There are many different types, sizes, and styles of banjos. For well over a century, the banjo has been a medium for experimentation, innovation, and beautiful art and ornamentation. The breadth of possible tones, sounds, and playing styles can be pretty mind-boggling for the uninitiated, so no doubt, finding just the right banjo can be a long, somewhat confusing process that requires some self-study. There are numerous great resources about the lengthy history of banjos and the development of modern designs, as well as the many great builders and offerings in the industry today. Here at CMB, we aim to help guide and educate customers about the features and design of modern banjos, and in particular, the models and options we offer.
At CMB, we specialize in open-back banjos and banjo ukes. We provide several production models that are highly customizable with options that will suit a wide variety of sonic and aesthetic preferences. Each CMB model line is fundamentally different from the next in terms of building processes, materials, and aesthetic design. In this buying guide we will address some of the considerations of the various features we offer. We hope you will use this guide along with our photos, videos, sound clips, price builder, and other information to hone in on the features you are looking for.
Wood. The traditional modern American banjo-making wood is maple (Acer saccharum, Acer rubrum) because of its availability, strength, tight grain, and workability. Maple has a whitish color that takes stain well, and can be highly figured. Other traditional American banjo woods are black cherry (Prunus serotina), which has a rich reddish-brown color that darkens with age, and black walnut (Juglans nigra), which has a beautiful purplish-brown color and more open grain. The twentieth century has seen the introduction of more exotic woods such as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and rosewood (Dalbergia spp.). Species such as rosewood offer very dense and colorful woods that simply don’t exist in the USA, and have a very noticeable effect on the tone, resonance, and overall look and feel of an instrument. Because of their popularity for instruments and woodworking, many of these exotic species are becoming threatened from overharvesting, with diminishing availability.
Hardware. Our models use top-of-the-line hardware and tuners that are largely manufactured in the USA or Canada. We prefer nickel-plated hardware for its resistance to tarnishing and corrosion, but raw brass hardware is available by special order. Every CMB (except ukes) also comes with a two-way adjustable truss rod in the neck (accessible through the end of the heel), for periodically adjusting neck relief as needed.
Neck scale length. The measurement between the nut and bridge is the scale length. We offer several standard scale lengths:
26 1/8 – the industry standard scale length, and the longest of our standard offerings.
25 ½ – our most popular scale length, suitable for a variety of tunings and string gauges.
24 5/8 – slightly shorter, and plays well in both G and A tuning.
22 ¾ – short A scale, best for players who mostly play out of A or D tuning without a capo, or 19-fret CGDA tenor tuning.
21 1/2 – For 17-fret tenor banjos (tuned GDAE) or travel banjos.
For ukes, we offer 13 1/2″ soprano, 17″ tenor, and 19″ baritone uke scales.
We also offer longneck or shorter travel-size scales by special order.
Neck width. The width of the neck measured across the nut. We offer three standard nut widths for 5-string necks:
1 5/16” – Our most popular neck width, comes standard on all 25 ½” scale necks except the S model.
1 ¼ – Slightly narrower, comes standard on all 24 5/8” and 26 1/8” necks.
1 3/16 – Our narrowest neck width, comes standard with the S model.
Rim size (diameter). We offer several rim sizes depending on the type of sound desired:
8″ — Available for soprano / tenor ukes and banjo mandolin
10” – Available for the J 100, J 200, or baritone uke only. Slightly quieter but balanced tone, well-suited for small ‘travel’ banjos.
11” – The industry standard, best all-around range of sonic possibilities from “warm” to “sparkly”
12” – Deeper “plunkier” tone with more pronounced lows and midrange.
Rim construction. Traditionally, there are two types of banjo rim construction: laminated and block construction. In laminated construction, long pieces of wood are bent around a form and glued together until the needed thickness is achieved. The general consensus is the fewer pieces of wood used, the less glue is needed, and therefore the better the sound. Both our J 200 and Bella Rosa models use 2-ply (two pieces of wood = 1 vertical glue seam) laminated rims that are 9/16” thick. Our Vintage Line and Bungalow model utilize block rim construction, which is made up of staggered segments that are stacked like a brick wall. This results in no vertical glue seams in the wall of the rim. Our J 50 and J 100 are constructed of 10-ply laminated maple ‘thin’ drumshell rims that are very strong yet inexpensive.
Tone rings. There are several types of tone rings that are common in the open-back industry that were developed in different eras throughout the history of the banjo. Each tone ring offers a specific type of tone or voice. For sound samples of our tone ring options please visit our Media page.
Rolled brass – A simple ¼” brass rod sits between the head and the rim. It offers a simple, warm traditional tone. This tone ring is our least expensive, and comes standard on all our models except the Bella Rosa.
Wood – Basically the head sits directly on top of the wood rim, and generally results in a warmer, more traditional tone. Denser species such as rosewood can deliver brighter tones and more projection.
Dobson – A stretched bell-shaped piece of brass that combines the warmth of a rolled brass or wood tone ring with the clarity of a Whyte Laydie.
Bacon – Similar to the Dobson, but with a rolled brass rod underneath.
Whyte Laydie – A classic tone ring for old-time players. A rod and outer sleeve rest on top of a scalloped ring and delivers a bright, clear, crisp tone with shorter sustain.
Tubaphone – A rod and outer sleeve rest on top of a square tube, and delivers a sweet, bell-like tone with longer sustain and good projection up and down the neck. It comes standard on the Bella Rosa model.
Mastertone – This type of tone ring is more common on bluegrass resonator banjos and delivers a bright, crisp tone with strong projection up and down the neck.
Frailing scoop. Most old-time clawhammer players prefer the end of the fingerboard near the neck joint to be scooped out for frailing. Our standard straight scoop is available on any model at no additional charge. The more elegant “S-scoop” offers two additional frets at the first string, and is longer on the thumb or 5th string side. The S scoop comes standard with the Vintage Line 3-grade trim package.
Setup. All CMB’s are set up to a “middle-of-the-road” setting that can accommodate a wide range of playing preferences and adjustability. There are many setup variables that you may want to experiment with to find your optimal sound and comfort, including string type/gauge, bridge type/height, head type/tension, tailpiece, etc. If you have specific setup requirements we can accommodate those too.
For additional information please visit our Maintenance page.
Customizing. Here at CMB, we don’t believe in the “one-size-fits-all” mentality. All of our banjos and models are highly customizable- we can mix/match features and options to get you your dream banjo. We can do custom inlay designs, pegheads and neck sizes, reproductions and re-necks, restorations, and even partially completed components for you to finish. Just give us a call or email to get started on your project.