Originally written by Carolina Bridges
The wonder of banjo heads is how easy they make it for banjo players to change the sound of their banjos if they want to! By adjusting their existing banjo head tension or changing the head out for a different one, they can make some pretty dramatic changes to the sound of their banjo!
Before we begin, we need to talk a little bit about banjo head tension. The tightness of your banjo head is very important to how well it will function as the vibrating membrane that transmits the sound of your banjo.
At Deering we tighten our frosted top heads to between G/G#. This is a good, strong tension that gives very little to pressure from your fingers pressing down on the head itself. What this does is give you a banjo with an even tone, good bass, treble, and mid-range response that is good for most genres of music and playing styles.
Bluegrass banjo players like this head tension and some will go up to as high as A as in the Terry Baucom model. Terry has a very strong attack and likes a banjo with good treble response so his head tension is rock hard, not giving to any pressure by your fingers. This produces a very bright tone.
The clawhammer style player likes a more muted and warmer tone. Their head tension is softer and oftentimes the favored head is a fiberskyn head of a thicker mylar. The tone tends to be more of a plunky sound.
Whatever style you play, the important thing is that you can regulate the head tension by using the hex nuts at the base of each hook. They should be snug, but not over tight, if you want a nice, bright banjo tone. By backing off on the head tension, you can warm up the tone; by tightening more you can brighten up the sound more.
The crown height of the banjo head is measured from the top edge of the mylar membrane to the top edge of the little aluminum ring that keeps the banjo head in round.
The actual measurements for crown heights are as follows:
Choosing the right crown height allows the head to go over the rim and allows you to achieve good head tension with your hex nuts and hooks. If you choose a head that has too high a crown, you can “bottom out” which means you will have no further ability to tighten the hex nut and your head will not be in proper tension. So, paying attention to the right crown height is important when choosing a new banjo head.
At Deering the crown height does vary according to the age and model of banjo.
Our banjos heads are made of mylar plastic. We have different types of heads and the reason they make the banjo sound different is that the thickness of the mylar varies. The thicker the mylar plastic, the warmer/more bass effect on the banjo sound. Here are a few examples of banjo head thicknesses:
Top frosted head: The most popular head made for 5-string banjo. It has a crisp, bright tone with good snap, even sustain, good clarity and note distinction.
Bottom frosted: This is popular with the tenor and plectrum players who play with a flat pick because it has a smooth finish that is quieter when strumming.
Prism head: The head has a shiny, mirror-like smooth surface that has a prism-like appearance. It has a slightly brighter tone and is popular for tenor, plectrum, and Crossfire banjos both for appearance and tone.
Clear head: This see-through head is popular for folks who have gold plated hardware or stained resonator interiors. It has a sweet tone with clear distinction and long sustain; a bit less bass response than the bottom frosted head.
Black head: Mellow in tone with long sustain due to the thicker mylar membrane. Lots of low frequency/bass response and not as crisp as a clear/bottom frosted head but with more sustain than a fiberskyn head.
Fiberskyn head: Looks a lot like the old skin heads and gives the banjo a nice, plunky, old-timey tone that is warm and round. Favored by clawhammer players.
Renaissance head: Smooth top with an opaque color of natural bee’s wax, this banjo head is a bit brighter than found on a fiberskyn head. Another favorite of the old timey clawhammer player.
Kevlar: Not bullet-proof - don’t use it for that! This very thick head tends to emphasize the high frequencies like you would hear in an archtop banjo. It is white with an orange peel surface texture. The head sustains well and is crisp. On a 6-string banjo, it has a strong, sweet tone.
The choice is yours! Hopefully the “mystery” has been revealed on which is the best one for you and your banjo.