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4-String Banjo Buyers' Guide - from Riverboat Music(tm)
So you would like to buy a banjo. If you landed on this page because you don't know what kind of banjo you want, check out CreekDontRise.com's article What Kind of Banjo Do I Want?. If you landed on this page because you believe you need a Four-String banjo, then the question is "what kind of Four-String banjo do you want?"
Four string banjo is most often used for:
It might help you to know that you can play almost any of those kinds of music on almost any Four-String banjo, so if you've picked one up at a flea market or got one out of your uncle's attic and it's playable, you've got what you need to get started. Yes, Dixieland and Celtic players tune their banjos differently, but that only affects the kind of strings you put on it, not the construction of the thing.
Note: For more information about the history of the 4-string banjo and how some versions became more popular for certain kinds of music than others, please check out the Creek Don't Rise article "About 4-String Banjos."
About Used Four-StringsThe used Four-String banjo market is a little spotty in many areas. Most used Four-Strings that have survived in the American Heartland (where I live) were student models made in the 1950s and 1960s during the height of the Folk Revival. The Five-String banjo was far more popular in those days, but a number of companies still had parts and factory lines that dated back to the Jazz age. So a good number of Four-Strings hit the market as well. Most were barely played, since owners soon realized that they had bought the wrong instrument for the kind of music they wanted to play, so that could benefit you.
Ironically, many of those survivors - ugly as they can be - play better than most under-$400 student models today. The critical part of any banjo is the neck. It needs to be straight, or have an adjustment mechanism that you can use to make it straight.
If you're thinking about checking out the used banjo market, check out the CreekDontRise.com article on Evaluating and Buying Used Guitars - everything we say about guitar necks applies to banjo necks, too.
Although most of the professional Four-Strings from the 1890s to 1920s have long since been lost or fallen apart, you may stumble across a vintage professional model - we'll describe some of the differences further down. Still, you need to evaluate it the same way as you would evaluate a cheapy - it may have spent the last century in a hot attic and have a neck like a ski slope.
About Metal Pots - Here's an interesting twist. During the high point of banjo popularity, some manufacturers reduced the cost by using all-metal pots. After World War II, some banjos used all metal pots that had flanges built into them to which the resonator bolts. But between 1900 and 1935, quite a few banjos were produced whose pots were simply a metal cylinder. This is always a sign of a cheap banjo, but if you get one of these in playable condition, they do tend to be loud. I recently came across a postwar Japanese Aria with a cylindrical metal pot that is actually fun to play. So don't rule them out automatically. But understand they were "bottom-of-the-line" in their day.
About Set Up
Once you get a 4-string, unless you buy a top-of-the-line banjo from an unusually reputable local store, you'll need to set it up. If nothing else, you'll need to put the bridge on or put it on right - something that the best music stores in my area never manage to do. For information on setting up bridges, adjusting necks, etc., check out the CreekDontRise.com article Setting Up a 4-String Banjo
The Major BreakdownsThe main things that distinguish various kinds of 4-string banjos are length, and whether they have a resonator or not.
That said, you can play Dixieland or Celtic music on either of those banjos. But an experienced Dixieland player will probably prefer the one with the extra frets - Dixieland banjo players typically structure the chords so that the song's melody plays on the highest string. So it behooves them to play banjos with a lot of range. Incidentally, long-necked Four-Strings are usually called "Plectrum" banjos because they are picked with a flat pick. That name originally distinguished them from Five-String banjos which are usually played with the fingertips, fingernails, or fingerpicks.
Some Celtic banjo players prefer a long neck, but many are just as happy with a medium or short-necked-banjo. For that reason, manufacturers often describe a 17 fret Four-String as a "Tenor, or Irish" banjo. 19-fret Four-Strings are usually described as simply "Tenor." But, unfortunately, some manufacturers and many stores call all Four-String banjos "tenors," so you really do have to count the frets to know what you're looking at.
On the other hand, both Dixieland and Celtic players would usually rather have a banjo that produces a lot of volume:
So why make a backless Four-String? Some folks prefer the sound. Some folks prefer to learn on an instrument that can't be heard in the next county. Some folks in small acoustic ensembles need a quieter instrument. In addition, a backless banjo can weigh fifteen pounds less than some of the really "juiced-up" resonator banjos. so that's a consideration for some folks.
Other Distinguishing FeaturesIn addition to the resonator, some banjos add "tone rings," brass circles that are shaped like the edge of a bowl and sit between the "drum" head of the banjo and the pot (body). These add volume and sustain. Unfortunately, you can't see them unless the banjo has a transparent head, so you have to take the manufacturer's word for it. Sadly, some manufacturers of low-end import banjos lie, and some are so ignorant about banjos that they don't even know they're lying.
Most of the banjos that add tone rings also have a big metal flange holding the resonator on (instead of four little brackets, like most cheap resonator banjos). As the photo to the right shows, the Gold-Tone "Irish Tenor" 17-fret IT250F has a resonator, tone ring, and one-piece resonator flange. It is loud. This banjo also has a wooden pot (body), which you can't see in the photo. A "resonator flange" adds even more volume and sustain. Unfortunately, it also adds weight.
You may also encounter a "pop-top" Four-String, so called because the wooden pot and the flange or brackets that hold the resonator on have been replaced by a single metal ring with points like a pop bottle lid. These banjos are loud, but you'll never see a top-of-the line banjo using this construction. In fact the photo on the right is of an off-off-brand I wouldn't use as a canoe paddle. Some manufacturers advertise the single-metal-pot construction as a "tone ring" banjo. Again, be careful. You MAY find a playable Four-String in this configuration, but they're relatively rare, since the Four-String's popularity waned a few years before pop-top banjo bodies were introduced.
The takeaway is that a resonator, tone ring, and resonator flange increase a banjo's volume and sustain (as well as its weight and probable cost), They may also improve a banjo's usefulness for playing with big bands or in noisy bars. But they don't necessarily improve its quality.
Peg ConsiderationsIn Four-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 go in from 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. This is illustrated by the same company's low- and high-end banjos in the little photo to the right. 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. One of my best-playing banjos - a Deering GoodTime - has guitar-style tuners, and one of my "fancy" import banjos with planetary tuners is harder to play or keep in tune. But since the question comes up, and most manufacturers do reserve planetary tuners for their better banjos, it'll help you know what you're looking at.
Tuning ConsiderationsThere are not one, but four popular ways to tune a 4-string banjo. Which tuning you use depends on what kind of music you plan to play. Because you can tune any four-string banjo to any of the popular tunings (with the right strings), that won't influence your choice that much. But we did include a big section on the different tunings and the kinds of strings you might want to use for each one. It's near the bottom of the page, after the banjo examples.
Where to StartFrankly, I'd start in Craig's list or wherever you shop for used banjos in your area. Some folks will call any four-string banjo a plectrum, tenor, or Irish banjo, so don't let the nomenclature put you off. If you are looking to play Dixieland or one of its relatives, you'll probably want to go to a 19-fret banjo eventually, but if you can get a good deal on a 17-fret instrument, or if you have short arms, that might be the way to get started.
That said, look at the price of the new ones I list further down the page before you shell out a lot of cash for abused instrument. And avoid folks who think that the banjo should cost more because it's a "collector's item." You don't plan to put it in a glass case; you plan to scratch it up, wear down the frets, adjust it to your liking and so on. If this will be your first fretted instrument, take along a friend who plays banjo if you can. If you can't, take along a friend who plays guitar or mandolin.
Finally, if you do wind up settling for a third-world 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.
To give you a head start, here is a range of Four-String banjos that are worth checking out. You'll see that you go up in cost as you go down the page.
Surprisingly, the least expensive playable new Four-String banjos that I've encountered are made in the USA by a leading company. You can find cheaper new 4-strings, but I have yet to try one that wouldn't make a better canoe paddle.
Although I've included some high-end examples, I'm not really recommending that you buy a high-end banjo online, unless you're in an area where they're hard to get otherwise. That said, I have yet to get a Deering banjo that wasn't perfect and playable out of the box (once I adjusted the bridge - a 10-minute process).
When you do buy, whatever you buy, please either:
Notes About Tuning and String GaugesBecause of their history, 4-string banjos have four popular tunings.
The "short version" is:
Once again, any of these tunings can be used on any 4-string banjo, but you'll want to be certain to use appropriate strings.
Note about Strings - If you want to play a tenor guitar or banjo (ADGC tuning) in Irish banjo tuning (EADG), you will need heavier strings. Yes, you can just tune the strings down, but they'll be sloppy and the neck will need serious adjustment. If you want to go the other way (from Irish tuning to tenor tuning), you will need lighter strings. If you try to tune the same strings up a fourth, you may break your banjo.
I always recommend buying new strings soon after you get a new fretted instrument anyway. Usually I recommend doing your preliminary setup before you put them on because it stresses the strings. But if you're changing from Irish to tenor tuning or vice versa, you need to change the strings first.
Below is a chart showing recommended medium and light gauge strings for tenor and Irish tunings respectively, taken from various manufacturers' recommendations. "Medium" give relatively high volume and brighter tone, and tend to stay in tune longer. "Light" are easier to play, especially if you're doing a lot of fancy stuff with your left hand or don't have as much time to practice (and keep your left hand strength and calluses up) as you should. I confess, I use light strings on almost everything, but if I was playing four-hour gigs every night, I'd probably migrate to medium eventually on some of my instruments. For beginners, I always recommend light gauge strings.
Recommended string gauges always vary slightly from one manufacturer to another, and many musicians wind up buying individual strings and "customizing" a set to their liking, so please take this as a general guideline. Also, many nice brands, including D'Addario have only one set for each tuning, and they tend to fall somewhere in the middle between "medium" and "light." So don't feel obligated to choose the strings I list here - if you're already used to playing fretted instruments, the "medium/light" strings will probably serve you just as well. For example, I would personally choose the D'Addario tenor banjo strings over Ernie Ball (sorry, EB fans). But I wanted to show the typical range between medium and light, and D'Addario only sells one weight.
Finally, some of the individual products I show in the little table are carried in such small numbers that you may have troube finding those specific strings - even on the vendor sites I link to. Again, these are ONLY guidelines.
ConclusionWhen I have a chance, I'll provide more examples here, but hopefully I've given you enough information to start you on your quest. In the meantime, if you're going to order mail order or online, you might benefit from the caveats below.
And we'll be glad to hear from you if anything we've said is confusing or incomplete or ???
Enjoy your music!
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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