Can You Play Clawhammer Banjo On a Resonator Banjo?

by Dusty Elmer

"Can you play clawhammer banjo on a resonator banjo?" It's a question that comes up fairly often both on online forums and out in the public. The answer is yes, of course, because a 5 string banjo is a 5 string banjo. The real question is should you play clawhammer banjo on a banjo with a resonator? Is it okay?

Yes! I play clawhammer and 2 finger styles almost exclusively on a resonator banjo, and in this post I'm going to outline some of the pros and cons as I see them.

In the pros column we have:

  1. Comfort. Have you ever felt the hooks and nuts of your openback dig into your thigh? Resonator banjos don't have exposed brackets or hooks, and nothing hurts you! Not a huge deal, but it's noticeable. The extra depth also puts the playing area a couple inches farther away from your belly, which I find comfortable as well. Just be aware that this lack of metal digging into you also makes your banjo slippery. More on that later.
  2. Volume. Playing live on stage can become a battle to be heard, competing with fiddles, mandolins, guitars, tubas, xylophones, whatever. The resonator, and especially the "heavily tone rung" resonators, allow you to hold your own against guitar players, and that alone is worth it.
  3. Tradition. It may seem counterintuitive, but the insistence on openback banjos and openback banjos only for clawhammer is a modern myth. The real old timers, that is, the guys born in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, would buy the best banjo they could afford, which often included "fancy" resonator banjos.
  4. You're in good company. Some of the finest clawhammer and old-time banjoists, from yesteryear to today, choose to play resonator banjos at least some of the time. If it's good enough for Wade Ward, Ralph Stanley, Willie Watson, J.D. Wilkes, Mike Seeger, Paul Bidanset, Zac Pelo, and String Bean it's good enough for most of us.
  5. Versatility. Let's say you're totally new to the banjo, and you read this, and buy yourself a beautiful Deering resonator model. You think you want to go down the dark road of clawhammer, but after a little while you decide you'd rather play Scruggs style. No problem! A resonator covers you either way. It's easier to get a good clawhammer tone on a resonator than it is to get a good bluegrass tone on an openback. Also, if you ever decided you'd like an openback, you can take your resonator off and voila! an openback!

Now, having said all this, there are some things to consider and differences to be aware of, particularly if you're coming to a resonator from an openback.

Firstly, resonator banjos are known to ring a lot. There are a couple ways to neutralize this. The first and most obvious way is to stuff the banjo. Stuffing the pot will kill the ringing, but if you're not careful (or if you don't care) you'll defeat the purpose of the resonator if you overstuff. I find a little foam, inside the pot, just behind the bridge, cuts the ring without killing the "bell-like tone" my Deering is often complimented on.

The second and maybe not so obvious way is to control your right hand. Oftentimes people will complain that their resonator sounds too harsh, or too loud, all while they're beating it like a rented mule. A softer touch will go a long way.

The last thing to be aware of is that resonator banjos are HEAVY. When I switched from my openbacks to my resonator I couldn't believe how heavy the resonator was. The trick is a good strap. It's not just a nice thing to have, it's a necessity. Without a strap you run the risk of dropping it, or having it slide off your lap (see first point.) Also, if you have a bad back and/or play standing up for long periods of time, be aware of the weight. Tone is good, but not hurting yourself is even better.

I hope this article, though I'm sure incoherent and rambling at times, will help you maybe make a decision , one way or the other, based on the truth (as I see it) about resonator banjos and their place in old-time music. Thanks for reading!

Dusty Elmer clawhammer banjo


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