Tag Archives: banjos

Red Henry

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.


Red Henry

Well, how often should you change them? I hear this question pretty frequently. The answer is, that it's up to you. How helpful is that?

Well, the reason is that everybody's strings need changing at different times. Some reasons are because (1) there are so many kinds of strings and they age differently; (2) people all play differently and their strings wear out (or corrode) faster or slower as a result; and (3) in different parts of the country (or the world) strings are just going to need changing more often.

So, what do you look for in deciding whether to change them? One thing can be obvious: buildup of corrosion or gunk on the string. This really happens a lot in warm, humid climates. If the buildup can't be removed with a little steel wool, then it'd definitely time to change strings! (When I was starting out, this happened on my mandolin strings every few days.)

Another sign is when the strings get hard to tune. Often it's because they're not sliding smoothly through the string-nut (that's the little white thing with slots at the bottom of the peghead). If you put on new strings, and when you're at it, put a little graphite -- pencil-lead dust will do-- in the bottoms of the little nut-slots, then the tuning should get a lot better.

Another sign of elderly strings might be that they don't play in tune. If you're pretty sure that your bridge is in the right place, but your banjo is still "noting out" more than usual up the neck, then new strings might be what you need.

One more sign of old strings may not be as obvious. If the instrument (banjo or otherwise) just doesn't sound right, the strings may have gotten too old to sound good at all. When does this happen? Well, this is the most extreme case of old strings, since it may take several months or a year for the strings to get this old.

Some players take extreme steps to keep new strings on their instruments, especially if they break a lot of strings. Back when we were playing a lot of festivals, I used to change the strings on both mandolins and both guitars every morning before we played our first set. That was a lot of work, but it helped keep the string-breakage to a minimum. Others take a different approach. I've heard that Bill Monroe changed his mandolin strings once a year, at New Year's, and from then on just changed them as they broke (which they did, pretty often).

Now, this all applies to the fretted instruments. Fiddle strings seem to fall into a different category. I've known fiddle players who changed their strings every few months, but as for myself, if the fiddle gets new strings every five years, that's a lot. I suspect that the strings on my fiddle now have been on it for longer than that!

So the answer to the question is, that it's up to you yourself to decide when to change strings. There are a lot of reasons for changing them (better tone, volume, and tuning), and there are plenty of reasons for just leaving them on there (less hassle with awkward work, and less risk of getting your banjo or mandolin bridge out of place in the string-changing process, among other things). But if you go in for a lesson and your teacher takes one look at your strings and turns as green as they are, then it's time.

Red Henry

Red Henry

Folks, that might seem like a strange title for a post, but I just wanted to point out how musicians sometimes seem to evaluate instruments on the basis of what they look like, rather than what they sound like.

This really comes into play with banjos, and the musicians are well aware of it. They know that others will evaluate their music partly on the basis of what kind of instrument they play. For example, I recently saw a band photo session where the banjo player hadn't brought her banjo, and she was going to have to hold a banjo brought by one of the other band members. She was a bit alarmed by that, and said, "Is it a crummy banjo? I'm not having my picture taken holding a crummy banjo!" Fortunately, this banjo had 'Gibson' on the peghead and looked even older than the one she'd left at home. So she held it happily in the photo. That was a banjo she didn't mind being seen with.

I was reminded of this another time at a big picking party. A friend of ours owned one of the quite valuable Gibson F-5 mandolins from the early 1920s. He couldn't come to the party, but sent the mandolin there with another friend of ours, who handed it to me to play.

Now, the jam session had been going loud and long at this point. I had no problem with that, since my two mandolins (Randy Wood #1 and #3) will cut through any number of banjo and guitar players, and the pickers certainly weren't giving me any slack. But then I started playing that old F-5, and suddenly everything changed. The whole jam session quieted down to hear that $100,000 Gibson mandolin-- and they needed to. The instrument was not remarkable either for tone or for volume, and it couldn't have been heard otherwise. So the pickers were using their eyes, not their ears, to evaluate that mandolin, and they quieted down to let it be heard. They hadn't done that when I was playing my Randy Wood, which was frankly a much better instrument.

So, next time you're in a group of pickers, really pay attention to what the other people's instruments sound like. Don't listen with your eyes, listen with your EARS!


Red Henry

Red Henry

We often have beginning banjo students ask, "What's the difference between a flathead banjo and an archtop? Do I need an archtop if I want to sound like Ralph Stanley, and a flathead if I want to sound like Earl?" When they ask this, they're referring to the kind of tone-ring the banjo has. That's the big metal part that sits right under the plastic banjo head, on top of the banjo's wooden shell.

Well, the truth is that in one way, it isn't a simple question to answer. The best of the old Gibson flathead banjos had a characteristic powerful, low-end resonance that Earl took advantage of when he played, and which helped make his much-admired sound. But we have to remember that it was Earl playing, and he'd have sounded like himself whether the banjo had a flathead tone ring, an archtop one, or no tone ring at all (as when he was playing with Bill Monroe in 1945-7 and used a banjo with just a little tone hoop). In all those situations, he still sounded and sounds like Earl.

Some folks like to have an archtop banjo so they can "sound more like Ralph Stanley." Frankly, it is fun to play 'Little Maggie' and 'Clinch Mountain Backstep' and hear that higher timbre come out of the banjo. But you don't need an archtop tone ring to make it that way, because (1) banjos like Murphy's Stelling have plenty of high end to go with the low end flathead sound, and (2) you can adjust your hand position on any banjo to get more of that high end out of it.

That sounds complicated. What's the answer? Well, it's simple. If you want to play a particular kind of banjo music, LISTEN to it and PLAY THAT SOUND. It doesn't matter what design of banjo you have, as long as it's a decent-quality instrument. The better the banjo the better you'll sound, generally speaking, but you can certainly play Earl's music on an archtop banjo, as Little Roy Lewis did for years, and you can certainly play Ralph's music on a flathead as some pickers (like myself) have done for a long time. So what makes the difference? What makes the difference is YOU. You need to LISTEN over and over to the music you want to play, and play not just the notes, but the SOUND.


Casey HenryOne of the gals in my At Least We're Hot picking group (which I've previously written about here) just got a new banjo and we're all very excited. Connie's husband Jeremy surprised her with it as a Christmas/Birthday/Anniversary present. Made by Chuck Lee, down in Texas, it is a beautiful instrument that plays wonderfully.

Here are Connie and I at our jam last Saturday... (Photo by Myrna Talbot.)

Connie Garrett and Casey
Connie wrote a nice story about her new prize possession on Chuck Lee's Blog. Up to now she's just played rhythm clawhammer (bum-diddy, bum-diddy) but, inspired by this banjo she's got "Old Joe Clark" down I think, and maybe "Angelina Baker," which is our biggest hit, by the way. We look forward to hearing them at our Hottie Christmas Party on Monday!

Chuck Lee, coincidentally, says this: "We own a bunch of the Murphy Method videos (guitar-bass-fiddle-mandolin-banjo), most of the older music cassettes by your parents and family.  I learned my first three-finger banjo songs with your mother and I learned my first clawhammer songs with your mother and Lynn Morris.  Your family has had a positive impact on my family.  Thank you." We're always happy to spread the music!

I now must go and finish putting up my Christmas tree!

Casey HenryAs I was reflecting on what to write about today, it occurred to me that several students of mine have gotten new banjos in the last year or so. One, I'm happy to say, bought my very own Casey Henry model banjo. Her old banjo was a Stelling Murphyflower. Now she's the only person in the world who has both a Murphy banjo and a Casey banjo! I'm also in the process of selling my Stealth banjo, which I bought when I was in college. Someone was asking me about it, trying to decide if he wanted to buy mine or wanted a new one. I, in shamelessly trying to influence him to buy mine, gave him some things to think about which generally hold true for all used vs. new banjos.

#1. It's cheaper. This is frequently the case, except when you're talking about pre-war Gibson flatheads.

#2. It's available now. When you order a banjo from a smaller maker, like Stelling, or Kel Kroydon, they make each one as it is ordered and it usually takes two or three months, unless you find a dealer who has some in stock.

#3. It's good and broken in. Nothing can replace the settling in process of an instrument. A new banjo doesn't sound as good as it's going to right when it is put together. All the parts need time to settle and start vibrating together. As a general rule, the older an instrument is, if it has been well cared for, the better it will sound (relative to itself). Your pawn shop banjo is never going to get so old it starts sounding like a Granada, but I bet you it sounds better than it did the first day it rolled out of the factory!

#4. You can play it. I always recommend playing an instrument before you commit to buying it. Even if you don't play very well yet, you can tell a lot by holding the instrument in your hands and plunking a few notes on it.

I know not everyone has a neighborhood banjo store where you can go and play lots of different banjos. But if you are thinking about investing in a quality instrument, it is well worth the trip to a place that stocks many banjos, or to a convention or festival like the IBMA Fan Fest, so that you can try them out. When you pick up the banjo that you are meant to have, you'll know it!

Casey HenryYesterday I drove up to Hendersonville, Tenn., to pick up my new Casey Henry Signature Model banjo from Robin Smith at Heartland Banjos. This is the third Casey Henry model. I played the first one for about seven months and then sold it to one of my students. The second one went to a gal in New England. And now here we are at number three.

Even though they are all supposed to be exactly alike, there are some differences. I asked Robin to give me a fifth sting peg that didn't have the little sticky-outy part to wind the string around (that's another one of those technical terms), rather, the string winds around the inner shaft of the peg. My old banjo has that kind and I prefer it. I also asked him to give me two railroad spikes for the fifth string (again, like my old banjo) instead of four. I actually got three, but he's getting closer.

The main difference is that the brown color of this banjo is darker than the previous ones. I prefer the lighter color, but it is fall, after all, and I'm sure it will match my autumn and winter wardrobe better. 😉 Here are a couple shots of the new model (click for bigger versions):

Casey Henry\'s banjo
Casey Henry banjo front

For the sake of comparison, here are a couple shots of the other two. First is my friend Dick Bowden picking #1, second is Michelle Canning picking #2:

Dick Bowden and Casey Henry #1
Michelle Canning

I found out that it is particularly hard to photograph shiny new banjos because the flash reflects back all over the place. So please forgive the slight out-of-focusness.

I'll have the new axe at the Thomas Point Beach festival next week, so if you're there and want to pick on it, or want a banjo lesson, come find me (I'll be camped near the workshop tent).

Casey HenryI like to think that The Murphy Method has a hand in spreading banjo around the world. Recently I got to play a part in literally sending a banjo around the world, and it was really fun.

Every year at Kaufman Kamp they give away instruments as door prizes. This year Deering Banjos donated one of their Boston banjos to be a prize. On the last night of camp, Steve Kaufman picks the winners by drawing numbers out of a jar. He rummages around for a while, pulls out the one that feels right, and slowly, suspensefully, reads the number. This year, who jumped up with the winning ticket but one of my very own students: Ginny Foard.

Now, Ginny already has a really good banjo and didn't really have a use for the Deering. As I watched her carry it from the stage I had the germ of an idea for what she could do with the banjo, but I kept it to myself.

I met Ginny last year at Kamp and she started taking lessons shortly thereafter. This year we both met a camper who had come over from Ireland, Mark McCluney. He's a beginning player but has lots of guts. He was determined to make the most of his camp experience, having scrimped and saved to cover his airfare plus camp tuition. He would gamely take a break on any song, rolling along in the chords, and never missed an opportunity to jam.

Back at home after camp, I saw Ginny for her weekly lesson and she said she'd had the idea of sending the Deering to Mark in Ireland. I told I thought that was exactly the right thing to do with it and that I'd had that very idea about thirty seconds after she won it. His banjo was a beginner's model---just fine to start on, but his abilities were about to out-strip it.

The next week she brought me the banjo and I took it up to Robin Smith in Hendersonville, who builds my Casey Henry signature model banjos, and got him to pack it properly. A broken banjo would be a very bad gift. I took it to the post office and received a dour look from the clerk when I said I wanted to ship this huge package to Northern Ireland. Filling out the customs form gave me pause. If you want it to be a surprise, you can't write what is actually in the package because that would spoil it. Yet you don't want to get caught in a lie. I figured that when he saw the box the jig would be up anyway, so I wrote "banjo in case" in the "contents" field. And away the banjo went, across the wide blue Atlantic. ...continue reading