In the decades I’ve spent teaching 5-string banjo, a fairly common (and thoroughly reasonable) question usually crops among banjo newcomers just before the first lesson. This question takes many different forms, but usually goes something like this…“What kind of banjo should I buy, an open-back banjo or a resonator banjo?” or, “What’s the difference between an open-back banjo and a resonator banjo” or, “Can I play bluegrass banjo on an open-back banjo?” or, “Can I play clawhammer banjo on a banjo with a resonator?”
These are all legitimate questions. And they all point to one simple fact: there is a ton of confusion about these two very distinct types of 5-string banjos. Many banjo newcomers, if asked, wouldn’t have the foggiest notion why some banjos are equipped with these things called “resonators” while others aren’t. Or what exactly a resonator does. Additionally, many banjo enthusiasts are under the impression that these two distinct types of banjos are each confined to two very specific and separate styles of playing and that commiting to one of these types of banjos must, consequently, confine the picker to playing only that one particular style (think clawhammer vs. bluegrass). Hopefully, this article will help clear up some of the confusion surrounding this topic and eliminate some commonly held misconceptions people may have regarding this “open-back vs. resonator” debate.
First off – what exactly is a banjo resonator? Quite simply, it is the circular, slightly convex “back” of the banjo. It is the part of the instrument that projects or “resonates” the sound of the banjo’s strings when plucked. The resonator’s inner hard surface allows the sound of the instrument to be projected back to the listener. In essence, the resonator amplifies the sound of a banjo. A banjo that lacks a resonator is known as an open-back banjo. With an open-back, some of the banjo’s volume is lost because much of an open-back’s sound is projected towards the player and absorbed by the player’s body. The resultant sound is softer, quieter (some would even say “warmer”) than the sound of a banjo with a resonator, which tends to be louder and brighter than an open-back.
From my experience, there is a general misconception that banjos with resonators are superior to open-back banjos (and, consequently more expensive). This idea could not be further from the truth. When we compare open-backs to resonator banjos, we’re essentially dealing with apples and oranges. One type is not better or preferable to the other. Just different. And, as I’ll explain in the following paragraphs, the two types of banjos are typically (but not exclusively) used for two very distinct and separate styles of banjo playing.
If you’ve ever watched a professional bluegrass banjo player in action, you may have noticed that 99.99999% of the time they use a resonator banjo. Actually, you’d be hard-pressed to find a professional bluegrass banjo picker who plays on an open-back banjo. Why is this, you ask? Because in bluegrass the banjo tends to be a lead instrument. As such, the banjo player occasionally steps forward and takes a solo. In order to do this successfully, the banjo needs to be heard above the other instruments. For this reason, it’s imperative that the player use a resonator banjo when playing bluegrass with other pickers.
Having said this, if a bluegrass picker has no desire to play with other bluegrass-ers but prefers to pick on their own for their own personal enjoyment, an open-back banjo would be a perfectly fine choice for this.
Now, if clawhammer banjo is the style the person wants to focus on, an open-back banjo is probably going to best serve those purposes. Unlike bluegrass music, old-time music (the musical style that employs clawhammer banjo) doesn’t feature the banjo as a solo instrument. Soloing in general doesn’t exist in old-time music. Instead, all the instruments play in unison (think the stringed instrument equivalent of a drum circle). For this reason, the tone of the clawhammer picker’s banjo doesn’t need to be as bright as a banjo with a resonator. The subdued and mellow tones of the open-back will be preferred in this type of scenario.
If the picker already owns a banjo with a resonator but wants to play clawhammer, there’s no need to rush out and buy an open-back. A resonator banjo will do just fine. There have actually been quite a few accomplished clawhammer players who played on resonator banjos: Ralph Stanley, Stringbean, Grandpa Jones to name just a few. (Who names their kid Stringbean?) Still, at some point the picker may want to invest in an open-back, as the warmer, darker tones of this type of banjo will probably lend itself better to the nuanced, gentler feel of old-time music.
It is my sincere hope that the preceding paragraphs will help clear up a bit of the confusion concerning this all too often befuddling subject.
Now, ready set – pick your banjo! (Pun intended.)