By Michael Hofer

© 1999

The better question is what to look for in buying a banjo

First step is to decide what kind of music you want to play. There are basically, 4 differant kinds of banjos in mainstream banjo playing.Two kinds of 4 strings, and two kinds of 5 strings. 4 strings are used for Jazz, Dixieland Jazz , Big Band, and sometimes Irish Folk. There are 4 string Plectrum Banjos which have 22 frets, and 4 string Tenor banjos which have 17 or 19 frets. Played in a strumming or 'Plectrum' style. Plectrum style is basically strumming with a flat pick.
Five string banjos without resonators are most often used playing in 'clawhammer' which is also known as 'knocking' or 'old timey' style. Clawhammer is a 2 fingered style and usually doesn't involve the use of picks.
Five string banjos with resonators are most often used in playing Bluegrass, three finger style, and this style requires picks. You can play either type, Clawhammer or Bluegrass on any kind of 5 string, however these are the prefered choices. If you aren't sure of what style you want to play, you can access the "Hear some pickin mine and others" page on this website. Listen to either myself or Mike Stanger playing in the three fingered style, bluegrass, and either Hank Schwartz or Yigal Zan playing in the clawhammer or old timey style. I dont have any clips for 4 string plectrum but if you go to the websources and links page look for Jim Costons site you can sample some there.
Additionally there are also six string banjos, tuned and played like a guitar, mando banjos, tuned and played like mandolins and a few other aberations called banjos, but Im not going to discuss them much on this page, because they are fairly remote and I want to keep things simple.

After deciding what music you want to play, the first question you need to ask yourself, is how committed am I in this venture? That will help you in deciding the second question, how much money do I want to spend? Heres the lowdown. Banjos range in price from about $75 for a real cheapo fixer upper to over $5000. The differance in price reflects the differance in the quality of construction and the materials used in building a banjo. The lower end banjos are made cheaply, they have open faced gears, (which means they get dirty and worn out easier) they have friction 5th string pegs ( which have a tendency to slip and are touchy to use). They dont even have any kind of tone ring, and the necks and bodies can wobble easy. However despite all these short comings, set up properly they do a decent job. If the necks are positioned correctly they play nice, if not set up correctly you will need to go to the Arnold Schwartzenagger school for building hand muscles.

banjo parts
Banjo Nomanclature

For a more detailed picture of banjo parts Click Here
During the mid to late 70s there was an explosion of wanna be pickers following the big success of Dueling Banjos from the movie Deliverance, the sound track from Bonnie and Clyde by Flatt and Scruggs and the advent of the tv show Dukes of Hazzard. This big stir for banjos was met by an onslaught of imported cheap banjos flooding the market. If you are finding a banjo at a pawn shop, flea market or cousin Zekes closet and it has no name on it or just a partial label, its more than likely one of these.For a partial list of brand names of these imports, click here. Like I said, set up correctly many of these do a nice job, but if they are not my suggestion is you donate them as paddles for your friends canoe. There is nothing more deterring to learning than a cheap instrument that won't stay in tune and is difficult to play.

The old adage you get what you pay is well said. Im kind of a sentimental person, when I buy an acoustical instrument, I expect it to last my lifetime. So I make sure its one I really want. Of course when you're starting out you dont want to spend a thousand bucks on an instrument you can't play. A good stratagem would be to get something decent to learn on, then work towards choosing that banjo of your dreams once you've mastered some basics. Id say a happy medium to begin with would be at least $250. When you consider the expenses of other hobbies, playing the banjo is a very cheap hobbie. After the initial purchase and a few accessories, there is practically no expense to it at all. You should be able to pick up a good banjo for about $250. ( Deerings beginner Goodtime is a good example with good features) The higher quality banjos use planetary gear sets, they are encased ( no dirt can get into the works, so they dont wear out easily) and usualy have a 4 to 1 turning ratio. They use geared 5th string pegs. They are easier to tune and they stay in tune better. They usually have tone rings which help amplify and put a ring into the sound. Also makes them weigh a ton. The higher end banjos are often made of mahagony or maple. Maple is the most sought after, its been a preferred wood since early banjo construction days because of its stability and availability. Mahagony works as well, its largely a matter of personal preferance, one over the other, but maple is the most often preferred by players. I suspect due largely to the long time tradition. Some contend that Maple gives a brighter sound and Mahogany a bit darker, but Im not convinced that's really valid. Either works well.

I dont really think name brand means a great deal if you are only spending a minimum amount on a banjo, look at its construction and this is one point I stress above all, Play as many banjos as you can lay your hands on in your price range before purchasing one, they all play and sound a little differant, if you cant play one, just ask the storeclerk to tune it and strum it a bit, they are tuned in an open G so you now know your first chord. Some of you may be looking on the net or in catalogues trying to make a decision on what to buy. I cant stress the importance of trying out a banjo before you buy one enough. If you have to drive five hundred miles to find some to play on, it would be worth it in the long run. Heck half the fun of buying an instrument is searching for it. Playing on as many as you can. You will see why after you pick up two or three, they are so differant in feel and sound. Search in your price range until you find the one you know is best for you.

Features To Look For

Heres a short list of features that are prefered.
  • Closed Gear Tuners -- open faced wear out too quickly
  • Geared 5th String -- Friction pegs are touchy
  • For Bluegrass A Resonator, for Clawhammer backless
  • A Tone Ring -- not neccessary on a first banjo, but for sure on #2
  • Strings are easy to push to the fret board --- playable.
  • You like the sound

    If you're going to spend over $300 on a banjo, then Id be looking at labels. Here are a few good companies, Deering, Gibson, Fender, Ome. Gold Tone, Visit my banjo manufacturers page for a more complete list of banjo makers While researching manufacturers I was impressed with a new banjo company, named Stealth which has come on the market. They have a unique design, which keeps all 5 tuning pegs on the head as opposed the 5th string up the neck. They also implement a radius fingerboard. They sound excellant, but the starting price is about $2500. For the beginner, unless your name is W Gates, this may be a bit more than you planned on spending. Your spouse might remove one of your valuable appendages if you bring home a banjo with that pricetag.

    Currently, the two favored bluegrass beginner banjos are the Deering Goodtime Special and the Fender FB 58, both of them are excellant banjos for the dollar and have gotten great reviews from the banjo public. They are a little more expensive closing in on the 500 dollar range, but well worth it, if its in your budget. Deering being an American made banjo has a slight resale advantage, but either will give good service and if you are like me, you probably won't sell it anyway, even if you upgrade someday, its nice to have an extra banjo around.

    So what is the number one pick by the pros? Well Scott Vestal plays on a Stealth, the one I told you about a couple paragraphs above, Bela Fleck is using several banjos including a few Deerings, but I suppose the number one choice for top banjo would go to the Gibson Mastertone. After all its known as the choice of such notables as Earl Scruggs, Roy Clark, and Doug Dillard. However its too pricey for me, depending on what model from $1700 to over $5500. ( I think they make a gold plated one thats even more)
    Also to my ears, the few Mastertones I had chance to try out had a much darker tone than I liked. Many bluegrass players love it though, so this is definately an opinion thing. At jams I've seen Deering and Stelling banjo owners proudly display their expensive banjos with pride, but I have never felt shaded playing next to them with my banjo. My choice was a Fender Leo. It was reasonably priced ( around $1000 ) in the early 80s when I bought it and I have been very happy with its performance. In the banjo world, its considered an above average "medium" grade banjo, but I think its under rated, of course thats just my opinion. They no longer make this model, but the point is, that price doesnt neccessarily dictate performance. Banjo set up also can greatly influence the sound. Once you get into over the $500 dollar range, its really a matter of personal preferance. The important thing is that you like it.

    Heres is another thing you need to consider. In all my experiences in playing bluegrass banjo, the thing that impresses those around you, is your ability to play and get along with others. Your banjo no matter who makes it or how fancy or plain it is, always comes third. Many years ago when living downstate, I often played bluegrass with Hank Williams Jrs fiddle player. I could only afford a $75 dollar banjo at the time, didnt matter. It was the ability to play and have fun with others that counted most. So no matter what your pickin on, remember that your talent and friendliness will take you further than anything else. And truthfully if your not talented you better at least be friendly.

    Be sure and check out the banjo manufacturers page for pictures and links to banjo manufacturers on the web. Click on the right arrow to advance to the banjo accessories page. Ive placed navigation buttons on each page to help you wander through this site. Enjoy.