by David Politzer
The banjo clearly has many features in common with other stringed instruments. It certainly has plenty of unique features, beloved of players and luthiers, alike. And the physics of much of this is well-understood. This would be the content of "Banjo Physics 101." E.g., what determines the pitch of a plucked string? If you're curious about that, you'll have to look elsewhere. What I hope to do here is report on my research efforts to explore issues of banjo acoustics, banjo construction, banjo mechanics, and banjo science more generally, addressing things I don't understand but believe I could. Why does a banjo sound different from a guitar? Or, even more to the point, why does one banjo sound different from another?
There are always some projects in the works. So, if you find anything here of interest, you might want to check back to see what's new since.
In a change of pace, the AUGUST 2018 entry is just a bit of banjo history.
Here is something S.S. Stewart wrote about professional acousticians of musical instruments. It's as true and relevant today as it was then and may well be the most credible thing on this page.
...and from the back cover of Pete Seeger's banjo instruction treasure: ".........can I read notes? Hell, there are no notes to a banjo. You just play it." -- Reply made by an old-time banjo picker, interviewed around 1850, and asked if he could read music.
You could well argue there are no equations either. On the other hand, I can play banjo in my office; when someone walks by, I just say, "I'm working."
I negotiated identical CNC neck milling of four different kinds of wood. I mounted them on the same pot, with the same set-up, and recorded the sound. The sounds of played music selections and single plucks are in Four Banjo Necks and One Pot. There are also graphs of a variety of computer analyses of the pluck sounds. The write-up contains no physics because it's just too complicated. Everyone will have their own opinions and conclusions -- to which they are entitled.
The music files include ones labeled by wood type and others that are unlabeled. That offers opportunities to test whether you can hear differences and whether you can distinguish which is which.
In Comments on Banjo Head Tapping, Tuning, and Tension, I expand on the investigation and description of head taps given in the appendix of The Pickers' Guide... (April 2021). It's all about whispering gallery modes. I find the comparison of measurements and theory quite convincing. There are lots of graphs and figures but no differential equations in the text. It won't make anyone a better picker or head tuner, although there is some comfort offered for folks who just can't do it.
The Pickers' Guide... is a far shorter and less technical description of the basic measurements and physics.
A simple demonstration is presented in High Frequency Formants from Banjo Bridge Design. Eight bridges of the same height, weight, and wood species but very different design (and grain) are contrasted. Each produces its own characteristic regions of stronger and weaker coupling of the strings to the head (and, therefore, to the sound). Because the interaction of bridge flexing with the head is crucial above 2000 Hz, a given bridge will sound different on different heads (and banjos) -- all in accord with players' common experience.
An Elementary Account of Plucked String Clonk gives an instructive example from elementary linear differential equations that illuminates how the sudden onset of a string pluck produces all manner of sounds that come from banging on the instrument body and are only remotely related to the pitch of the string. These play a very important role in banjo sound because they are loud and persist for much of the time between notes.
Below are single note sample synthesis versions of a very short phrase. In one case, the single notes are the sound of a plucked string with all other strings damped. The other case is constructed from single note samples where all strings are left free to vibrate:
damped string synthesis
open string synthesis
They're funky and not identical but both distinctly banjo-like, with neither particularly more so.
The details are discussed in the linked write-up, including demonstrations and explanations of when sympathetic vibrations are most dramatic and why they're such minor effects in normal playing.
One banjo, two tunes, two set-ups -- If you can't hear the difference, then what follows is a waste of time (although you might first consider turning up the volume, connecting slightly better speakers, or putting in your hearing aids):
A.mp3 , B.mp3 , C.mp3 , D.mp3 .
Banjo Ring from Stretching String: A Zero Break Angle Demo compares the sound of zero break angle to 13 degrees. This provides further evidence for the idea, presented in APRIL 2014, below, that break angle provides the ring of the banjo -- or at least a lot of it. Listen for yourself -- and maybe read. (This is a revised manuscript, dated 3/7/20, which includes mention of the Karplus-Strong algorithm for plucked-string sound synthesis.)
Extra Extra Light Steel Strings on Old Banjos was prompted by the concern that the higher tension of steel strings can damage vintage instruments that were designed for gut and silk strings. Perhaps the most useful part of the note are the links to sound files (on p. 3) that compare commonly available nylon strings, steel strings so thin that they have about the same tension, yet thinner nylon strings, and slightly heavier ("extra light") steel strings. The text discusses how to estimate tensions but offers no assurances regarding the safety of your old banjo.
A Banjo Pickup Alternative AND Trying to Understand Pickup Feedback and Tone -- a fool's errand offers a $30 to $50 pickup that might be good enough: a suitably mounted guitar rare earth soundhole pickup.
Open the text, and you'll find links to sound samples of the popular Fishman banjo pickup and a dirt cheap piezo disk pickup as well as the suggested sound hole pickup. An effort is made to quantify the degree of feedback. The sound hole pickup does about as well as the Fishman, at least in terms of feedback. (The $200 Fishman includes some serious multichannel equalization.)
The Original Internal Resonator Banjo: the Dobson Great Echo makes the case that the original internal resonator banjo was not Fred Bacon's ff Professional (1906 patent) but actually C. E. Dobson's Great Echo, patented in 1888. It's likely that thousands of Great Echoes were produced in the ensuing twenty years. Surviving examples are rare but not unheard of. The write-up is about history and not physics. (There are no formulas.) And it includes a couple of sound samples.
I tried to find measurements to substantiate my suggestions of how to understand how the air inside the pot impacts the produced sound. It didn't work out the way I had hoped, but lots happened along the way.
Banjo Drum Physics -- sound experiments and simple acoustics demos describes some of that. It's long but has attemps at explanations rather than any equations.
Here is a sound sample of sound sample of the extreme versions of the banjos used, i.e., 2" and 5 5/8" rims with tensions 85 and 91 on a DrumDial.
And here is the sound of taps across the center of a head, from one side to the other, which is related to why the center of the head is not an ideal place for the bridge.
Whither Tone Ring Ring? presents a simple picture and simple substantiating measurements of how the tap sounds of tone ring and wood rim separately determine the sound of their combined system.
Here is a sound sample of tone ring, wood rim, and combined system -- one tap each (Listen to the end!)
Resonator-Resonator Banjo is subtitled: an adventure in amateur lutherie and a lesson in musical acoustics. I put an internal resonator into a resonator banjo just to hear what it would sound like. You can, too. Read (4 pages, pictures, no equations) or just listen:
the original banjo
with the internal resonator installed
and the latter with a much lighter bridge.
Banjo Drum Physics -- theoretical preliminaries is 30-plus pages thick with differential equations, Fourier series, and complex numbers (but no sound files). It is, of course, aimed at helping understand how banjos work. In particular, it presents the simplest way I could figure out to do the physics of the effect of the air inside the pot on the produced sound -- via its interaction with the head.
The goal is to gain some overall perspective. Correct, formal solutions of the equations have been known for over a hundred years, but to figure out what they're telling me, particularly as relates to the banjo, required a simpler approach than any I'd found in the literature.
DYI Mylar Flange for a More Mellow Banjo Head describes how you can cut a second mylar head and install it under your regular head to reduce some of the sharpest "ping" sounds --- fast, inexpensive, and totally reversible.
Here are the sounds of head taps before and after. For links to actual plucked strings (and instructions), click here for the write-up.
A Hoseus Banjo Restoration describes some simple, amateur efforts to bring a bottom-of-the-line 19th Century banjo back to life. It features an 1886 patented head support system that never really caught on. There's no physics, just banjo tomfoolery.
The accompanying sound files (also linked in the pdf) are: ("steel" refers to steel strings and a 2 oz. bridge; "fish" refers to fishing line strings and a 1 oz. bridge)
Banjo Rim Height and Sound in the Pot is a follow-up to the first endeavor in this banjo physics series. (See DECEMBER 2013, below.) That study focused on the two lowest frequency modes. The totally new material here is an iquiry into the effect of rim height on the whole spectrum. Measurements on the three different height rims bear out the standard calculation of sound resonances inside cylindrical containers. While this might not sound too impressive, just looking at the results tells you something very significant about the role of rim height in the transformation of string pluck to radiated sound. For the acousticians of musical instruments, a careful repeat of the 2013 measurements establishes a stark contrast between the banjo and the guitar (an other wood-topped instruments) regarding the Helmholtz resonance.
(That's an 8 MB file. If you're going to print it out on a B-and-W printer, here is a 6 MB version, already in grey-scale.)
Three sound files are linked in the write-up but are also available here:
frailed sample A
frailed sample B
Note added 4/21/18 -- a precusor!: Nearly 20 years before Bacon, C. Edgar Dobson started selling his "Great Echo Banjo." At the bottom of its brass rim, it bent inward and upward, coming to within about a 1/2" of the under side of the head. That formed an 1" wide annulus, i.e., an internal resonator. (Patent linked here.) The basic physics and consequent sound are the same as described here. (I've got my eye out for one; they're rare.)
(8/2/16: The discussion of FIG. 14 misidentifies which pot is which. If you're serious, you can get it right; you've just got to picture the actual pot geometries. Why didn't I fix it? This same manuscript is in two other "permanent" archives. It's hard to say whether it's worth messing with them.)
Air modes of the Bacon internal resonator banjo is a terser, more "professional" write up of the same investigation (14 pages of text versus 22 -- but you'd miss some great photos). It was summarily rejected by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Apparently, "the conclusions are very weak and simple." It was faulted for not explicitly referencing relevant previous work. However, the only relevant previous work is over 150 years old and a standard part of the sophomore physics curriculum where I work. There also is no section titled "Methods," as well as other violations of the Scientific Method as articulated by Francis Bacon (perhaps no relation) in the 16th Century and taught to STEM junior high students everywhere.
There are sound files linked in the write-up, but I include the first one here as a teaser. What you hear are the taps of a piano hammer on four Deering Goodtime pots, tapping from center to rim. The pots, in order, are 1) an old wood rim, 2) an old wood rim fitted with a 1/4" diameter brass ring, 3) a new wood rim, and 4) a new wood rim fitted with a Bacon tone ring.
I found the differences to be noteworthy and something of a challenge to explain. The write-up is long but has no equations. It also has no triumphal confirmation of theory by experiment, but I believe that the suggested perspectives are enlightening in this context and more broadly.
Banjo Bridge Wood Comparisons compares bridges made of different kinds of wood. (!) Together with luthier/designer Ken LeVan, we compared bridges of the same design and weight but very different species, i.e., bamboo versus mahogany and spruce versus walnut. As judged by spectral analysis, the differences were discernable but very slight.
You can listen to sound files of actual playing with those bridges on the same banjo here, in this directory. The bridges are identified there only by number. You can and should do a "blind" listening test and only consult the Banjo Bridge Wood Comparisons manuscript key (at the end of the paper) after forming your own opinions.
Design and weight certainly impact the sound. However, by matching bridges as we did, there's not much left to make a difference. The speeds of sound through the bridges may be different but are too high to matter acoustically. And the differences in hardness, which would impact flexibility, are largely compensated by the matching of weight. (I.e., the softer woods are less dense; so to make up the weight, there's more of it [in the "thickness" dimension].)
I came across a very relevant tidbit from Jim Rae. (See p. 5.) He writes, "At least 99% of a banjo's sound power occurs below 5000 Hz,..." Jim has done extensive measurements on resonator banjos, some in collaboration with Tom Rossing (e.g., see The Science of String Instruments) and some as consultant to Steve Huber in the development of the Huber "Truetone" rim and ring. That's why I initially only looked below 5000 Hz. Noting the measurements presented in FIG.s 2 and 3 in part 2:... (above), that's why overall loudness is hardly effected by the resonator but the resonator is a significant factor in tone determined by yet higher frequencies.
The accompanying Resonator Banjo sound file is here, as well as being linked within the article.
Also, this article is heavy on the physics (albeit fairly elementary) and very light on the music.
A couple of years ago, Jim made a wonderful documentary, The Librarian and the Banjo about a very important book, Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, and its amazing author, Dena Epstein. It is a major, pioneering piece of historical scholarship about an era and subjects previously largely ignored. Banjo history is really just only one small part of that story.
mute sound file
Simple Anti-Tone Rings for the Banjo: Do-it-yourself Electric, Surgical, and McGhee tone rings that can be easily and inexpensively installed to make modern banjos sound old.
This was my first Banjo Physics project, written up in December 2013: The Open Back of the Open-Back Banjo. There are four essential, accompanying sound files which you'll need to follow along with the manuscript. (You might want to save them on the side, to listen as you read.) They are:
head taps, while opening up
the sound of Banjo A
the sound of Banjo B
the sound of Banjo C
glass banjo by M. Desy; soft banjo by Sally Suzuki