HOW TO SELL A BANJO
A NON-PLAYER'S GUIDE
TO SELLING GRANDDAD'S OLD BANJO
By Mike Stanger
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
-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
Some vintage instrument dealers also have excellent information available.
A few are: Mandolin Brothers,
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
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
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
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.,p>
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
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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