Which banjo should I buy?
October 13, 2010 2:45 AM   Subscribe

What to look out for when buying a banjo?

I'm looking to buy a budget banjo (~£175), but have no experience with what to look for. I've played guitar and bass for a number of years and am pretty comfortable with those instruments.

Which models should I be eyeing? What should I check on a prospective instrument? If going second hand, which models enter my price range? Which parts of a banjo are the worst for wear and tear?

posted by Cantdosleepy to Shopping (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Can you make it to Andy Perkins' place in Faversham? He has a couple new at that price range.

You're going to have to watch out for low quality tuners at that price. Quite often, basic banjos use a simple ungeared friction peg for the fifth string. This is NBG for getting it in tune. Setup's critical on a banjo, so go somewhere that knows about them. The only thing that wears out is strings, really, though there is a nasty habit of banjo manufacturers to use tiny mandolin frets which are hard to play and do (eventually) wear out.

Dunno if you can get a used Deering Goodtime for that kind of money. You can pretty much re-sell a used one for much the same price as you bought it. No-name banjos, not so much.

You didn't actually say you wanted a five string; there are tenor and plectrum ones with four strings too. They're very different.
posted by scruss at 4:52 AM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: (On preview: What scruss said about the 5th string tuner.)

What kind of music are you going to be playing on it? For bluegrass you'd typically be looking at a 5 string banjo with a resonator. For old-timey stuff, most people play 5-string open-back banjos. Four-string banjos are usually used for jazz (tenor banjos are probably the most common, but there are also plectrum banjos which have longer necks), and you can find 4-strings with shorter necks that are often used for Irish music (The shorter neck lets you tune it like a mandolin, only an octave lower.)

Apart from the stuff you'd check on any stringed instrument (Overall fit & finish, making sure the action is OK up the neck, etc.) Cheaper banjos will usually have geared guitar-style tuners on the peghead, which are functionally fine but can start to bug you aesthetically the more you look at banjos with planetary tuners that come out of the back of the peghead instead of sticking out to the side.

If you can, find an instrument with a wooden rim. A lot of lower-end instruments have rims made of either aluminum or plastic, which tend not to sound as nice. (Although an aluminum rim would work fairly well for bluegrass, jazz, or irish music since it does impart a "bright" quality to the tone.)

In terms of wear & tear: if you play your banjo a lot the head may get a bit dingy where your hand touches it or where your pick(s) or fingernails hit it occasionally... if that bugged you you'd be looking at replacing the head, which involves undoing all the tension hooks. Other than that, though, I really haven't had to do anything other than change my strings. If you lurk around banjohangout.org you will see that bluegrass guys love to tinker endlessly with their banjos, upgrading parts and hot-rodding this, that, and the other... but really they can be as low-maintenance as you want them to be.

Poking around amazon.co.uk it looks like your budget puts you in the low-end Pacific Rim import range. I'm not sure what the used banjo market is like in London but in general, makes and models to keep an eye out for are the Deering Goodtime, Saga SS-10 (a mid-range open-back 5 string, I've been playing one happily for years), and I've heard generally favorable opinions about Gold Tone banjos as well.
posted by usonian at 5:04 AM on October 13, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the great advice guys. I guess I'm looking for the most versatile banjo - probably a five string? I'll be starting from a fairly indie rock place - Modest Mouse's 'Bukowski', Sparklehorse's 'Cow', that sort of thing, indie/alt-country - and then hopefully exploring the world of banjo from there.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:22 AM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: I was about to recommend a trip to see Andy Perkins too. I agree with pretty much everything above.

See this earlier thread about Korean banjos (a million different names, but most are the exact same banjo beneath the name).

Looking at recently finished eBay listings, I doubt you'd find a Deering for less than £250 if you're lucky. Gold Tone banjos (which Andy Perkins carries) are generally considered to be a good compromise between cheaper Korean banjos and good-sounding/long-lasting/stay-in-tune higher end banjos. They only cost a little more than Korean banjos, but you don't outgrow them in a year. If I were starting again, I'd skip the cheap Korean banjo I bought first and go straight for the Gold Tone. And I'd absolutely recommend doing that if you're planning to play in front of people or record.
posted by K.P. at 5:33 AM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: From an indie rock perspective, where you might want to be able to strum, fingerpick, or use a plectrum in different places, you might actually be better served by a 4-string or a 6-string; the thing about 5 string banjo is that short, 5th drone string which lends itself well to the picking patterns of bluegrass, clawhammer, and the older minstrel "stroke" style but gets in the way if you want to just strum chords, since you don't actually fret it. Of course, you could just take off the fifth string until you get around to exploring those styles.
posted by usonian at 6:12 AM on October 13, 2010

Best answer: > Cheaper banjos will usually have geared guitar-style tuners on the peghead, which are functionally fine but can start to bug you aesthetically

Except that, until you get to a remarkably high price, straight-through planetary tuners are crap. They're hard to tune, and cheap ones fail miserably. I have Gotoh guitar tuners on my main banjo through choice, and they're smooth, accurate, light and about 1/5th the price of comparable planetaries.
posted by scruss at 12:11 PM on October 13, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice guys. I (shock, horror!) prefer the look of guitar-style tuners.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 5:24 AM on October 14, 2010

« Older How to support a colleague going through a divorce   |   Is cruising in neutral really saving me gas? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.