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Other Kinds of Banjos - Buyers' Guide from Riverboat Music
This page will be for banjos and banjo-like instruments that don't fall into the standard banjo category, including banjos played like mandolins, banjos played like ukeles, 12-string banjos, etc.
I'll be honest, none of these are really "starter instruments." They are designed for folks who already play mandolin, ukelele, banjo, or guitar, but are looking for a different sound. This doesn't "put off" experienced musicians, but folks starting off with one of these are likely to be discouraged by the lack of resources or instructors to help beginners.
That is true for some of the other configurations you may come across in flea markets or specialty shops. They have their purpose, but you're better off starting with a standard configuration. As other configurations come to my attention, we'll post them here. And we certainly welcome your questions.
Banjo-style Ukeleles and MandolinsIf you already play ukelele or mandolin, what are you waiting for? If you don't, you probably shouldn't pick up a uke or mandolin banjo to start on.
Many folks know that the ukelele was a popular instrument among young adults in the 1920s. What most folks don't know was that the mandolin was almost as popular as the guitar in North American homes around 1900. When plectrum ("Dixieland") banjo sounds invaded the early airwaves and record stores, musical instrument manufacturers made it "easy" for the hundreds of thousands of folks who already played mandolin or ukelele - they flooded the market with instruments that played like ukeleles or mandolins, but had a drum head, so they sounded something like banjos. New versions are still available today, and many excellent vintage examples are on the used market, often sold as "banjos" with no other description.
The ukelele banjo has four strings, like a plectrum banjo, although they're higher pitched. Strummed "properly," the instrument can do a pretty good imitation of a plectrum banjo playing a little "up the neck." If the instrument has "gut" or nylon strings, the plunky sound is reminiscent of pre-1900 banjo, which may be more authentic for certain kinds of music. Some plectrum banjo players double on uke banjo just to add a bit of variety. In fact, ukelele banjos are still available new, and you may be able to find or order one in your local music store.
If you're a uke player already and you want to keep something close to the plunky sound of your uke, you may prefer an open-backed version like the version above. The resonator version shown to the right will have a brighter sound and more ring.
I see uke banjos in restorable (but unplayable) condition at flea markets all the time, usually priced as though they were rare collectors' items. They were a novelty item back when they were made, and very few were made well. Try not to spend more than $100 on one of them, unless it's worth more to you as a decorating piece. There are also a few $100 versions floating around the Internet. Most of them are basically decorations, too. If you do buy any that must cross the Pacific ocean to get to you, be certain to buy from a company with return privileges, including the right to have postage reimbursed if the toy arrives broken.
The photos I included above are of Gold Tone banjos, which do cross the Pacific, but they are designed and supported by an actual banjo manufacturer. They're not cheap. But if you're really thinking about adding this instrument to your arsenal, they're worth considering.
The mandolin banjo has eight strings, almost always metal. The result is that it "rings" more than it "plunks," and can play very loud. Again, it's relatively high pitch, but in a pinch, you can imitate a plectrum banjo playing "up the neck." A few "tenor mandolin" examples have been made with long necks and strings so they play closer to the range of a 6-string banjo, but these are rare. If you already play mandolin, either instrument would be worth tracking down. On the other hand, there's no compelling reason that a mandolin player who wants to play strummed or flatpicked banjo couldn't buy a 4-string banjo and retune it an octave down from his or her mandolin.
Much of what I said about the uke banjos also applies to the mandolin banjo. They're best for people who already play mandolin and would like to occasionally sneak in a banjo sound, or folks who already play banjo and want to have a version that plays really hight notes. The Gold Tone shown above has a resonator, but not a resonator flange (which brings a tad more volume to the resonator-equipped uke banjo shown above.) Like the other Gold Tone banjos on this page, it is made in Asia, but at least it's backed by a real company in North America. To see its listing on Amazon, click here.
Dean made these for a single year, but they were not well received. Deering makes one (shown above), but it's not cheap. I gather they're hard to get used to, even for guitar players. If sheer volume is your goal, this might be the axe for you. But I would definitely try one out before I spent money on it. In fact, I don't have any vendor links for this, because I think you really need to go to a store that will set it up for you and let you spend time with it before you fork over the value of a good used car. :-)
The GoldTone 12-string banjo is an alternative to cashing in your 401K. My experience with Gold Tones in this price range is that they play very nicely when they're properly set up, and anything knocked loose on its journey across the Pacific is screwed back on. That said, 12-string banjo is a very unusual instrument and not everybody takes to it, so be sure to buy from someone with a very good return policy. Interestingly, this one comes with a built in magnetic humbucker-style pickup, which don't work as well on banjos as they do on electric guitar. But it may be something you would like to try. To see the thing's description on Amazon, click here
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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