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5-String Banjo Buyers' Guide - Shortscale Banjos - from Riverboat Music(tm)
5-String banjos traditionally have long necks, 25.5-27" long, with 22 frets. ("Long-neck" banjos are even longer) But sometimes that length is a problem, like when you're traveling, or backpacking, or when a child or other short-armed person is trying to learn.
There are a number of "short-scale guitar" options, including the "Baby Taylor," Martin "Backpacker," and Washburn "Rover." In fact, I have a Martin Backpacker I like to take on trips where I'll have extensive "downtime." Frankly, I'm getting to the age where I need to be able to practice all my favorite licks just to "keep up" with where I used to be. I wish I could take a banjo along for the same reason. But even my "travel banjo" is relatively long, which makes it harder to squeeze into tight places or get onto airplanes.
So I've been investigating options, including taking the sixth string off a Backpacker, replacing the fifth string with a .009 string and "spiking" it at the 5th fret. I may still do that, but my quest for a short-scale banjo I could play like a banjo led me to two and a half options worth considering for anyone else in my position.
Not Short ScaleA number of brands, such as Rogue, call their least expensive, backless banjos "starter" or "travel" banjos. Some of these banjos can be made playable, but they are the same size as expensive backless banjos, so don't assume they'll work as well for your eight-year-old as a short-scale banjo or fit any better into an airplane's overhead rack than a $3000 Vega Senator.
Mini BanjosA few instruments, including accomplish a small size the same way the "Baby Taylor" guitar does - by shrinking the whole thing down so far you have to tune it to a different key (It has a 15 7/8" scale). This is fine for backpacking alone, or if you are just as happy transposing every song you know how to play on a full-sized guitar or banjo. On the other hand, if you can only play in the key of G, don't bother bringing your "Plucky" to a "Bluegrass jam." Because, depending on how it's tuned, you will need to play in the key of C or D to play along with everyone else.
That wouldn't bother me, since - as a folksinger - I grew up playing in the key of C, and I now play my 5-string in D all the time, so I can jump into my "guitar songs" when I have my banjo strapped on. But what puts me off is the very short fret spacing - Imagine putting a capo on at the seventh fret of a full-sized banjo and leaving it there all the time. Could you play that way? Sure. But if you use this for your practice banjo, it might take some adjustment to play the same songs, parts, or licks on a banjo with standard fret spacing. Well, maybe not you, but it would me.
Update for 2018 - When I first published this page, only one manufacture was making mini banjos commercially - GoldTone. Their most affordable model, the "Plucky," was haunted by poor user reviews - bad construction, substandard parts, etc. That wouldn't necessarily put me off if it was a $150 banjo. But since most people want almost twice that, I wasn't impressed. When I felt like I needed a mini banjo for trips, I ordered the better GoldTone Cripple-Creek Mini. But the seller sent me the wrong banjo, and when I tried to exchange it, told me he didn't have any more Minis at the price he had offered. If the Cripple-Creek Mini is as well-built as the one he sent me, a GoldTone Traveler, it should be a solid instrument with good components that, nevertheless, arrives needing setup. Is it a $400+ banjo, though? I'm not entirely sold - especially if I'm buying it for camping, flying, and such, where it's likely to suffer abuse.
Because of its 8" head and reasonably playable neck, the "mini" would be great for backpacking, or as a "car banjo" (see below), especially if you could get a gig bag that fit it. If money and weight are no object, there is even a Bluegrass version , complete with tone ring, resonator, planetary tuners, and one-piece resonator flange.
Dean to the Rescue - Just when I figured that playable, affordable mini banjos were not ever going to be available, Dean introduced their version of the Mini. Like the GoldTone Cripple-Creek Mini, it is backless, but that's perfect for its intended use. It also costs less than the beleagured "Plucky." As a Chinese banjo, it will need setup when you get it. Other Chinese brands, such as Savannah, have followed suit with nearly identical instruments. But Dean has been doing this a while, and they have a customer service department that actually gets back to you, so I'm not bother to post any clones.
My only "objection," such as it is, to the Dean is that it seems to have an 11" head, and I would prefer a smaller head. But it will be louder at jams than the Gold Tone models, if that counts for anything with you.
Standard Short-Scale (A-Scale) BanjosThat leaves the best option for short arms or limited space - short-scale banjos that can be tuned like full-scale banjos. They tend to be about 3 frets, or 3" shorter than standard banjos. But with slightly heavier strings, you can still get a "full-sized" tone out of the thing if you want to. And you can take it to "Bluegrass jams" and play along.
These were occasionally made in the "old days" as "A" or "A-Scale" banjos. Scale length would be between 23" and 24", usually closer to 24". Popular uses include:
I usually like to recommend a range of options, but one stands heads-and-shoulders above the others in this category - the Deering Goodtime "Parlor" banjo. The truth is that when banjo was a "parlor" instrument, it was full-length, but Deering has taken the nomenclature from "Parlor guitars," which are a tad smaller than today's "full-sized" guitars.
Other vendors call their version "3/4 scale" or "travel scale," etc. "A Scale" is probably the "safest," but least common terminology for this class of banjos among modern manufacturers.
I don't have a Goodtime Parlor banjo. I have a basic GoodTime banjo, which plays like a dream. It has the same 11" head, the same 3-ply maple pot, the same bridge and nut width, etc., and is eminently playable. It also weighs almost nothing (4.5lbs), which is one reason I use it as a travel banjo in spite of its length (scale length is 26.5", overall length is 37.5").
Based on that experience, I can heartily recommend the Goodtime Parlor banjo, which has almost identical specs, except for the shorter scale (23 1/8"). 3 1/8" difference is huge if you have short arms, but not so huge that it will keep a long-armed person from going back and forth from the Parlor banjo to a full-scale banjo fairly quickly.
Overall length is 33.5", compared to the basic GoodTime's 37.5" (and some of my other open-back banjos' 38.5" - 39" length). Again 4" can make a big difference in some travel or backpacking situations.
Personally, I wish it had a 10" head, for travel purposes, but you can't have everything, and most folks prefer the louder 11" head.
Despite this banjo's relatively short scale, it's still possible to tune it like a regular banjo, either in G tuning (DBGDg, counting from the string closest to your toes upward), or in Standard (C) tuning (DBGCg).
As of this writing (Sept. 2015), there are only two disadvantages to this banjo:
The advantages include guaranteed out-of-the-box playability from an American manufacturer. Also, because it's part of the Goodtime family, you should be able to buy add-ons later on if you decide to keep it as your "good" banjo, including an armrest, resonator, and tone ring. There's no huge reason to upgrade to a longer banjo if you don't want to.
What about Chinese Short-Scale Banjos?Like any other kind of banjo, you can get a cheaper banjo if you get a Chinese-built banjo online. There are a few in the $200 range that can be made playable. But if you aren't a longtime banjo owner or instrument technician, you may have to pay someone else $100 or more to make it playable, and that brings it a lot closer to the price of a Deering. In fact, one Chinese-made short-scale banjo that is fairly popular is only a few dollars less than the Deering Parlor banjo. And, unlike the Deering, it is not playable "out of the box." I haven't personally tested any Chinese-built short-scale banjos. However, I have tested most of the full-length banjos by those manufacturers, and I know that buying them is not for beginners. I include the Trinity River Drifter A-scale banjo in the chart below because it's more likely to be useful than many of its under-$300 peers. At $200ish online, you're actually paying more than you would for Trinity River's full-length starter banjos, but that's because it's relatively new.
A slight step up from the average Chinese Short-Scale banjo is the Gold Tone Cripple Creek 50 TR. They are made in China, but according to Gold Tone, someone in the United States inspects each one before it goes to the store. Reviewers seem to agree that, unlike the Gold Tone Plucky, they tend to arrive more-or-less playable, and very few arrive with manufacturing defects, so that must be true. Like the GoodTime Parlor, the Gold Tone leaves off the resonator. Most folks using any of these as travel banjos would pull the resonator off anyway (I always do for travel banjos). My primary reservation is that they are currently only about 15% cheaper than the standout American-made leader of this category.
Update for 2018 - Since I wrote this article, I got a CC-50 TR by accident (I ordered a Cripple Creek Mini, and they sent the wrong banjo). I set it up, tried it out, and used it in a beginning banjo video. So you have the advantage of hearing one of these in action. In the following music lesson, I am NOT using fingerpicks, and you can still tell what a nice tone it has. Click here and scroll down to the YouTube video. Yes, it's a yellow banjo, and they make them brown now, but you get the idea. I subsequently sold the banjo, however, since it wasn't what I needed.
If you have short arms or a very talented child and would like a Bluegrass-capable banjo in this category, the Gold Tone CC-Traveler (not the 50 TR, which some vendors also call "Traveler") may be worth investigating. I have tested one of these, set it up, and tested it again. It costs more than the Deering Parlor, and the tone ring and resonator add weight and bulk that diminish its usefulness as a travel banjo. But once it's properly set up, it is a nice banjo with a very sweet tone. With steel fingerpicks it would be loud enough to compete in most Bluegrass ensembles (the only one on this page for which I would make that claim).
Based on my experiences, Gold Tone banjos tend to arrive in playable condition, but still needing some tweaking to be optimum. Again, if you're used to adjusting your own banjos or have a close friend who is, this isn't a problem, but it does limit the out-of-the-box usefulness of these for true beginners.
Why These Vendors? - Ideally, you should be able to go into a regional music store and try these out. You should be able to count on their repair guys to give you a good "setup" before your banjo leaves the store, and you should be willing to pay extra for the service and support. But I live within 35 miles of about sixteen music stores, and none of them stock short-scale banjos of any type.
So the best thing I can do for readers in my situation is to recommend vendors that I've personally had good luck with. Of course, I keep copies of all my paperwork, and I rigorously examine each instrument as soon as it comes into the house. I also know how to "set up" my own banjos. If you wait a month before you get it out of the box and then discover that it has manufacturing flaws, was damaged in shipment, or can't be set up properly because of hidden problems, consider it an expensive lesson learned.
In addition to having decent return policies (for those who need them), most of the vendors I link to have "dynamic" pages that attempt to show instruments in the same class as the one you've looked up. So you may see something you like better - this list is just a starting point.
Finally, Elderly music, who I link to on occasion, has folks who look at every banjo before they ship it and do at least a preliminary setup. This sort of thing costs $50-$100 if you have to have a music store do it after it gets to your house. So if you're not confident that you can set the banjo up by yourself and you are ordering a Chinese-made banjo, consider Elderly as your source, even if they're a few dollars more.
Urban Legends About Short-Scale Banjos - I had to add this. In my research of short-scale banjos, I kept coming across the claim that they really weren't that much shorter than standard scale banjos, since they only took off the last three frets (#20, 21, and 22), and those only add up to about 1.3". Someone has even claimed that you can turn a cheap full-scale banjo into a short-scale banjo by taking off the neck, cutting off the last three frets and reattaching it. What's wrong with this picture? The remaining frets are still spaced for a ~26" distance between the nut and the bridge (the original scale length). If you do this, your banjo will lose all intonation unless you move the bridge toward the tailpiece exactly as far as the length of neck you removed. You'll see that on most banjos, you'll run out of space real fast, plus you put your bridge on a "stiffer" part of the head so you've radically affected the volume and tone of your banjo.
If you really wanted to convert a full-scale banjo to an A scale or other short scale length, you'd have to remove frets at the nut end of the neck, a much more complicated procedure. If you had the skills to shorten the banjo neck by the three frets closest to the nut, the remaining frets would still be the correct distance from the bridge, and you could leave the bridge where it is. That is essentially what the Deering Parlor banjo and the other A-scale banjos have done, as the illustration to the right shows.
Actually there are minor differences that can't be shown in a photo. But basically, if you start at the fret closest to the drum and count back 18 frets on both banjos, you'll see that the fret spacing is the same. The neck has been "shortened" at the nut end, not at the rim end.
Please don't try this on, say, a Deering Calico, then sue me because you screw it up.
Comparison to Martin Backpacker - If you're a guitar player who is already dragging a Martin Backpacker on your walkabouts, it might help you to know that the Backpacker averages a 24" scale and 35" overall length. In other words, the main difference in size between a Martin Backpacker and an A-scale 5-string is the width - backless A-scale banjos tend to be almost 12" across, where the Backpacker is just over 9" at its widest part.
Other Places to Look
Because these are fairly new, you won't see many used for a while. You might do a search for them on Elderly Instruments' site. Or call the store, since their search system is fairly primitive. If you stop by, tell them I sent you.
If you're shopping for Chinese-made banjos and you buy from anyone else, be prepared to spend some time or some money getting them ready to play.
ConclusionSo your three most likely choices are:
As the notion of short-scale 5-strings becomes more accepted, I expect the Chinese-built short-scale banjos to continue to grow in number, but not necessarily in quality .
Please check back for updates, and contact us with any questions, corrections, additions, or reader responses.
Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you get the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*
Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.
Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the musical instrument market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online listing until I can find a replacement or another supplier.
*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.
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