I had some time to do an experiment over the recent break that I’ve been itching to try. I’ve noticed a very different sound coming out of the back end of open-back banjos when they are played. It sounds louder, but also of a different character. Not better, not worse, but different. What would happen if I made a banjo with the head on the other side so that the listener and not the players bellybutton could be the recipient of that sound? I took up the experiment with my Denuo banjo, not really being sure if it would work without permanent modifications, which I did not want to make. Flipping the neck around on the pot was pretty easy and it fit without issues other than the fretboard being an inch higher than the pot, which I would just have to deal with. There were a few other challenges to overcome, however. The obvious one was a VERY tall bridge. It ended up at 4″ tall. Then I needed an alternate way to connect the tailpiece without new holes drilled. I managed to make a little bronze adapter piece that screwed on with one of the resonator brackets. It then technically played, but was difficult without a head to rest my finger on. So I made a fingerboard, archtop guitar style, and made it pressure fit to the rim. This was easier to play, but the remaining problem was that the head was held against my body while playing, which dampened it. So the only thing left after that was to see if I could connect the resonator to it. In order to do so I needed to put some extra spacers in the adjustment brackets and a longer screw so that there would be adequate space between the head and the resonator.
But it worked! And even though it is almost exactly the same banjo components as before, it has a completely different sound – much more guitar-like. This could be a good or a bad thing depending on your taste. The sustain is incredible and lends itself more to chords or slower playing, as the individual notes of bluegrass picking can get quite muddled in all of that sound reverberating. But I actually really like it.
Does it have a future? I can’t see it taking the place of the traditional banjo sound, so likely it will remain a fun experiment. But who knows who out there will find it to be just what they were looking for?
Here’s a sound file that somewhat captures the tone it has. (It’s me playing with my very limited abilities, so listen to the tone, not the playing ability!)