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|Written by Paul D. Race for , , and|
Bluegrass Banjo Buyers' Guide - from Riverboat Music(tm)
All Bluegrass banjos are 5-strings, yet not all 5-string banjos are ideal for bluegrass.
That said, you can learn any kind of Five-String banjo style - including Bluegrass - on any playable Five String banjo. But once you're confident enough to start thinking about joining a Bluegrass-oriented band, you'll be wanting a banjo that has exceptional volume and sustain. So you may have learned - or you may want to learn - on a banjo that is backless or has a simple wooden pot and resonator, but as you move up the Bluegrass "food chain," you'll be working your way toward a banjo that has:
That's the ideal, and generally banjos equipped this way come in near the top of their respective lines as far as cost is concerned. However, in the late 1960s, when Bluegrass was beginning to hit the "mainstream" through groups like Flatt & Scruggs and shows like Bonnie and Clyde, demand for affordable banjos with a lot of volume and sustain led to the invention of the "pop-top" banjo. These have a resonator, but the wooden pot, brass tone ring, and cast resonator flange have all been combined into one big metal piece that is shaped roughly like an old fashioned pop-bottle top. They have a more metallic sound than a true high-end Bluegrass banjo, but they are almost as loud, and they're much, much cheaper. Lots of enthusiasts have used them to get their first Bluegrass gigs.
You can find more information on all of these features and options in the CreekDontRise.com article What is a Bluegrass Banjo?.
A Note about Tuning Pegs - originally, banjos were home-made instruments with "friction" pegs stuck through the back of the head. As long as the strings were "gut," you could keep them in tune fairly well. But when the strings went to metal, more tension was required. On many banjos, friction pegs were replaced by geared pegs, sometimes called "machine heads."
The cheapest kind of geared pegs were the kind used by guitars, with an exposed worm gear. These caused the knobs you used for tuning to stick out the side (unless you had a slotted-head banjo, which was going out of style by then.) Ironically, some banjos that went to these machine head tuners kept a friction tuner on the fifth string, because the gear would be too obvious on the side of the neck.
To maintain an "authentic" appearance, manufacturers figured out something called "planetary" tuners. These stick out the back, but they have internal gearing that helps them turn easily and hold their tuning better than friction tuners. In fact, you can tune a banjo with planetary tuners faster than you can tune a banjo with machine head tuners. Since a lot of banjo players in those days would change tunings for certain keys or songs, that was a definite advantage. Then one well-known picker worked out a solo during which he would tune a couple strings down and up in time to the music, and a mess of other pickers learned that you couldn't do that kind of thing with a machine-head banjo. So when you see the list of "requirements" for a true Bluegrass banjo, planetary tuners are often added to the list.
By the way, most 5-string banjos today use a "geared" (machine head) tuner on the fifth string. It's enclosed so you can see the gears, but they're so reliable compared to friction pegs, that most pickers would rather have them than something "prettier."
In case you want a more consistent look, you can get a planetary tuner for your fifth-string. But you'd have to get a pretty good one to serve you as well as an equivalently-priced machine head peg. A flakey tuning peg on your banjo's fifth string can make you rue the day you were born.
Planetary tuners cost more than machine head tuners. Good planetary tuners cost a lot more than machine head tuners. So you might draw the conclusion that if you see a banjo with planetary tuners, it is an "upgrade" instrument. Usually it is. But cheap import planetary tuners will not hold their tune nearly as well as equivalently-priced machine head tuners. So if you're looking at "midrange" banjos, don't automatically assume that the one with planetary tuners is the better instrument. (I've had banjos with planetary tuners that sucked and banjos whose open-geared machine head tuners were solid and consistent.)
What Else are Bluegrass Banjos Good For?Frankly, they have too much sustain to be optimum for styles that depend on a lot of strumming, be it clawhammer, frailing, or Dixieland. However, they serve well in styles that involve flatpicking individidual notes, like traditional Celtic, which tends to play either melodies or arpeggios. Yes, to a Bluegrass player, seeing an Irish picker play leads on 5-string banjo with a flat pick may seem like blasphemy, but the Irish were actually playing banjos that way since before Bluegrass was invented, so cut them some slack.
Also, a number of Country guitar players have taken to flatpicking a 6-string banjo recently, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some of them playing hybrid styles on 5-strings in a few years.
ExamplesBecause folks like asking us for specifics, we will list a few banjos in each category to help you get a general idea of what is available. Again, be ready to have someone who knows what they're doing look it over as soon as it comes in the house. This is especially important if the banjo is made in China.
You'll notice that I started with the least expensive and worked my way toward the more expensive banjos in this class. No, I don't ordinarily recommend buying a banjo that costs more than your car online, unless you live somewhere with no other access, but I wanted to show a range of products.
Why These Manufacturers? - Though we have certainly overlooked a couple dozen brands that look just as good in photographs, we tried to start out with manufacturers who try to stand behind their products, even their Chinese products. Washburn (who is owned by Oscar Schmidt) and Dean stand behind their banjos better than many "manufacturers" who are really only distributors for Chinese-made instruments with American-sounding names and have no service or support to speak of.
Gold Tone's Banjos are at least partially manufactured in China, but they claim that "final assembly and inspection" occurs at their headquarters in Florida.
And, of course Deering's banjos are made in the USA, under ruthless quality control, and they are very well supported by their manufacturer. By the way, while their professional Bluegrass banjo line starts with the Boston and goes up from there, I give "honorable mention" to the resonator version of the Goodtime Special Classic, which - in my opinion - is only lacking dual coordinator rods to be considered a professional instrument. No it's not as fancy as the Chinese ones in the same price range. And some of the better Chinese banjos will outperform these when they're properly set up. They're certainly no substitute for Deering's "pro" banjos. But they are made in America by a company that supports their products and sets each one up before it goes out the door. I would gig with one without a second thought.
We have left a few manufacturers out just because their products are similar to those represented here. We have left many more manufacturers out because I wouldn't use one of their banjos for anything more demanding than a canoe paddle. Unfortunately, people threaten lawsuits if I try to list those and say what I think about them. If you have a question about a manufacturer that is not represented in our pages, please contact us, and we'll tell you what we know.
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 stores, 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 they all have the same five or six banjos, which they tend to sell you right out of the crate that brought them from China with no service or support to speak of. Of course internet vendors do the same thing, but at least they offer a variety and try to give you a break on price. So the best thing I can do for readers in my situation is to tell you to buy from vendors that have a good return policy, to keep copies of all paperwork, and to have a pro rigorously examine each instrument as soon as it comes into the house. 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 a lesson learned.
In addition to having decent return policies (for those who need them), 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.
Other Places to Look
If you're shopping used, remember, if you're just starting out, the main thing is to get a Five-String with a good neck - if you can pick up a 1960s backless Harmony for $75 and learn on it, go for it. You can always take it to the beach or hang on to it to give your kids or drunk friends something to bang on after you've gotten your use out of it.
But when you start shopping for a "real" Bluegrass banjo, you need to know what you're looking for - most owners and a lot of music stores don't actually know anything about banjos to speak of, and they'll tell you what they think you want to hear. In fact, I've left two "name" brands out of all my banjo listings because their advertising materials claim they have tone rings, when they don't. (Their banjos are actually made in China in another company's factory, so you're not missing anything anyway, but it's the false advertising that ticks me off.) In addition, some owners lie on purpose. I've seen products represented as desirable name brands that only had one piece from the company they claim - the things are really glommed together from spare parts from a dozen banjos, but the ads say nothing about that.
When you're ready for a real Bluegrass banjo, if you can't find one you can afford on the used market (real tone ring, wood pot, resonator, one-piece resonator flange, etc.), and you wind up settling for a "pop-top" banjo, make certain you don't spend more for a used one than you would a new one. And if the neck isn't arrow straight (or bowed slightly, but consistently, so it looks like it could be adjusted), run don't walk. Once again, if you can possibly take an accomplished banjo player (preferred) or at least a guitar or mandolin player along to look at it, he or she may be able to spot potential problems that you would never see.
And don't assume that online discounts are all they're cracked up to be. I recently "test-drove" a "high-end" Chinese-made "name brand" banjo in a local music store. I was surprised to see all the features I recommend for bluegrass - real tone ring, solid resonator flange, wooden pot. I was even more surprised to realize that it had great tone and playability. No, it wasn't a Maple Blossom, but it was definitely a $960 banjo - the store owner's asking price. Then I saw the "same" banjo online for $495, with the reviews evenly divided between 5-star reviewers who've never owned a banjo before and liked it because it was shiny and 1-star reviews from people who got instruments that they never got to play right. What was the difference? "The touch of the master's hand," literally. And I wouldn't dream of using the "online price" to try to talk the store owner who spent hours setting up that banjo that his effort counted for nothing.
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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