out our home page dedicated to the instrument!