Help Topics for Banjo Players
Bluegrass beginner? should you get an open-back or a resonator banjo?
There seems to have arisen a degree of confusion amongst beginners as to the most suitable type of banjo on which to start to learn the fundamentals of bluegrass music. By bluegrass music, I mean all styles involving the use of "up-picking" (i.e. 2- and 3-finger style with picks).
The traditional answer has always been that you need a resonator 5-string banjo - as close to a pre-1939 Gibson Mastertone as you can afford ...... the smaller the amount of money available to spend, the larger the number of compromises that have to be made between that "ideal banjo" and what can actually be afforded ....
One of the last areas on which to compromise has traditonally been the resonator. The existence of a back on the banjo gives you the typical "hollow" sound of a bluegrass banjo and makes the playing position(somewhat held away from the body) more like that of a classic style of bluegrass banjo.
Of late, there have been suggestions that an open-back banjo (traditionally used for folk/old-time styles) is fine for starting on bluegrass. Up to a point, this is true - you can learn the mechanics of bluegrass on an open-back banjo. When you move on to a "Masterclone" of some sort (all bluegrass players do .... ), you'll have to get used to a different quality of sound and having the banjo itself in a different position. Not a huge issue but it can prove to be quite a stumbling block to some players.
The benefits of starting on an open-back banjo are more nebulous. It does save a little money on the initial purchase - between £20 - £50 on most entry-level banjos. They are a bit quieter but many entry-level banjos are convertible so that the resonator can be removed for quieter playing at need - and mutes aren't that hard to find/use. They are a bit lighter but the saving of a less than 1kg on the overall weight (typically just under 4kg for the resonator version as opposed to just over 3kg for an open back) would not be that significant for most people.
I guess it comes down to personal choice - but if you do opt to have an open-back banjo for learning to play bluegrass, make sure you mention the fact when ordering your banjo. Many open-back banjos are specially set-up for frailing/clawhammer styles - even quite modest entry-level instruments! These will not be suitable for learning any kind of bluegrass style playing ("up-picking") - the requirements of a "down-picking" banjo are quite different"!
It's quite easy to get an open-back version of a banjo properly set-up for bluegrass style - essentially, it will be a convertible resonator type without the resonator .... :-) Quite easy to do and available for the asking at no extra charge - and you'll get the appropriate starter pack (correct initial set-up, strings, picks & instruction book) instead of a "frailing" pack
You won't be able to order on-line (the standard package for all the open backs on my website is for "frailing") but you can phone or e-mail to make sure you get exactly what you need to learn the style you have selected.
For most people, the simplest option will be to stick to the traditional resonator models - but you can have the "bluegrass" open-back if you really want it ... for further advice, please phone
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