What is an “A Scale” or “C Scale” banjo????

I hear this question quite often. The answer requires knowledge of the definition of “scale length” of a banjo (or any other stringed instrument). The scale length is simply how much distance is required to play an ordinary 8-note scale. In practice, this is the distance from the nut to the 12th fret - the octave - times two.  For example, if the measurement of the distance from the nut to the 12th fret of your instrument is 13 1/8”, the scale length is 26 ¼”. Twenty-six and one fourth inches (plus or minus 1/8”) is a fairly common scale length for many modern banjos. Very old minstrel banjos tended to be longer, maybe 28” or so and some banjos from the late 19th and early 20th centuries tended to be shorter, generally on the order of 25 to 25 ¾”. There is no standard so each maker is free to make the scale length whatever they like.

Most players these days use the open G tuning (gDGBD) at least part of the time. Some go so far as to call this the “Standard Tuning” although there is nothing “standard” in banjo playing or making, including the terminology. For purposes of this discussion, let’s just call gDGBD the “reference” tuning.

Indeed, "A Scale" and "C Scale" are terms that depend on the assumption that open G (gDGBD) is the reference point. OK, then, an A Scale banjo is one that plays an open A chord when tuned with the same intervals as open G. This is exactly the same as putting a capo on the second fret of a regular banjo. The stings are tuned to aEACE

Similarly, a C Scale banjo will play an open C chord when tuned in the same intervals as the G scale banjo. It is equivalent to a regular banjo capoed at the 5th fret. The strings are tuned to cGCEG.

OK, here is a photo of a typical “G Scale” or standard or reference or regular banjo:

And a photo of my homemade A Scale banjo with 10.5" head, ~24" scale length:

Here is the Saga “Travel Banjo” or "Pony Banjo" which is sometimes called a C Scale banjo.

The old banjeaurines made by S.S. Stewart, Lyon & Healy and other makers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were “C Scale” banjos although that terminology, to my knowledge, was not used at the time.  This particular one is a Lyon & Healy:

Now, I took all four photos and resized them such that 1 foot = 1 foot in all of them.  Then they are aligned with the bridge along the same vertical yellow line, thusly:

OK, observe how the pale green line drawn from the 2nd fret of the "G scale" banjo (top) crosses the nut of my A scale banjo.  Note, too, that the purple line drawn from the 5th fret of the G Scale banjo crosses the nut of the C Scale banjo.  The banjeaurine at the bottom is even a little shorter.  They were made to play a fifth above the regular banjos in banjo orchestras that enjoyed a brief popularity around the turn of the century.

Why, you ask, would one want an A scale banjo?  Mostly so that it is easier to play with fiddlers who play quite a few tunes in the keys of A and D.  I enjoy playing mine because of the shorter reach needed, which is good for someone developing arthritis in my left hand.

End of story.  I trust this all makes sense to you now.


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