Part Two


By Mike Stanger
Copyright 2001

Hooks may be as difficult, or impossible, to replace as the shoes, depending on the age of the banjo. The earliest makers generally made all their own hardware (1840-1888), but by the turn of the century, most makers bought hooks from outside manufacturers as they became available. Replacement hooks for most banjos made in the 20th century are still widely available, as are most of the commonly used nuts that tighten the hooks. Some nut designs are not, though, so you may have to settle for as close a lookalike as possible. A new hook will cost 50 cents, and a fancy nut will cost about a dollar. Gold plating adds about two to three times to the cost.

"The old hide head is dirty with wear marks, and there's a little tear on one side. Still sounds, though."

All banjos came with skin heads (usually calfskin) on them until the late 1950's, when the Remo Weatherking plastic banjo head was invented. Remo only makes heads for drums and banjos, by the way. They have never made banjos! (The same thing is true for Rogers, another head maker. Old Rogers 3-star skin heads were used by almost everybody before the advent of plastic heads.) If your banjo's head has a split or tear in it, it may be capable of producing sound, but not for long! The tear will spread as soon as the strings are tuned to pitch. If the tear is large, the banjo wont make any sound at all. A banjo without a head is not a banjo- it's banjo parts!
The head needs to be intact to make a good sale. Plastic heads are the norm these days. Most players prefer them to skin heads, because the plastic heads are much more stable and less sensitive to humidity and temperature changes. If your banjo has a torn head, it should be replaced if possible. New plastic heads are available in quite a wide assortment of sizes, and will cost about $10. Skin heads are much more expensive- around $40- and are not the preferred choice, except for a truly rare museum piece banjo. There are a few banjo players who still like skin heads the best, but they are generally either Luddites who still believe the earth is flat, or have a banjo with a rare head of unusual size.

Banjo makers have standardized the head size, more or less, to 11 inches in diameter, but this has only happened in the past twenty years or so. If your banjo is older than about 1960, measure across the middle of the head before you do anything else, because banjo heads range from 8" (banjo ukes) to 24" (bass banjos). Some of the odd sized heads can only be replaced with skin.

Replacing a banjo head is best left to a repairman if you have never tried it. The plastic heads have a hoop built into them which helps hold the head correctly, but the older hide heads have a separate hoop (called a flesh hoop) that does the same job. Installing a hide head is twice as difficult as a plastic head, and also requires careful wetting and shrinking of the calfskin after the head is installed.

A repair shop will probably charge about $40 to replace your old head with a new plastic one. A calfskin head will run about $70.

Dirty heads should be cleaned. Players expect to see some head wear, but they are going to look at a banjo with a clean head on it more closely than one that is very dirty. A plastic head can be cleaned off with a rag dampened with a good window cleaner (like Windex). Just don't spray it on the head- dampen the rag!
Skin heads are tougher to clean. The safest way to clean one is to give it a good rubdown with a Pink Pearl pencil eraser. The Pink Pearl won't get all the dirt, but will make an improvement. Be sure and dust off either type of head with a dry rag before cleaning.

"Hope you can tell by the pictures what the banjo looks like. I'm no photographer."

Take sharp, clear, in-focus photos of your banjo! Remember that banjo players are just like you- if they can't clearly see what you are trying to sell them, they will pass it up quickly. And be sure and keep the background simple and light colored, so details of the  banjo are clear. (I once saw a banjo presented for sale in a great living room, sitting in a rocking chair in front of a welcoming fire. Too bad I couldn't see any details of the banjo, but the fireplace sure looked great, though! A big pass on that one!)

If you don't have a good camera, get someone who knows a little photography to do the job for you. A player is going to want to see details; be sure to show them. If your first try came out fuzzy or too low in contrast, take some more photos! Remember, the description you give will make a buyer check it out, but the photos will make or break the sale!
Here is what I would show on a banjo for sale:

An overall shot of the front and a similar one of the back. Take the photos against a light colored plain background, so the peghead shape (an important identifier on a no-name) can be easily seen. Take these photos with the banjo out of the case, and as stright-on as possible. Avoid shots taken from extreme angles that don't show everything equally.

A shot of the inside of the rim. Take the resonator off to do this if necessary, and take a shot of the inside of the resonator. if there are any identifiers inside the rim, take close-ups of them.

Take close-ups of the peghead, front and rear. If the banjo has pearl inlays, take close-ups of the neck in a couple of sections, so the inlays are clearly visible. Take one shot of the tailpiece. (Many photos I've seen have way too many of the tailpiece. Waverly, Elton, and other hardware makers didn't make banjos, only banjo parts, so don't waste the potential buyer's time with unnecessary photos of brand names stamped on the parts)

Some banjos will have other unique trim, like backstrapped necks, carved heels, inlays in the heel cap, engraving on the metal, etc. If something looks unusual, take a close-up of it.

Take good close-ups of any damaged areas, broken or missing parts, and play wear and scratches. Don't  use many shots of the same thing on your ebay page- sometimes a good buyer will pass because the page is loading slowly, so keep the duplicates to a bare minimum. Ideally, every photo should show something different.

Take a shot of the banjo in the case if you want to, but remember that you're selling the banjo, not the box it comes in. Most times a good description of the case is enough to satisfy a potential buyer.

Also remember that you are selling the banjo, not the old strings, picks, and other parts that are in the case. While it's great to get that stuff in the sale, it is not a big deal, and the old odds and ends rarely add any value to the sale at all. The only paraphernalia that is valuable are an original sales receipt, the bracket wrench that was originally supplied with the banjo, and possibly original spare bridges and/or parts that have been taken off the banjo. Take photos of these items as a group if you have them, and try to include them in shot which shows something else as well.

It is common to find original owner's names, cartoons, old addresses or whatever on banjo heads and cases. Unless the name is recognizable as a celebrity, they add no value to the instrument to players, and may devalue the instrument (not everyone wants bad drawings of flappers or hula girls on their banjo). Sometimes old banjo heads have oil paintings on them. The acids in the paint are slowly eating the skin of the head away, so don't expect it's going to help the sale, unless Picasso signed his work. If anybody other than Picasso di the painting, forget it.

"The banjo is 30 inches long, overall, and the case is fifteen inches wide."

Measurements are great sales tools, but you have to give the ones that really convey some information. The overall length measurement is the most common one I see, and it's useless, because a short necked banjo with a big head can be the same overall length as a longer necked banjo with a smaller head!

Here are some useful measurements:

Count the number of frets the neck has. This is a very good indication of what type of banjo you have, especially if it is a four-stringer. Tenor banjos usually have 16-19 frets, and plectrums have 21-24 frets. Five-string banjos (distinguished by the 5th string peg sticking out of the side of the neck) are usually 21-24 frets, but extra-long neck 5-string banjos, which were very popular in the 60's, have 27 frets. Banjo Ukuleles usually have 16-19 frets on a neck that is only about twelve inches long. ( I see lots of banjo ukes offered for sale as being "miniature", "toy" or "little kid's " banjos. Nope! Full grown adults played them!) Banjo mandolins have short necks with 21-24 frets, and are strung with eight strings. There are other odd ducks too, so just describe them by the fret count and the number of strings if you can't find more details.

If you want to give a measurement, measure the length of the fingerboard only. Don't include the length of the peghead in this measurement. Measure the width of the fingerboard at the nut (by the peghead) and at the end, where the neck meets the rim.

Measure the diameter (width) of the head. If the banjo has a resonator, measure it's diameter as well.

As long as the case fits, who cares how big it is?

Measure the height of the bridge.

That's it! All the other measurements aren't really needed for a good sale, unless a prospective buyer has a question.

"Old banjo- 1902patent" (or) "Remo Weatherking banjo for sale!"

Many companies supplied banjo parts to manufacturers, and these outfits only made the parts, not the banjos. The patent date you may find on any part applies to that part only, and some of these parts, especially the tailpieces, were used for over fifty years with the same patent. Patent dates on parts don't mean squat. Some of the parts makers who supplied to all the banjo companies are: Remo (who makes the Weatherking plastic head), Waverly, Grover, Kerschner, Presto,Elton, Paige, and a few others. Sta-tite, No-Knot, Deluxe, and other names stamped on a part is more likely the name of the part than the name of the banjo, and are of little use in identifying who the maker was. Once in a while, the better manufacturers hand engraved a model name on the armrest or tailpiece (Like DeLuxe, Ne Plus Ultra, or Granada), but these names were never stamped on- they were always engraved.

And, since most of the stamped parts were used on different brands of banjos,  they don't help identify a no-name banjo much. The instrument makers did patent their designs, but identified their patents on their labels or by stamping or burning a clear identifier on the banjo, usually on the inside of the rim. Most old banjos employ a wooden stick (called the dowel stick) to hold the neck to the rim. The dowel stick is almost always square in shape, and is often the spot the makers used to identify the make, model, serial number, and any of their patents. Some manufacturers, notably Gibson, used metal rods to hold the neck to the rim. With banjos like these, serial numbers are generally stamped into the inside of the rim, and a decal can often be found there as well. Sometimes a decal will have patent numbers printed on it which may help in identifying the banjo's age. A few manufacturers used a decal on the back of the peghead. These are the indicators to mention and look for. If none exist, try to find a similar peghead shape, which is usually the best identifier for no-name banjos.

"This old banjo doesn't have a name on it. I'll leave it to the experts to decide."

No-name old banjos are common. The earliest makers often used the peghead shape to identify their instruments, and during the period between 1920's and World War II, thousands of banjos were made by companies like Harmony, Kay, Regal, and others who made inexpensive beginner's instruments. Most of these banjos are no-name outfits, except for a few top of the line models, which may have a name decal on the peghead. All these companies sold their banjos to music dealers, but also sold them to big companies like Sears, Montgomery Ward, and other retailers.

Other no-name banjos are home made instruments.

There are very few top quality banjos out there with no name on them. From the beginning of the 20th Century, the makers of quality instruments took great pains to present all their products with a brand name clearly visible. On these brands (Vega, Gibson, Bacon, Weymann, etc.) a decal was sometimes used on their lower grade products, but most had a brand name laboriously inlaid in pearl somewhere on the peghead, either on the fron or the back. If your banjo isn't clearly identified, the chances are great that it isn't worth much. If you have a no-name, really take your time and look on ebay and anything else you can dig up on the net before deciding a price for it. Investigation really helps make a sale, because there are players out there who are looking for inexpensive good playing banjos, and knowing what you have could add substantially to a sale. On the other hand, manufacturing processes are much more accurate and consistant now than they were a half-century ago, and your old banjo may be- (uh; the truth sometimes hurts) just old junk.

The biggest identifier for most banjos is it's peghead silhouette, as I mentioned. Even the companies who sold to Sears usually kept their own peghead shape, so try to find another banjo that had the same shape as yours- odds are it's the same company that made yours!

Trim, like ornamental wood veneer strips, ornamental decals on the back of the resonators, etc. often doesn't add much to the value of an inexpensive banjo. Much of the fancy scrollwork, ornamental painting, and the like on no-name banjos were decals that were applied before the finish went on, or were silk-screened on top of the finish, and close examination will tell you that the art was mass produced. Banjos with fingerboards that look like mother of pearl were made commonly before World War II. The pearl is actually plastic, and was cheaper to produce than good wood. (Players call this stuff mother-of-toilet-seat). The plastic works good for it's intended purpose- it's flat and wears well, but generally doesn't add a lot of worth to the banjo. On expensive banjos, there is often hand painted carving and the imitation pearl stuff, but the fingerboard will be hand engraved and the coloring had applied. Look for small imperfections in the handwork, and uneven wear, which is another good sign the work was done by hand. (Some hand engraved cuts are naturally deeper than others, and the paint wasn't applied by a machine.)

But, just to confuse you... there are a few (very few, to be sure) EXTREMELY high quality banjos without brand names on the peghead! On very rare occaisions, a custom ordered banjo was made by almost all the best manufacturers without their name. Banjos like these are extraordinarily rare, usually one of a kind. These top grade customs will exhibit the peghead shape of the manufacturer always, though, and most times will also feature combinations of wood, trim, engraving, and the like that is found in a maker's line but not on one particular model. The original owners always wanted a particular brand of banjo, and they usually wanted a different combination of elements than the stock models offered. They paid top dollar for the priveledge of getting what they wanted. Other super high quality banjos may have been presentation or show models.

All these banjos, no matter where or when they were made, will show the best craftsmanship, quality, and care the company was capable of producing, and there is nothing crude or unrefined in them! Oftentimes, these ultra customs will have the owner's name or initials on the peghead instead of the brand name, and very few of them exhibit neglect or misuse; the reverse is more likely- they will look almost new. Think about the cost of a gold plated handmade bathtub, and you have the idea...! These banjos are literally as scarce as hen's teeth!

"Vintage! 1960 Harmony 5-string banjo!"

Most serious players don't consider anything made in the last 30 or 40 years to be truly "vintage", but there are a few exceptions, mainly in Gibsons , Vegas, and a few brands that are no longer made in the U.S.A. or anywhere else. Almost of these banjos  came from the United States, but a few are English. Any Oriental banjo, no matter the age or the name, isn't considered in the running.

Even with these banjos, only a few brands and models get the honor of being called truly vintage by collectors and musicians. If you know the age of the banjo, it is better to simply state the year it was bought. For most collectors and serious banjoists, the vintage era ended in 1941, when World War II started. If you want to use a catchy tag line for your listing, don't use "vintage" if possible. "Pre-war" is a term that will generate a LOT more interest in your banjo if it was made before W.W.II. If your banjo was made before the 20th Century, "antique" is a better term. After about 1949, it is best to call it an old banjo.

If your banjo doesn't qualify as an antique or a pre-war, just give it's age as accurately as you can. Vintage is a cheap word on ebay these days, and too much overused.

"It's missing the pegs, head, tailpiece, and 4 strings. the neck has a slight crack in the heel, and another one running the length of the neck. Part of the veneer on the peghead is peeling off, and the wood laminations are coming apart in the rim. Shouldn't take much to fix up, for all you banjo experts out there."

What you are trying to sell with a description like this is parts, not a banjo! Most banjo players are just like you- they don't fix them, they just play them! If your banjo is missing ANY major component except for possibly a couple of strings, the only potential buyers who are likely to be interested in it are repairmen looking for odd parts or folks looking for a project. Banjos that are missing major parts tend to be warping in some way because they lack the tension that keeps everything fitting together properly.

Rim laminations that are separating and heel cracks both probably indicate severe damage or neglect to a banjo.

The heel is the part of the neck where the neck attaches to the rim. If it is badly split, the banjo may never be able to become playable again, because the neck cannot be firmly attached to the rim. and if the rim is coming apart, the same thing is true.

A rim separation usually means the banjo is going to fall to pieces sooner or later, because the rim is splitting and all the parts will have not secure anchor. There is seldom a satisfactory repair that will hold- enven if you glue the separation together, the rim will usually continue to split in another spot. If you have one of these old dogs, it's better to represent it as parts or a project... there is little chance it well ever by playable again. Price your instrument accordingly, and don't expect to get much out of it.

5- Don't be Greedy!

If you know the general worth of your banjo, it's far better to place a reasonable reserve price on it than to expect the collectors to come flocking with their checkbooks out. Collectors are not dunces- they will surely know more than you do, and they won't pay more than they know they can receive if they decide to buy that banjo. Some players, who aren't collectors may pay a little more than the worth of a banjo because it's the model they always wanted, but those guys are a relative rarity. Most of the buyers looking on ebay want a better banjo than the one they have, or are beginners who want to start playing. The beginners are easier to fool, but they are also the ones most likely to want their money back if they feel they paid too much for what they got. The experienced players are looking for a reasonable bargain; if a brand new banjo of the same make and model as yours is available, they will know beforehand how much it will cost, and how much they will be willing to pay for yours.

Remember- it is worth what the market will bear! If you are reasonable in your price, careful and thorough in your research, and present the banjo well, you are more likely to be pleasantly surprised by an extra 100-200 dollars on a good quality instrument.

Also- keep in mind that the 5-string banjo is the most popular. Other banjos can be converted to 5-stringers, but replacement necks and parts cost a lot of money, and most older banjos are being looked at with an eye that is considering conversion costs. While there are still many tenor and plectrum players, they are vastly outnumbered by 5-string players. Banjo ukuleles and mandolin-banjos aren't popular now, even if they are very good and well built. Since both types of these banjos only enjoyed brief moments of popularity, odds are they aren't going to be worth very much in the future, either.

It has been my experience that presenting a banjo for sale on an auction site works best the first time out. If you don't get a sale the first time, wait for a long time before you give it another try, or try to sell it by other means.

And don't forget that a free banjo that you inherited is just that- free! Any money you get for it is the easiest money it will ever make for anyone. Like any sale, a reasonable profit and a satisfied buyer are the two best things possible. Anything more than "reasonable" is like money from home, but don't plan on it!

Good luck! Hope this helps you out!
Mike Stanger

Mike Stanger posts regularly at Alt.banjo newsgroup if you have a question, hes usually willing to help

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