Designing a Custom Banjo

Model and Style

A banjo, perhaps as much or more than any other instrument, offers a wealth of design choices in both style and appearance. If you've reached this point on the website, you probably already know whether you're looking for the tubby sound of the open-back banjo or the hard ring of a resonator banjo. You've only just begun, however. Are you a five-string picker, or do you prefer the four-string tenor sound?

The Pot

Whatever your choice of model, the sound of your banjo and a fair amount of its appearance begins with the pot -- the combination of rim, tone ring, head, and the hardware that connects the three together. The outside diameter of the tone ring is normally 11", but even that can vary.

  • The rim is made of wood, normally maple, and can either be a segmented rim glued up from blocks or can be steam-bent from long strips of wood.
  • The tone ring is the prime determining factor of your banjo's sound. This metal part is available from a number of manufacturers and can be either a heavy cast arch top or flat head style or can be a lighter, stamped affair.
  • The head, once made of animal skin, is today a plastic membrane that is stretched over the tone ring. Heads come in a variety of colors, thicknesses, and finishes, and can considerably alter the inherent sound of a particular pot.
  • Hooks of some description apply pressure to a tension hoop to tighten the head. These hooks are anchored to the rim by either a flange or by individual brackets. All of these hardware items can be either nickel or gold finished.
  • The resonator, if so equipped, may be turned from solid wood or built up from thin veneers pressed into a slightly domed shape.

Wood Choices

Maple or mahogany are my preferred woods for resonators and necks, and it's my custom to match neck to resonator. Walnut is also a viable option. The greater mass of maple normally produces notes with greater sustain but less focus than mahogany, but the differences are not significant, and are overwhelmed by the acoustic properties of tone ring and head. Woods are often mixed to provide visual interest.

Other Choices

The head shape is yet another consideration, and the options are many. My banjo scale length is 26-3/16" unless you specify a different scale. The following design choices are common to many instruments, and will be discussed in detail on other pages.

Many questions about a Skipper banjo can be answered by watching the construction step by step. A wealth of this information is available in my Archives section, where all the instruments I've built in the last several years are presented in detail.

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