I’ve been learning clawhammer banjo for about a year now, and back in January, I started practicing with Scruggs-style, three-finger banjo as well. The two playing styles are very different on the right (plucking / strumming / frailing) hand, but very similar on the left (fretting) hand. Traditionally, the two styles are playing on different kinds of banjos — clawhammer on a more “primitive” open-back banjo, and three-finger on a resonator, bluegrass banjo. But there isn’t anything heretical with mixing and matching banjos and playing styles, and least as far as I’m aware. I practice both styles on both banjos, but maybe there’s something against that in the Old Testament somewhere.
My Open-Back Banjo
My open-back banjo is a GoldTone CC-OT, which is an entry-level Chinese-made banjo that I got for my birthday last May. The OT (for Old Time) is a little fancier than the base model. First, it has a frailing scoop — the highest frets, just above the pot (the circular body) have been removed, and the fingerboard is “scooped out.” This makes it easier to play in that spot, which, because of the structure of the instrument, gives a more mellow, “old-timey” sound. When I play closer to the bridge, the sound is brighter and louder. After the New Year, I started playing with a towel rolled-up behind the banjo head, because that’s what all the cool kids who play down at Manuel’s Tavern were doing. This lowers the volume and takes a lot of ring / overtones out of the banjo. When I start playing the banjo without the towel as a mute, I feel like I’m playing in a tiled bathroom. Then when I put the towel in, it almost feels like my ears are stopped up.
Here’s a clip of me playing a fiddle song called “Jubilee” on the open-back CC-OT. First I play it with towel mute, then I take out the mute and play it through again.
My Resonator Banjo
A few weeks ago, I drove to Louisville, KY, for an Esperanto literary seminar. On the way back, I stopped in Glasglow, KY, and met Arthur Hatfield, who builds very nice resonator banjos. His banjos start at $2,600, which is beyond my price range. But while I was watching him in his workshop, I noticed a poor little banjo, covered in dust and wood shavings, beneath a lathe. Arthur told me that it was a project that had been hanging around the shop for awhile. It had an old pot from the 50’s — he’d put a new head on it (the white circle — traditionally some kind of skin, but now all synthetic) and a new neck and fingerboard. It was already strung, but it didn’t have a bridge, so Arthur made one of his signature compensated bridges freehand in about two minutes (see how it’s squiggly?). It plays like a charm and costs a lot less than an Arthur Hatfield original. It’s a little ugly — the neck doesn’t really match the pot; the back is scratched up — but it has a lot of character, and I like the sound.
Here’s “Jubilee” again, this time on the resonator banjo. I’m not playing in the three-finger style — this is clawhammer again, exactly like above. On this banjo, because it doesn’t have a frailing scoop, I play just below where the neck meets the pot. The sound is a little mellower there than when it’s played closer to the bridge, which IS where I play three-finger with finger picks.