We recently received a question from a student, asking about the head on his banjo. In this case, the banjo had had a clear head on it before he bought it, but has a white head on it now. He asked whether this affected the sound.
Well, there's no one answer. Banjo heads are like bridges or strings: Some banjos (or banjo players) sound best with one kind, some with another. But there are a few guidelines which we can glean from experience:
1. Sometimes, the clear heads are thicker than the white ones. This means that they may have a fuller sound (or, to put it another way, they may not give as much clarity on some banjos). Some banjos like one kind of head best, some like another.
2. As I recall, the Stewart-MacDonald 5-Star heads may be a bit thinner than the Remo Weather-King heads. This means, again, that a banjo might give more fullness and volume with the thicker head, but might obtain more high end and clarity with the thinner one. Does this all sound confusing? That's because it is. Every banjo is different!
3. Some banjos really like the heavier, textured, imitation-leather heads. Those heads go best on banjos that have plenty of volume and high end already, and have plenty of power to make the heavier heads sound good.
4. Some bluegrass pickers may want to experiment with real skin heads. A friend sent me a good-quality old skin head once, and I installed it on my pre-war Gibson banjo. I immediately saw why some older banjo players swear by skin heads! But I also understood why other players swear AT them. The good news is that putting a skin head on a a high-quality banjo may give you a more powerful sound, with more volume and dry tone, than any other kind of head. The bad news is that this is not true for all banjos, and even when it is, you probably need to adjust the head tension EVERY DAY to make sure the banjo will sound its best. There were good reasons why banjo players in the 1950s were really glad that plastic heads became available!
If you know as much about banjo heads now as you did before you read this, then you're doing well. The bottom line is that you have to try different heads out on every banjo to see which kind it likes best. You can also go on the Banjo Hangout and find people who will talk about banjo heads until the cows come home. But don't even think of changing the head until you have the strings, bridge, and head tension already adjusted to sound their best! -- and that is all another chapter.