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Playing the banjo can be good old-fashioned fun. Banjos find a home in various musical contexts, from Dixieland jazz, to bluegrass (modern and traditional), and the banjo is a mainstay folk instrument, with playing styles represented by such greats as Pete Seeger and harking back over several centuries of Appalachian mountain music. In more recent years, artists such as Béla Fleck have reinvented the 5-string banjo as an electric instrument used in funk and jazz modes. It is a good group instrument as well as a solo instrument so you don’t have to be a lonely banjo picker.
Banjos, like most musical instruments, come in a wide range of prices. At the bottom end are beginner banjos costing between $100 and $200. At the top end are professional quality instruments costing as much as $5,000 and more. There are also many quality instruments between these two extremes.
With banjos, price reflects quality accurately. Spend more and you get a better banjo. This is not to say that you should necessarily avoid the budget-priced instruments. These beginner instruments are generally made in Asia—often with different brands coming from the same factory—but these days, even these affordable instruments are playable and well-made. They may arrive needing a little setup tweaking to get the most out of them, but for the beginner who wants to give banjo playing a try, they are generally very suitable.
As well as a wide variety of banjos, we also offer Beginner Banjo packs that include the banjo, accessories, and instructional media to get you started right.
The type of music you want to play will determine what type of banjo you should buy. Here are the main types of banjos and the music they’re associated with.
This type of banjo has a longer neck and five strings, one of which is called the drone string. This string is shorter, terminating at a tuning key that protrudes from the upper side of the neck. This kind of banjo is used for bluegrass finger-picking-style playing, also called clawhammer style, the traditional frailing technique that combines picking and strumming. Bluegrass picking is most famously represented by the playing of Earl Scruggs. Frailing is the style of banjo playing often heard in traditional Appalachian mountain music, or listen to the banjo playing of Pete Seeger to hear examples of frailing.
5-string banjos are also classed as open-back and resonator types. Actually these are basically the same, the resonator is just an open-back banjo with a back (the resonator) fastened to it. Resonator banjos are favored for bluegrass or finger-picking-style music primarily because the resonator increases the instrument’s volume, thus making it more suitable for playing in ensemble situations. The open-back is favored for frailing, possibly because, without the resonator, the sound is dampened somewhat by the player’s body which gives the instrument a plunkier sound. Open-backed instruments are generally less expensive than those with a resonator.
Tenor banjos have four strings and a shorter neck than a 5-string banjo. These are the instruments used in Dixieland jazz bands and are generally strummed with a pick. A plectrum banjo is similar to a tenor but has a longer neck.
The guitar-tuned banjo is a more specialized type of banjo. This instrument has six strings that are tuned and played like a guitar. It is a hybrid instrument, but handy for guitar players who want a banjo sound at times but don’t want to learn a whole new playing system.
* Diagram courtesy of the Deering Banjo Company.
Assessing quality in a banjo is easy. Better instruments have better hardware: heavier-duty brackets and more of them, heavier tension hoops and armrests, rims made of tonewoods such as maple, birch, or mahogany (the same woods used to make drum shells), and tone rings made of bell brass rather than a less resonant and less musical metal. Good quality geared tuners that keep high-tensioned strings in tune are important too.
The cosmetics—the inlays bindings, gold- or silver-plating, hand engravings—can get pretty fancy in a high-end professional quality banjo, and while good looks are nice, they are only cosmetics. A lesser quality banjo can also have fancy inlay work (especially these days when computers can do the cutting), so don’t be fooled. Also, a rather plain banjo may have better quality components and a lower price.
Banjos, like drums, have either real calf skin heads or synthetic heads. The differences are that while real calf skin has a mellower sound, it is susceptible to changes in termperature and humidity. It will loosen in cooler temperature and tighten as the temperature goes up. Synthetic heads can have the feel of real calf skin, but maintain a consistent tension through changes in temperature.
The two big concerns are: is it well made and does it play well? Of course, if you are a beginner, you can’t simply fire up a banjo and see how well it plays. Fortunately, most student banjos are basically playable, but they can sometimes be made more playable by improving the setup.
There are some simple tests you can do yourself when checking out a new banjo. Test the action: See if the strings push down easily, both at the nut end and up the fretboard near where the neck attaches. You don’t want strings that are so hard to push down that they feel like they will cut your fingers. Also, test the sound: When you pluck a string lightly near the bridge, you should hear a clear note.
Another setup feature of a banjo that is important is the placement of the bridge. Bridge location is critical because if affects intonation, or how in tune a banjo plays as you move up the neck.
Of course, you should inspect a new instrument’s neck to make certain it doesn’t have any bow or twist in it. If it has any twist, you should return the instrument as defective. Bow may be correctable if the neck is equipped with a truss rod.
Most of these setup problems can be dealt with (the action can be lowered, the neck adjusted, the bridge moved, the head retuned, etc.). Musician’s Friend carries books on banjo setup or you can find online instructions that cover setup or maintainenance of banjo. But if working on your new banjo seems too challenging, take it to a string instrument tech and have it set up properly