America's Own Instrument

“On the banjo, as on a guitar, there are pieces of metal — on ours they’re made of nickel silver — called frets,” says Carolina Bridges, director of public relations for Deering banjos. “They have to be at certain positions along the banjo neck for the banjo to be in tune. You can’t just place them anywhere. Overseas [mostly in China] they don’t pay attention to that. The difference is that we know what a banjo’s supposed to sound like, and they, quite truthfully, don’t.”

Bridges says that banjos made overseas also tend to have thicker necks — which may be less comfortable to hold while playing — and will often be out of tune. This is an issue for beginners, she says, who don’t realize it is the instrument, not the banjoist, that is failing to create the proper sound.

“Suppose you’ve never made a cake, and you’re following a recipe,” says Bridges. “Instead of reading, ‘add two eggs and 1/3 cup of oil,’ you are told, ‘one egg and a cup of oil.’ Your cake wouldn’t taste right, but you wouldn’t know why. A beginning banjo player might say, ‘The banjo sounds really good on that record — why doesn’t my banjo sound that way?’ When you’re a beginner you always think it’s your fault. You say, ‘I can’t play banjo,’ and you give it up.”

On Wednesday, June 4, Bridges will discuss the history and construction of banjos on behalf of the Deering Banjo Company for Banjo Day at the Spring Valley Library. The banjo-making company, located in Spring Valley, was founded by Greg and Janet Deering in 1975.

Whereas a basic banjo manufactured overseas might cost around $200, Deering’s introductory banjo, called the Goodtime, is $449, which Bridges says is modestly priced in comparison to what is considered an upper-line banjo, starting at around $2000. “You hear a decided difference in the two sounds of those banjos,” says Bridges.

Many players who begin with the Goodtime end up returning for more expensive versions. As one moves further up the line, the banjos become more responsive and have a more dimensional sound because of additions like alternate tone rings and resonators.

A Goodtime banjo weighs 4 pounds — those with sound enhancers like bronze tone rings can weigh more than 12 pounds. One of the most expensive banjos, with inlays of pearl, turquoise, coral, and several other raw materials, is priced at $62,469. That instrument (dubbed the “Banjosaurus,” for the Mesozoic theme of the inlays) was designed for George Grove of the Kingston Trio.

Bridges refers to the banjo as “American’s own instrument.” The original banjo, the banjar, was an African instrument made using gourds and animal skin. “It came across the ocean with African slaves,” says Bridges. “It had a short neck and strings made out of catgut. A twiglike piece was used as a bridge, and it would have had a very deep voice, a lovely voice.”

The neck and resonator of the banjo are made from wood — maple, mahogany, or walnut. “Maple banjos are very bright; that’s the inherent sound of that wood,” says Bridges. “The mahogany is a warmer, sweeter sound. It’s still a hardwood, but it’s not as bright as maple, and the walnut would fall somewhere in between.”

Deering uses a maple rim — the foundational round piece that sets the bass of the instrument — in all banjos, regardless of which type of wood is used for the neck and resonator. Atop the rim goes the tone ring, which can be made of bronze, steel, or grenadillo (a dark red wood that Bridges says Deering sources from the Grenada area of Spain). Of the bronze tone rings, Bridges says, “You know what a church bell sounds like? This banjo is very loud, very dimensional — bright and powerful.” She describes the steel as “dry and crisp” and the grenadillo as having “a depth of tone” that makes the sound “warmer.”

The head (the drumlike circle beneath the strings) can also affect the sound, depending on the material from which it is made. “A frosted head gives a bright sound,” says Bridges. “If we use a black head, which is a slightly thicker piece of plastic, it emphasizes the bass tones. Then we have a Kevlar head — it’s not bulletproof — that gives a tenor-y sound to the banjo. We also have a fiber-skin head that looks like skin but isn’t. The thickness is different, and it gives what we call a plunky sound — that old-timey mountain banjo sound.”

Some players like to pimp their banjos the way one might trick out a vehicle with aftermarket products or custom-made parts. “The banjo is the hot rod of the acoustic instruments,” says Bridges. “By altering the components you can make the banjo sound the way you want, like altering the fuel mixture or changing the spark plugs on your hot rod.”

— Barbarella

Banjo Day
Wednesday, June 4
3 p.m.
Spring Valley Library
836 Kempton Street
Spring Valley
Cost: Free
Info: 619-463-3006

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