Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo


I'm very new to this minstrel banjo business. So new, in fact, that I don't even have a banjo (yet). After buying a few classic banjo instructors and listening to a lot of music of the era, I'm getting sucked in inexorably.

One topic I see recurring is the synthetic vs hide head debate. I have to admit a synthetic sounds tempting for a newcomer like myself. I don't relish fooling around with a slack head while learning to claw diddies. But since I don't have any experience with said hide head, can someone tell me just what the difference is between the synthetic and hide head. Is it a HUGE difference in sound, hassle or maintenance? Or is having a hide head more an issue of authenticity?

Thank you!

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Hi Ed

I'm a banjo maker. 99% of my banjos are minstrel style. I've never had anyone request a plastic head. I have a fretted banjo I made and I'm now in the process of putting a plastic head on it. It's steel strung, and using different tuning makes the bridge shift because of the pressure on the bridge from the steel strings. The bridge rocks like a boat and I'm tired of it. That banjo sounds great with a goatskin but I have to go plastic. When you first feel or play a minstrel banjo you'll be amazed at the LOW string tension, and you'll wonder how a banjo so lightweight with wiggly strings can be so loud. And a big part of the sound is a real skin. Sometimes I hate em, but not often. Maybe once a year the weather ruins a performance for me, but I make do, sometimes slipping an extra tall bridge in place of my normal bridge. The rule is that if it's too hot and humid for you, it's the same for the banjo too. The banjo goes where you go. Also, there are many ways to treat a skin to repel a LOT of the moisture. Cheap ways that work. Tim Twiss has a video on here and he's playing on a rainy rotten day with a plastic head. Me with my goat would have had to sit out. But I will never go plastic. I love the skin sound, the feel, the look, the conversation it stirs up, as a maker I LOVE working with skins and all the stretching and cutting that goes with it.

Actually, real skins aren't that bothersome if you treat them. You can use Mink Oil or Deck Waterproofing to get INTO the skin, or shellac or a clear latex sealer, or even egg whites and milk as in milk paint to get ONTO the skin.  My favorite is the Mink Oil. I think it does both. I think it helps the skin to not dry out and keeps the moisture out too.

Another factor is the skin thickness. The thin skins sound best, AND dry out faster....

A thin skin may take on moisture over 30 minutes, so if you move to a drier spot the head comes back to life in 30 minutes. In the same environment, a thicker skin will not take on the humidity as fast, but once it is in the skin, it may take til the next day to dry out.

These were in extreme weather conditions that I had to learn these hard facts.

In the end, my recommendation for anyone, new or experienced at banjo is to get a THIN skin, treat it, and get on with it. It's not that big of a problem.

I agree with you Daniel.  I was involved with re-enactments a long time ago, but I've been doing living history presentations for the last 12 or 13 years.  I only use natural materials because they feel and sound better to me than anything else.  I get the loudest, snappiest sound out of goatskin and the tubbiest sound out of calfskin, the thicker the tubbier.  In really humid weather your best bet is a thick calfskin head, but I prefer thin goatskin for volume and overall performance.  I also prefer gut strings with a wound classical guitar D string.

Also if you are handy it's possible to purchase an 1860's  or 1870's "store tub" fretless banjo in need of some rehab for a very reasonable price ($400.00 to $800.00).  Or, if you're  lucky, an early manufactured banjo may need little, if any, work.  These banjos can sound every bit as good as a reproduction.  The reason I go for store tubs is that I love to tinker, I hate to see a perfectly good instrument spending all it's time hanging on a wall, and I'm always curious to see what these early instruments actually sound like.  Some are perfectly adequate, some are quite good, and some are excellent.  All sound and play as close as you can get to how they played and sounded 140 or 150 years ago. Of course pre-war banjos and those made by makers highly sought after by collectors exceed most people's budgetary constraints, but there are still a lot of really good early fretless banjos available.  

Thanks a load for the responses, everyone. It sounds like skin heads aren't a drastic problem, only a minor inconvenience once and a while. And since I do not plan on performing on a regular basis anytime soon, the inconvenience likely won't affect me.


This is a strange question, but has anyone ever heard of a person being allergic to their hide heads? I have some animal allergies, but I'm guessing that treating them will alleviate any problems. Just curious if anyone has run into this. Thanks!

Might get anthrax if you lick 'em!

I am interested in fretless banjos of the 19th C. as ewell as more recent fretted instruments. For authenticity I use hide heads on my older and have a plastic head on my newest one (circa 1950). I rather enjoy the changes and adjustments which are necessary on hide heads as with weather changes. I certainly enjoy and prefer hide heads for their tonal characteristics. To me they seem less agressive in nature, mellower, and "sweeter" if I can use a yukky word. There is a marked difference tonally between skin and plastic and personally I prefer skin... but I don't need the loudness sand aggressive tone  more common to plastic because I don't perform publicly.


Regarding alergies:... My wife tells me "Your playing makes me sick!".


I think you are in for some good times.

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