Editors Note: This has been republished with knowledge from Banjo.com
By: Barry Waldrep
There’s something about the cheery twang of a banjo that makes it a fun instrument to hear and to play. The snappy notes that flow from a 5-string make us think of lively bluegrass music, and so many songs would not feel complete without it. However, not all banjos were created equal, so if you’re getting ready to invest in the ideal instrument for you, you may need to spend some time acquainting yourself with the differences between open-back and resonator banjos. Here are a few basic differences between these two varieties of the instrument:
Design – Open-back and resonator banjos are very similar in design. The main difference is that a resonator banjo has a wooden “bowl” mounted to the back of the sound chamber (the “pot”), which projects the sound toward an audience. The open-back banjo has no back; there’s nothing there to cover the sound chamber. With the extra wood on the back, the resonator banjo weighs a little more. Usually, the strings of an open-back banjo are positioned with a little more distance from the fretboard because of the way it’s played, clawhammer-style, without fingerpicks.
Sound – Resonator banjos are by far the preferred choice for bluegrass players, as the sound of the instrument is louder and twangier than the open-back banjo. When picked bluegrass-style with fingerpicks, the resonator banjo produces a very bright sound. The open-back produces a more mellow, softer sound, and since the sound chamber rests against the player, some of the sound is absorbed into his clothing, which lowers the banjo’s volume. Clawhammer-style on an open-back banjo is preferred in traditional and mountain music genres, where the sound does not need to compete with the volume of other instruments. For those who need higher volume, a pickup can be installed on almost any banjo and used with an amplifier.
Cost – Open back banjos are typically the less expensive of the two options due to their more simple design. However, any genre can be played on any 5-string banjo, so if you’re not sure which one is right for you, the resonator banjo may be the better choice because it provides more flexibility.