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|Written by Paul D. Race for , , and|
5-String Banjo Buyers' Guide - from Riverboat Music(tm) The Five-String banjo is unquestionably the most popular kind of banjo. What sets it apart from Four-String banjos - popular in early Jazz and in Celtic bands - is a high-pitched drone string that is seldom fretted, and usually adds a sort of twinkle to most playing patterns. You can play Celtic music on a Five-String - many players have, including the great Tommy Makem, but the fifth string makes it hard to play Jazz. Conversely, there are several popular styles of American music that can only be played properly on a Five-String banjo, Bluegrass being among the chief.
So, if you like Bluegrass, "Old-Timey," or Folk-style banjo, you want a Five-String. Fortunately for you, over the banjo's lifetime, the Five-String banjo has been by far the most popular kind, giving you access to many choices of new instruments and even more choices of used ones.
Which Add-ons Do You Need?Up until World War II, most people played the banjo with a combination of fingerpicking and strumming. Banjos had gradually been getting louder, to keep up with the volume of large ensembles. But about the time of World War II, pickers like Earl Scruggs figured out a way to take advantage of those really loud banjos and metal fingerpicks to play a new kind of banjo that had no strumming to speak of, so-called "three-finger," "Scruggs-Style," or Bluegrass picking. Unlike other picking styles, which worked no matter what kind of banjo you had, Bluegrass picking in a large ensemble required a fancy banjo with all the "bells and whistles" to compete in volume with the rest of the band.
Traditional players like Pete Seeger or Grandpa Jones could get by just as well with a relatively simple banjo, since they could always count on strumming to keep up with loud groups. Some pickers even prefer the sound of a "stripped-down" banjo - to them it seems more authentic. In fact, banjos with all the "bells and whistles" have too much sustain for some some styles that depend heavily on strumming - all that sustain creates a morass of indistinct sounds not unlike shouting into an empty oil drum.
So there's a sort of dichotomy in the Five-String banjo world. You need to know up front that you can learn any kind of Five-String banjo picking on any playable Five-String banjo, so this may or may not affect your choice for your first instrument. But if your banjo hero is Pete Seeger, you may eventually gravitate toward a different kind of banjo than you would if your banjo hero is Earl Scruggs. For details on that issue, please check out CreekDontRise.com's article What is a Bluegrass Banjo?
This is actually a very minor consideration, but I'd just as soon get it out of the way early. In Five-String banjos, it's traditional for better banjos within a given line to use "planetary" tuners. These go in straight from the back so they maintain a traditional look, versus guitar-style tuners that stick out the side. Typically if you're looking at a specific manufacturer and one banjo has tuners that stick out the side and the other banjo has tuners that stick out the back, the second banjo is more likely to be higher up the price ladder. But that's only within a single manufacturer's line. So one banjo with guitar-style tuners may be $1200 and worth every penny, while a $400 model from different brand hanging next to it with planetary tuners may be only an overpriced wall decoration.
Tuners don't affect the sound at all, and only the best planetary tuners affect your ability to tune quickly and reliably. But it is a way to figure out quickly which banjos a particular manufacturer considers its better models.
Now we come to the bells and whistles part of our description. We'll start with a simple example and work our way to the most complex, but remember, more is not necessarily better. Plus I chose these examples because they illustrate the range of choices available, not because I am really trying to encourage you to start out, say, on a $4000 banjo.
Now that you've seen most of the various possible combinations of bells and whistles here's one more reminder that it's easier and cheaper for third-world manufacturers to put a tone ring or whatever on a banjo than it is to build a high-quality neck. Within many lines, more features just mean more features, not necessarily better playing.
Which Kind Do You Need?Please keep in mind that you can learn any style of Five-String playing on any Five-String with a good neck. However, the kind of music you eventually want to play may help you choose between starter banjos of different configurations.
Bluegrass:consider bells and whistles - If you are a big fan of Bluegrass music specifically, you will eventually want a banjo with more volume and sustain. So a "pop-top" resonator banjo might be your best first model - they are loud without being too expensive.
If you stick with it, you may eventually want to migrate toward a banjo with a wooden pot, resonator, real tone ring, and one-piece resonator flange - in other words, all the bells and whistles. Click on the link to the right to see our Bluegrass Banjo buyer's guide.
"Folk," "Old-Timey," "Frailing," and "Clawhammer": consider a Backless Banjo - On the other hand, you may prefer styles that have a strumming component (such as "frailing" and the style currently being called "clawhammer"). If that's the case, you may want to start - and to stick with - a backless banjo. If you can't find a backless banjo in your price range, and you can track down a cheap, but playable resonator banjo with a wood pot, just "lose" the resonator.
By the way, if you start investing "upscale" backless banjos, you may encounter two other options:
Note: We have just added a page that tells more about backless banjos and shows some examples for sale online. If you're thinking that's what you need, or you would just like to see what's available, click on the green box to the right.
Again, all you need to start out is an Five-String with a good neck, so don't let all of the options scare you off. These are just guidelines and suggestions.
Travel, Short Arms, Backpacking, or Child, consider a Short-Scale Banjo - If you have short arms, travel a lot, or plan to backpack the Appalachian Trail, you might want to consider a "Short-Scale" banjo. Several vendors have reissued an old format called the A-scale banjo, which is three frets shorter than a standard 5-string but plays much the same. It is great for students or travel, and the better models sound much like their full-length brethren. They're about the same length as a Martin Backpacker, if that helps, although they are wider.
In addition, even smaller banjos are available, banjos you can squeeze into your carry-on luggage or sleeping bag if you want, although you may wind up playing in the key of C instead of G.
About Buying UsedSince Five-Strings have been around for maybe two centuries, there are a lot of used ones on the market. The mid-20th century Folk Revival caused a surge of student instruments with relatively stripped-down features. Initially, these were made in the US by companies like Kay and Harmony; then manufacturing in Japan picked up. Then Bluegrass picking started surging in popularity about 1965, increasing the demand for louder, more "juiced-up" models. Because these fancier banjos were more labor-intensive, manufacturing in Japan became even more important. There were relative cheapies, like Hondo, but some brands like Aria included higher-end, better made instruments.
Then banjo started to become less popular, and most student Five-String manufacturing moved to China. It's possible that in ten year this will no longer be true, but up until now (2015), the big problem with Chinese-made banjos has been quality control - no matter what brand you buy, you run about a 50% chance of getting what you paid for your first time out.
Regarding US-made banjos, there are a few. Gibson is still making banjos, of course, but they're not cheap. Deering's "Good Time" banjos focus on having great necks and relatively few "bells and whistles," which keeps the cost down for exceptionally playable instruments for the price range. Certain other US manufacturers get their parts, or even fully-built banjos from other countries and do final assembly or setup here, so you have to read between the lines to know if you're getting a US-made banjo or not. Still, knowing that someone has actually looked at the thing between the factory and the retailer helps.
Once you start looking at used banjos, you may get overwhelmed. Remember, the neck is first; everything else is worthless without a good neck. I've seen 60-year old stripped-down cheap Harmony banjos I'd take anywhere, and 10-year old "juiced-up" "name-brand" imported banjos that are nothing more than wall decorations.
For tips on shopping the used market, check out the "CreekDontRise.com" article Evaluating Used Guitars. Most of that information applies to banjos a well.
Finally, if you do wind up settling for a relatively inexpensive Chinese import, be absolutely certain that you have a person who knows banjos inside and out check it out the first thing you get it, and set it up for you. Most of the low ratings these things accumulate are from folks who got a damaged or badly made unit and didn't realize it until after the return period was over. On the other hand, most of the high ratings they get are from first-timers who like the fact that it's shiny. In off brand Chinese imports, you have about a 40% chance of getting a good instrument on your first try. In "name brand" Chinese imports you run about a 60% chance of getting a good instrument on your first try. Either way, you need the thing checked out as soon as it arrives.
In the meantime, I also recommend checking out the CreekDontRise.com article Setting Up Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments - This is something you'll have to learn regardless of where you get your instrument.
Note about GoodtimesBy the way, I've just bought my third Goodtime. They've all been backless, since I have a 20-pound resonator/tone ring banjo to use for Bluegrass-style picking. In the process, I discovered that every time Deering makes a bit of an improvement in their line, more and more people adopt them for semi-professional and even professional use. So the users ask for more, and Deering delivers more. By now, Deering's Goodtime has quite blurred the line between "student" and professional. Their Artisan line (which is replacing the Classic line) sounds and looks like a classic old banjo, except that it's more playable than any but the best preserved, and requires far less maintenance.
There is one exception - the tone-ring, resonator Artisan plays like anything, and would work good for amateur Bluegrass or Bluegrass jams, but if you want a banjo for professional Bluegrass, you'll eventually want something with two coordinating rods and a heavier tone ring. Something like Deering's least expensive professional banjo, the Boston.
But for all purposes, a Deering Goodtime will meet your needs better than an import, even a fairly "juiced" import.
Our article comparing the three open-back Goodtimes I have owned is here.
ConclusionHope this didn't overwhelm you. Manufacturers and vendors like to overwhelm you with feature lists, and other things that are, frankly, meaningless if the banjo isn't actually playable. So hopefully, this will reduce the confusion a little.
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.
Consider Buying Used: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it home, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the seller.
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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