The plectrum banjo is popular with jazz players for several unique qualities. The tuning allows the player to make chords that do not generally require wide finger stretches. So, changing chords is relatively fast. The long string length (compared to a tenor) allows the strings to vibrate relatively easily and so the banjo sustains well.
The long string length also means that the strings are easier to push down, compared to a shorter scale tenor banjo.
The plectrum works well when tuned to the same notes as the first four strings of the guitar. This is handy for guitarists who want to play jazz without learning the C tuning of the standard plectrum banjo.
The standard tuning for the plectrum is (from 4th to 1st string) C,G,B,D. Musically, these notes are relatively close to each other compared to the tenor banjo which is tuned like a viola; the notes being a full musical fifth from each other: (from 4th to 1st ) C,G, D, A. When the strings are tuned in larger intervals, then the chords the player fingers can sometimes be spread out over more of the finger board.
But what do these tuning and fingering qualities mean in choosing a plectrum banjo?
Traditionally, plectrum players like a rich, deep sounding banjo. The archtop tone ring that is so popular with tenor banjoists, is often considered too bright and treble prominent for the plectrum. One of the great plectrum banjos in history was made by Vega with the famous tubaphone tone ring. This “flathead” tone ring has a full, rich sound that enhanced the close tuning lower tensioned strings of the plectrum banjos.
In general, flathead tone rings of many designs have been popular for plectrum banjos. Our Sierra banjo, with mahogany neck, and bell bronze tone ring has been one of our best-selling plectrum banjos. The “flat head” tone rings give the widest surface area of banjo head for the deepest sound. While we have made a few Sierra plectrum banjos with tubaphone tone rings, the cast, bell bronze flathead tone ring is more popular. This is partly because the cast bell bronze tone ring has tremendous power and volume but with a “solid” character to the sound; especially when fretted on the frets above number 7. The lighter brass tubaphone tone ring in a banjo is swet, round with a rather light, delicate sound especially when played up the neck. The cast bronze tone ring, which is heavier and denser, sounds more solid above the seventh fret, which is desired by many lead players. Dom Flemmons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops uses a Deering Sierra plectrum banjo.
A mahogany neck and resonator with the bronze tone ring, makes a plectrum with solid power, sweet and warm harmonics and is really fun to play. The tubaphone is beautifully adapted to a maple neck and resonator to “brighten up” the tone and increase the string to string clarity or note distinction.
So, if a player is playing mostly chords with occasional leads the maple banjo with a tubaphone tone is very beautiful and sounds round and full. If a player tends to focus more on playing melodies and individual notes, the mahogany banjo with a bell bronze tone ring, can offer a little more solid brightness on the higher frets to help the melodies “cut through” the other instruments in the band.
For a player who is just getting started and is unsure of which style they are interested in, you can’t go wrong with a mahogany banjo with a bell bronze tone ring in a plectrum banjo. It will give you chord strumming power if you need it, and the soloing power if you need it; and, it is available as a standard model in the Deering Sierra.
For a lower priced plectrum banjo, the Goodtime Special plectrum banjo, with its patent pending steel tone ring, is a great sounding lower priced alternative. The violin maple rim of the Goodtime Special, combined with the heavy steel tone ring, combines for a clear, bright sound, that has a dry, crisp character to the sound.
If back pain, or shoulder, back or hip problems make a heavy instrument too uncomfortable to hold, a Goodtime 2 plectrum, with the head stretched of a violin maple rim, is a sweet, warm sounding plectrum banjo.
If a lighter weight professional banjo is desired, a custom Sierra plectrum with a tube and plate flange and a Hartford tone ring (made of wood) will reduce the weight of the banjo while providing a rich, warm, strong mid range tone that is clear, easy to record and still powerful.
Some banjo makers use necks that are the same width and shape of their five string banjos. This is a mistake as the plectrum neck needs to be a little narrower than a five string. Why? Because plectrum banjos are traditionally played with a flat pick, the closer the strings are together, the less movement is required of the flat pick.
Finger picking requires room between the strings to pluck the strings with individual fingers. But flat picking is faster when the strings are close together. If the single flat pick has to move one and one quarter inches, it will take longer than if the flat pick only has to move one and three sixteenths of an inch. It doesn’t sound like much, but to the flat picker, it is very noticeable.
Deering plectrum necks are adjusted for the flat picking player for the easiest playing and quickest movement of a flat pick.
The name “plectrum” banjo, in fact is based on playing the banjo with a “plectrum” which is what flat picks used to be called. So, to distinguish the “plectrum” banjo from the original banjo, the five string, which was commonly played using fingers of the right hand, it was called a “plectrum” or “flat pick” banjo. (it was never called flat pick banjo, I just mentioned it like a translation of an archaic language.)
The banjo part on the Kingston Trio’s hit song, Tom Dooley, was played by Bob Shane on a plectrum banjo with a flat pick. The plectrum tubaphone, Hartford tone ring Deering Sierra or Goodtime or Goodtime 2 plectrum, makes a great folk music instrument with a warm, sweet sound that blends well with voice, guitar and other instruments popular in folk music.
To sum up, look for a plectrum banjo with a traditional narrow neck and then match the tone to your personal needs and style. If you’re looking at warmer, mellower sound versus, brighter more solid power, it’s probably safest to err on the side of power and brightness. Both can be controlled by the player; but adding them through technique will likely end in a struggle.