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Written by Paul D. Race for , , and

5-String Banjo Buyers' Guide - Openback Suggestions - from Riverboat Music(tm)

Openback banjos are relatively lightweight. Within a given manufacturer's line, they're usually relatively inexpensive. That said, you can learn any kind of Five-String banjo style on them, including Bluegrass, so they're a good place to start, no matter what kind of music you like. That said, they are especially suited for "Folk," "Old-Timey," "Frailing," and "Clawhammer" styles, and a few of of the banjos on this page will play as well as a lot of old "collector's items" that are demanding high prices today. And they'll hold together better.

By the way, if you start investing "upscale" backless banjos, you may encounter two other options:

  • "Long-neck" banjos - These were popularized by Pete Seeger, who used to jam with lots of people and find himself playing in peculiar keys. At first he lengthened his banjo neck two frets' worth, which let him play in Bb using C chords. But that wasn't enough - eventually he lengthened it three frets' worth, which gave him even more flexibility. The folks who find this most useful are those who - like Pete - play mostly banjo, and often find themselves playing along with folks who like Ab or whatever.

  • A 'frailing scoop' on a Gold-Tone backless banjo.  Click for bigger photo."Frailing scoops" - this is a relatively new accommodation for people who use the back of their fingernails to play everything but the high G string. Within the last few decades, some folks who used those techniques decided they prefer the sound if they strum the banjo partway up the neck, instead of over the head. But those silly high frets they never used got in the way. So they experimented with carving out a "scoop" near the base of the neck - something the original folks who used those playing styles never did. Eventually, they talked certain banjo makers into adding a scoop to most or all of their backless banjos. The real old-time banjo players they're imitating never needed this and neither do you. But if a banjo comes that way, don't be afraid of it.

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. For descriptions of all the options that are typically available on Five-String banjos, please check out our Five String Banjo Buyer's Guide.


Because 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.

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. Also it might be worth knowing that Oscar Schmidt now owns Washburn, and they make several other brands, so if you see the little flower decal on a banjo's peg head, it's a pretty good guess that the banjo was made in the same factory as the first two on our list below. Oscar Schmidt (and Washburn) 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. I don't know if it's really fair to point out that I've tried most of the banjos on this page and owned a few. I currently own a standard Goodtime, a standard Goodtime Artisan, and a Classic Special Goodtime (which has been replaced by the Artisan Special Goodtime). Other backless banjos in the same price range may brag more features (dual coordinator rods, neck binding, adjustable neck, etc.) but I like the simplicity and craftsmanship of my Goodtimes.

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 publish what I really 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 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 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.

Update for 2017 - Since I put this page together in 2015, Deering has "upped the ante" with their Goodtime banjos, and is blurring the lines between "student" and "pro." They've replaced their "Classic" line with their "Artisan" line. Both have more pro features and more traditional appearance than their basic Goodtime line, but the Artisan looks more like a nineteenth-century banjo, and the stain on the fingerboard goes all the way through (something that didn't happen on the Classic).

I actually bought a standard Artisan when they came out just so I could A/B test it against my standard Goodtime. Except for the pro features, they play almost exactly the same. The Classic Special is still my favorite open-back, because of the beautiful "chimey" sound the tone ring produces. And yes, the Artisan Special plays and sounds exactly like it.

Here's something to think about: my pro "Bluegrass" banjo is also a Deering (a Sierra), with very similar specs on the neck. It is so close, as far as the fingerboard, etc., is concerned that I can go from any of my Goodtimes to the Sierra and not have to make ONE playing adjustment. Another way to say this might be that playing Goodtimes is a lot like playing pro banjos (although if you play pro Bluegrass, you're going to want to upgrade at least to something in the Boston class).

Not to be left out, Gold-Tone has upgraded their CC-100 to a CC-100+, which includes a tone ring. With a traditional appearance and planetary tuners, it is also "pushing the envelope" for student and intermediate banjos. Not as far as the Goodtime Specials, to be sure, and it will need more setup work when you get it than the Goodtimes. But the price difference may be worth that to you.

In other words, you have more, better options this year than you had just a year ago. And you no longer have to worry that if you buy a "intermediate" backless banjo that you'll outgrow it any time soon.

Banjo ModelIllustration (If available)
Where Made
Online Availability
Washburn B7
Click a button in the right column for details
Oscar Schmidt OB3
Click a button in the right column for details
Fender Rustler Open-Back
Click a button in the right column for details

Gold Tone Cripple Creek CC-50 Open Back
Click a button in the right column for details
Deering Goodtime
Click a button in the right column for details

Deering Goodtime "Special"
Click a button in the right column for details

(The "Special" includes a Tone Ring, which makes the sound much brighter.)
Gold Tone CC-100+
Click a button in the right column for details

(The CC-100 PLUS includes planetary tuners and a tone ring.)
Deering Goodtime Artisan
Click a button in the right column for details

(The "Artisan" includes a more traditional appearance, planetary tuners, and "spikes" for making key changes easier.)
Deering Goodtime Artisan "Special"
Click a button in the right column for details

(The "Special" includes a Tone Ring, which makes the sound much brighter.)
Gretch Long Neck 150LN
Click a button in the right column for details
Deering-Built Vega Old Tyme Wonder
Click a button in the right column for details

Other Places to Look

Craigs' list, now that you know what you're looking for.

On the other hand, while I was researching some of the individual banjos above, I also kept coming across Elderly Instruments' extensive online collection of open-back banjos. Elderly has not given me permission to link directly to instruments on their site, but if you jump to their open-back banjo page you'll see many of these and more, including handmade and custom instruments I don't know enough about to comment on one way or the other. Unlike 99% of online vendors, they inspect and set up every banjo before it goes out, so there may be a cost differential, but in most cases it's very well justified. If you stop by, tell them I sent you.


Hope 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.

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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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