Tag Archives: heads

Casey Henry

A couple weeks ago Red blogged about types of banjo heads. About that same time I got this question from a student:

All the coating is worn off mine in the place you would expect...I notice that about every banjo player I go to see has a nice clean new looking banjo head. Other than appearance, is there any reason I should strongly consider putting a new head on? Also, in your very valued opinion, is there a significant difference between brands? Are there some I should use, and just as importantly, some I should avoid? In a related question....is banjo head wear typically something that decreases as a players skills increase? --Jeff in Iowa

Those are all good questions. How a head looks has absolutely nothing to do with how it sounds (with respect to wear anyway). Heads naturally get worn over the course of playing on them for many years. I think the head on my old Gibson has been on there longer than I've been alive. You may want it to look clean and new, but other than that, there's no reason to change it. However, if you notice that your banjo has suddenly, drastically started sounding different---for no obvious reason---that may be an indication that there is a crack in the head. Often heads crack along the outer edge where you can't see it. In that case you definitely want to change it. That crack isn't getting any smaller!

There is a difference between brands, but it's mostly a personal preference. Some are made out of different material, some are slightly thicker, or thinner, or have thicker frosting, and all those factors will contribute to how it sounds. But there are no absolute right or wrongs here. You just have to try them and see if you like how they sound on your banjo. (Red wrote about some of those differences in his post.)

Regarding head wear and skill level: the two are not related. Your head gets worn as a result of how much you move your right hand. If you keep it very still---fingers always anchored in exactly the same place---you'll only get one little spot of wear. If you move around a lot, you'll naturally get a larger worn area. You'll also get less wear if you change banjos a lot. If you just own one and always play it, then it will wear faster. (Also, if you wash your hands a lot, your head will stay cleaner...) None of those factors have anything to do with skill level.

I hope this has cleared up some of your banjo head questions. Remember the most important thing is not to tinker with your banjo but to play it!!

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.