Jon S. In Washington asks:
“What are the most important qualities to consider when making a banjo purchase, and what is a happy medium between price and quality?”
Well Jon, I didn’t know anything at all about banjos other than they are usually played by moonshinin’ hillbillies in overalls so this one took some research!
You first have to decide what type of music you’ll be playing since there are 4 principal types of banjos (there are many more but these are the most common) and each is used slightly differently.
4 string plectrum – played in the strumming style and used for jazz, dixieland and big band music.
4 string tenor – mostly used for playing Irish folk music and some jazz
5 string resonator – this is the iconic bluegrass instrument played with 3 finger picking and is very versatile. This is probably the most popular choice for beginners.
5 string open back – this is also used for bluegrass and is usually played with 2 finger clawhammer picking style and is also used for bluegrass
Whichever type you choose, be sure that it will not remove the finish when you spill your white lightening and corncob pipe ash on it.
The general consensus seems to be that you get what you pay for, to a point. If you pay over ~$500 then it’s really a matter of preference and the differences in quality are much smaller.
If you go the other way and get one made by Uncle Ned from the Bayou, it might be made from more scavenged body parts than you’d care to know, but if it’s good enough for Uncle Ned…
All classist hillbilly jokes aside, the short answer is that $250 should get you a decent quality beginners banjo for the price. Most of the experienced banjo players agree that if you are serious about learning to play, you should buy the best quality banjo your budget allows. Used banjos from the local pawn shop tend to have many issues and be poor quality, so if you do buy used, make sure it’s from a reputable dealer and it’s a quality low-mileage instrument.
Now for the long answer.
Lets start with a diagram of the parts of a banjo.
Yes, banjos have nuts. I laughed too.
There’s a number of things to look for when choosing a banjo but there’s one rule that supersedes all the others: don’t buy one that you haven’t played.
I do know a fair amount about choosing a new guitar and the same rule seems to hold true. Every instrument has it’s own unique character that’s impossible to describe. The only way to experience this phenomenon is to sit down in a store and play 5 or 6 different ones. Even if you don’t know how to play dueling banjos from deliverance, banjos are usually tuned to an “open” tuning which means that just strumming one will make a pleasant enough chord for testing purposes. Ask someone in the store to tune it for you (make sure you say “y’all” and “I seen” at least once to put them at ease), and if it feels good, sounds good, and it’s made from quality materials, then that’s the one you should buy.
So that begs the question, what do you look for in the quality of a banjo?
This is where the research came in since I knew zero about banjos.
The first thing to look for is the construction material of the rim. The rim is what really gives a banjo its sound. Many low quality banjos will be made of composite materials or fiber board, while a higher quality instrument will be made of a hardwood like maple or mahogany. Maple seems to be the most common and the most popular.
You also should be looking for an instrument with covered tuning pegs, so that dirt and dust can’t get into the gears.
Another quality aspect to look at is the neck and the “action.” The “action” is basically how hard to have to press down on the string to get a clean sounding tone out of the banjo. A light easy press is desired and there should be no buzzy or off-tone sounds. The neck should have a nice D shape when viewed from the top down and should be straight and comfortable in your hand.
American made banjos tend to be the highest quality, and the Deering and Fender make excellent banjos for the price right here in the USA.
So in summary you are looking for the following, in no particular order:
- American made (‘Murica!)
- Closed tuning peg gears
- Quality rim material
- A playable action (strings are easy to push and don’t sound like a screamin’ opossum)
- A comfortable fit (feels good in your hands)
- Suits the style of music you intend to play
I hope that gives you a place to start your journey with the most American instrument there is, and thanks for the question!
Keep ’em coming bloggers!