By Mike Stanger
Copyright 2001

The internet has opened many new avenues for the sale of old instruments. Folks who, in the past, would simply give an old banjo away or try to sell one through a local classified ad in the newspaper, are now trying their luck on ebay and other auction sites. The banjo, though, is an instrument that is mysterious to a lot of non-players, and this article is presented in the hope that some basic information will help you out before you put Granddad's old banjo up for sale.
First, to answer the most asked question... what that old banjo is worth- is: Whatever the market will bear. I watch ebay's banjo sales regularly to see how the banjo sales fluctuate, and observe the factors that bring higher prices for one banjo over another just like it. I've been a dedicated player since 1962, and have worked in the industry off and on for years, so I know a little about them.

If you want to get the best price you can for an old banjo, here are some tips and comments.

1- Do some research on your banjo before you offer it for sale.
The banjo has many variations, and has gone through several booms in popularity over the past 150 years. The 5-string banjo is the most popular and common type these days, as it once was at the turn of the 20th Century, but throughout the 1920's and 30's, most banjos sold were tenor or plectrum 4-string banjos. The banjo ukulele enjoyed an enormous fad for about 5 years in the middle of the tenor's popularity, and many other variants have been made that are seldom seen these days- mandolin banjos, guitar banjos (both 6 and 12 string models), bass banjos, and other odd types have been produced and sold. The 5-string banjo once had an entire family of models, from tiny piccolo 5-stringers to huge concert banjos made for orchestras that were made up of nothing but banjo players! And, during the 1960's, a lot of extra long necks were put on 5-string banjos.

The banjo is a bewildering instrument in it's construction, too. Some have backs on them and some don't. Some are fancy, and others very plain. Some are very lightweight, and others weigh a ton. All these differences mean a lot to banjo players- a tenor player has no interest in an openbacked 5-string, and a lot openback players don't have an interest in a 5-string with a back on it!

In very general terms, the over all quality of a banjo can be determined by these factors:
A prominent name on the peghead or inside the rim.
High grade hardwoods used in the construction. While some of these woods may be plain, like cherry or some mahogany, they are often very figured, and, in the highest grades that were offered by some makers, were obviously choice stock or exotic, like solid ebony, rosewood, European curly maple, claro walnut, and the like. Good quality banjos, whether plain or ornate, all have beautiful fit and finish that looks professional and clean.

-Good quality hardware, usually made from heavy plated brass. Early banjos often have ornamental friction pegs, and later ones employ geared tuning pegs. Brand names of the parts manufacturers are often stamped on the parts (Elton, Grover, Waverly, etc.)

-On banjos made from the 1920's to present, weight is a good indicator of quality. Professional quality banjos will weigh over 10 pounds and may be as much as twenty pounds. (The weight comes from a lot of bronze, brass, and steel). On 19th Century banjos,  the overall weight is generally much lighter, but the good ones often have wood rims that have a metal sheath covering them (this is called a spunover rim). The metal is often ornamentally engraved on the higher grades.

- The good companies' best grades of instruments are almost always ornate to varying degrees. They will have nicely fitting pearl inlays in the fingerboard and peghead (the lower grades may have dots, diamonds, or simpler inlay patterns). Top of the line instruments really show their stuff- they often have extensive inlay, a lot of hand engraving, gold or silver plating, hand carved heels and necks, inset rhinestones around the peghead, carved and painted resonators, custom finishes that are specially shaded, and the like.

-There were several manufacturers who make most of the banjos sold during times of the instrument's popularity. Most of these banjos are lower quality than the professional grade instruments, and have cheaper parts, are less nicely finished, and are lighter weight than more expensive brands. Many of these banjos are good players and may still serve their purpose well, but won't bring the price the more expensive brands will command.

It's impossible for me to go into a lot of detail here, so plan on spending some time looking around on the net. Check out any links you find one a site, and don't be afraid to ask questions! Most banjo players are passionate about their chosen instrument, and will gladly share their knowledge with you. A couple of good places to start learning what you have (other than this site, and Michael has done a great job- look at everything here), and BanjoL and the newsgroups alt.banjo and alt.banjoclawhammer.

Some vintage instrument dealers also have excellent information available. A few are: Mandolin Brothers, Gruhn Guitars, Elderly Instruments, Bernunzio  Vintage Instruments, and  Greg Boyd's House of Fine Instruments. Look around before asking questions, as these are all commercial sites, and for them, time is money. Some of these sites offer appraisals, but be prepared to pay for one.

2- Know the correct terms of what you are describing.
Enclosed with this article is a picture of a 5-string banjo with the terms most players use to describe the various parts that make up the instrument. Really a lot of folks who offer their instrument on ebay don't know these terms, and miss out on possible sales because they aren't describing their banjo properly. Remember that other banjos are for sale, too, and you have just a minute to present yours. If a potential buyer has to figure out what you are trying to sell him, he will most likely just move on.

You stand a better chance of making more money if you use the correct term to catch the eye of a potential buyer who's browsing. While some of  terms may vary, if you use these terms, banjo players will know what you're talking about, and you will be able to answer any questions accurately. If you don't know what something is called, ask around until you find the correct term. Descriptions are very important, because many potential buyers won't take the time for photos to load before they move on to someone else's banjo.

3- Learn something about the banjo you want to sell.
Like any other product, there are very good old banjos and very bad old banjos, like I mentioned earlier. If you come by your banjo through your family, an estate or yard sale, or wherever you picked it up, take some time to get a good idea beforehand of what it is.  If you know what it is, learning what it's worth is a lot easier to accomplish. If (this is about like getting hit by lightning) you paid $10 for a banjo that is worth $1000, don't get greedy- that $990 is the easiest money the banjo will ever bring. Don't try to inflate the price of a good banjo, either. Keeping a watch on ebay for a while before you offer yours for sale will give you a good estimation of what the market is at the moment, and it's up to you to catch it on an upswing if you want to get the absolute top dollar available at the time. Knowledgeable players will NOT pay more than the going price for a banjo, and if you know you should expect to make $1000, for example, don't try to get $1500 for it. Odds are, it will go unsold if you do, and few banjos do better the second time around on ebay as they do the first. if you really want to sell, set a reserve price that is on the low end of what you want to get, not the top end.  Conversely, if you learn your old banjo isn't worth much, don't expect a lot for it.

During the heyday of the tenor banjo, some top professional models sold new for up to $2,500 at a time when a Chevrolet could be purchased for $500! On the other hand, these banjos are very few and far between. If you are attempting to sell a banjo that has come down through your family, use a little common sense before thinking that you have the holy grail. If Granddad was a mechanic who liked to pick a tune once in a while but had a hard time feeding the family, the odds of his ability to buy an expensive banjo are pretty great- his first concerns would have been the same as they would be now- feeding his family and keeping a roof over their heads. Banjos were only bought when there was a little money left over. Most banjos were inexpensive back when they were new, and went into the hands of amateur players, and a lot of them were (to put it plainly) , were not much more than junk. Old junk is still junk- don't think that age alone will add substantially to the value of your banjo.

On the other hand, if Granddad owned an oil company, he could afford the best and usually went for it. If you are fortunate enough to come from one of those families, really take your time and get to know the banjo's worth beforehand. You may find that you will get a better guaranteed price for the banjo if you sell it to a reputable vintage dealer than offering it on ebay.

As in cars, the brands of banjos go from very cheap (like a Yugo) to astronomical (like a Rolls Royce). Unlike car makers, though, even the companies who made very expensive banjos usually had several models that were the bottom of their line, especially during the 1930's, when all the instrument makers were scratching to stay alive. Gibson, as an example, offered banjos from $35 to over $500. Bacon and Day, the makers of the $2,500 banjo I mentioned above, started their line at about $50. It really pays to know what model you have! There are many more inexpensive banjos out there than costly ones, and the manufacturers of cheap banjos made many more of them.... the really expensive ones always show a huge degree of intensive hand work.

Homemade instruments aren't considered generally to have much value, and banjos that have been "customized" by their owners with home done finishes, parts, attachments, etc. are usually worth less than the ones that are in stock condition. The banjo market is strongest in the known manufacturer's models, and  the "no-names" aren't worth as much as those that have a name on them.

There are a lot of banjos around these days that have been imported from the Orient. Some of these are very good quality, and others are intended to be sold as inexpensive beginner's instruments. Whether good or bad, the banjo buying public tends to want U.S. made products more than imports, so plan on discounting your Japanese or Korean banjo some. Again, it really helps if you do your homework beforehand; a great place to see if you have an imported banjo is the list of imports right here on Michael Hofer's website.

4- Make a good presentation of your banjo.
If you have an old car you want to sell, you give it a wash, right? And you wouldn't try to sell an old car with three flat tires, would you? And, if you were going to put an ad for your car in the newspaper, you would want your photo of it to be crisp and clear. The same things hold true with your old banjo. A good sale depends on good photos, good descriptions, and making what you have to sell as attractive as possible, and knowing something about what you are selling. Here are a few very common statements I see all the time on ebay and my responses to them.

"I don't know anything about banjos, so I haven't cleaned it in any way."

Grunge and dirt are not big selling points! It will help your sale if you clean the wood on the banjo with a slightly dampened soft rag, followed by a little good furniture polish, like Pledge, to put a soft shine back on. Clean the metal parts with another damp rag, and polish them with a soft buffing cloth. Vacuum out the inside of the case, if it has one. Banjos with backs (the backs are called resonators) are designed so the resonator can be easily removed. Take the resonator off and wipe down the inside of the rim and resonator with a dry cloth. Make sure to look for identifying marks on the inside, too- often the serial number, model, and often the maker's stamps will be found there. Clean the fingerboard with a little lemon oil, and try to lightly scrape off the grunge that builds up around the frets with a scrap of soft wood or a plastic picnic knife. If the banjo looks pretty and clean to you, it will be attractive to a buyer, too. Simple cleaning will add value to your banjo, not take it away.

"It's only missing two strings, and the other two seem to be just fine. But it's missing the bridge, and is missing a tuner."

Even if you don't know how to tune the banjo, buy a new set of strings and put them on. They just need to be tight enough to show the banjo off. If you don't know how to do this, take the banjo to a music store or a repair shop and have them do it. Old strings are like old motor oil ... the first thing a buyer will do is change them, even if they are new- most players change strings all the time, and the old ones have no value whatsoever. Representing the banjo with a complete string set on it shows a prospective buyer that the tuning pegs are working, that the tailpiece works, and that the bridge is doing it's job, too. Strings are cheap; most sets cost way less than $10.

A missing bridge needs to be replaced, even if it's not stock. The banjo can't be played without one, and they are cheap, too. A bridge will cost about $3.

Missing tuning pegs are your call. Some old tuners were very inexpensive, and others were very expensive. If your banjo is missing one tuning peg, you may not want to spend the money to try and replace it. Depending on the age of the banjo, some replacements for the old tuners are going to be nearly impossible to find. (Paige geared tuners are an example.) If you have a good quality U.S. made banjo, investing in a new set of tuners may be justified, but if you are in doubt, pass up the expense. Don't expect to get as much for your banjo, though, if it is not fully functional.

Tuning pegs fall into two types- friction pegs, which work by holding through friction with the holes in the peghead, and geared pegs, which have some internal gears to make tuning smoother. the gears also keep the pegs from slipping out of tune.

Wooden friction pegs, similar to those used on violins, are the earliest type. They were commonly used on banjos dating from 1840 to about 1880. If your banjo has those, you may be able to replace missing pegs with new violin pegs that are adapted to fit the holes in the peghead.

Around the turn of the 20th century, friction pegs with metal shafts and separate buttons were put into wide use. If your banjo still has a shaft that is intact but is missing a button, replacement buttons are easily available. It is best to buy an entire set of buttons for the shafts and include the old ones in the sale. Entire sets of metal shafted friction pegs are still being produced, and most of the new ones will fit old banjos. A set of good friction pegs will cost about $20.

Some old banjos came with fancy carved friction pegs that look like they were made of ivory. While  very few were actually hand carved ivory, most , especially the ones that look like Maltese crosses, are made from ivoroid, an early plastic. The cross-shaped pegs, and some other fancy ones, are  very hard to find these days. Decide for yourself as to whether or not you want to replace the whole set with more available pegs... I would, and I'd include the originals in the sale. You need to show the banjo with all strings on if possible.

Geared tuners, (you can distinguish a geared peg by the housing at the base of the peg, where it meets the back of the peghead. The gear housing will look like a pill or a bump). Elton, Planetary, Paige, 5-Star, and Grover are the most common old brands. Newer pegs may be made by Waverly, 5-Star, Gotoh, and Schaller. If your banjo was made in the 1920's or after and has geared pegs, you may want to talk it over with a good repairman before replacing the missing peg; some newer tuners may require moderate modification to old banjos. I would not recommend replacing a set of friction pegs with a set of geared tuners. A set of geared tuners will cost about $45 up. The highest quality gold-plated engraved tuners on the market right now cost almost $250! (whew!)

"There are a couple of the things that hold the hooks on missing, but they should be easy to replace. Some of the hooks are gone, too."

Those "things" are called shoes. And they are some the most difficult replacement parts of all to find, depending on your particular banjo. The especially hard ones to find are the ones that are unusual, like the federal-shield shaped shoes I've seen. Other really rare shoes look like little eagles! Some shoes, like the octagonal ones or the L-shaped shoes with a point on top, are still available. It's possible that the missing shoe may be in the case or inside the resonator, and  the bolt that holds the shoe to the rim is all that is needed. If this is so, a trip to a hardware store may provide a bolt that works, but be sure to mention it in your description, as most banjo parts are nickel plated. If you can match the missing parts, do so. If you can't, just show it like it is. don't assume that these parts can be found, though, or that the banjo can be restored easily... don't ever make a claim that you are not completely sure of.

It really depends on you; if you take the time to replace and repair carefully, with correct parts installed correctly, it will generally mean more dollars  back to you at the time of sale, but only if the replacement parts are correct or very close to it. If you do this, adding the cost of the new replacements to your reserve is acceptable, and it is best to pay a good repairman to do the job if you aren't completely confident of your abilities. Accuracy and authenticity are the key words here, and a clean installation is paramount.

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