Traditionally, banjo fingerboards have been flat surfaces, just like classical guitars. Steel string guitars have traditionally been built with fingerboards that have a shallow radius across the width of the fingerboard.
The term “radiused fingerboard” means that instead of the fingerboard being flat, it has a radius or a curve that goes “across” the fingerboard in line with the frets. In other words, the frets and the fingerboard surface, are not flat, but curved so the middle of the fingerboard is “higher” than the outer edges. The actual curve, or radius, can range from a nine inch radius to an eighteen in radius. Deering has found the 15 inch radius to appeal to most banjo players.
The radius of the steel string guitar is designed to increase playing comfort. Because steel string guitars have rather high string tension, it universally agreed that holding chords on the curved surface of the steel string guitar fretboard requires less effort than steel strings on a flat fingerboard.
The softer tension of nylon strings on a classical guitar can more easily be held against the flat surface of the classical guitars flat fingerboard.
Likewise, the lighter tension of five banjo strings, is usually quite comfortable to hold on the narrow, flat surface of most five string banjo necks.
Why a Radiused Banjo Fingerboard?
Some banjo players find that despite the softer tension of banjo strings and the narrow, easy to reach across banjo neck, a radiused fingerboard on a five string banjo is more comfortable.
This is usually desired by players who play for long hours. Jens Kruger and Bela Fleck are both players who put in many, many hours on their banjo and both prefer the subtle curve of the fingerboard under their fretting fingers.
Both of them have commented that the radius is a little more comfortable when playing for many hours.
What is the Perceived Benefit?
Our hands are generally speaking, made to “grab things”. It is not exactly natural to make our fingers “flat”. Our hands were designed to grab, hold and wrap around things.
The players who like radiused fingerboards on banjos tell us that this “feeling of wrapping around a curved surface” takes less effort than “pressing across a flat surface.”
The radiused fingerboard on the banjo is intended to make the fingerboard “feel” more “natural” for the hands to wrap around. This “natural” feel, according to some players means the banjo is less “tiring” to fret.
Is the Benefit Real?
We have built enough banjos with radiused fingerboards to feel that some players derive good benefit from the curved surface. It definitely is a very individual preference and we make far more flat fingerboards than we do radiused fingerboards.
However, we recently changed our Maple Blossom model to a radiused fingerboard as a standard feature, in order to offer our customers a model with a radius without the cost of a custom fee.
Collectively here at Deering, most of us like both the flat fingerboard as well as the radiused fingerboard. Perhaps if we all played banjo for several hours a day, we might lean toward one or the other, but most of us agree, the difference is not great.
It’s probably accurate to state that some players derive a distinct comfort benefit from the radius on the fingerboard.
If you are experienced playing the banjo and are comfortable with your flat fingerboard, then there is not too much reason to change what you know you like.
If you are new to the banjo world, or you are a guitar player coming to the world of banjos, then you might like the radius feel and it might feel more “like coming home” than the flat fingerboard.
The radius surface will likely not be a negative for anyone and the possible benefits might appeal to you.
Check with your local dealer about our Maple Blossom with the new radiused fingerboard and try it. I think you’ll agree, that it does have a certain, subtle appeal. It also might just grow into a “favorite feature”. Give it a try and let us know what you think.
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