About six months ago, we shipped a new, Tenbrooks Legacy banjo to a store and I recently received a call from the customer who ordered it, where he proceeded to tell me how he loved his banjo. What stood out in the conversation was when he said, “I can play faster on this banjo than any of my other banjos.”
While I have heard this comment over the many years since the introduction of the Tenbrooks banjos, I haven’t ever written about why this happens with so many players.
Speed is generally enhanced by two factors: responsiveness to the picking fingers and the lightest touch possible when fretting.
The Tenbrooks Pot Assembly
The violin maple used for the rim of the Tenbrooks banjos is one of the most perfectly balanced and responsive tone woods in the world. This is why it has been one of the most popular woods used to make violins.
The tone ring is meticulously fitted to the rim to transmit the vibrations clearly and without stifling any of the harmonics that make a banjo sound full and musical.
The one piece flange on a traditional banjo fits the rim like a large diameter wedding ring fits on a finger. This naturally constricts the rim’s freedom to vibrate to a small extent.
The Tenbrooks banjos works differently. It utilizes a unique fit of the resonator flange to the rim. This reduces the contact with the rim and therefore allows the wood rim to vibrate more freely. This is one of the significant differences between the Tenbrooks banjos and all other banjos.
The rim that is the most free to vibrate is the rim that responds the easiest.
The Neck and the Frets
The shape of the neck is important for comfort of playing. The neck that fits the player allows the fretting fingers to reach across the strings comfortably. Comfort generally makes repeated motions easier and faster. However, the height of the frets can dramatically affect the speed of play on a banjo.
When a fret is very tall, the player only has to push the string to the upper back edge of the fret - and no further.
Many old banjos from the turn of the century had nice neck shapes but they mostly used skinny, shallow frets, which meant the fingers pushed harder to hold the strings down because the fingerboard surface literally got in the way.
The Tenbrooks banjos have tall frets that require the lightest touch possible to make a clear note. So, mechanically, the player doesn’t have to push the strings as far or hold them as hard.
This ability to “hop” from fret to fret, without having to “stop” and “push down hard” on the strings, enables greater speed with the fretting hand. I can juggle three basketballs much faster and easier than three bowling balls because there is less “effort” or “muscle action” needed to move the lighter weight objects.
It’s the same with lifting your fingers up off the strings and moving them to the next string and fret; if there is less muscle action needed, you can move faster.
The Inter-Limb Connection
Because human beings have two arms and two hands, and those appendages are part of the same person, what happens to one hand affects the other.
So, when the Tenbrooks banjo player’s picking hand doesn’t have to work as hard to pick a note, the fretting hand responds by being more relaxed. When the Tenbrooks banjo player’s fretting hand doesn’t have to grip so hard to hold the strings down, the picking hand also responds by being more relaxed.
The combination of two relaxed arms and hands means both hands are moving with less “effort”. (In this example, the use of the word “effort” is a description of moving the hands and arms with more muscle action than is needed. It’s like tightening the muscles in your legs like you are lifting something and then trying to run fast with that same clenching, pushing muscle action…the un-wanted muscle action hinders your legs from moving quickly.)
Muscle action is not the same as muscle tension. Well trained “muscle action” feels effortless. Muscle tension is more like “unwanted” or “inappropriately timed” muscle action. (Like trying to run with your leg muscles tightly clenched.) Physical therapists understand this phenomenon and must be aware of the effect when helping patients with hand issues.
The Tenbrooks Banjos are FAST
While speed and dexterity are more a matter of training and skill, there is no doubt that “better” banjos can be played faster because they are more responsive and easier to fret.
The Tenbrooks banjo that our customer was so happy with is probably the epitome of a “fast banjo”.
With a rim that is likely the most dynamically responsive in the world today and a comfortable neck with tall frets that require the absolute minimum touch to make a clear note when moving really fast, it is no mystery why virtually every Tenbrooks banjo owner comments, “I can play this banjo faster than any other banjo!”