What's a good banjolele/tenor banjo choice for a beginner?
January 22, 2011 9:43 AM   Subscribe

I have been thinking about getting a banjolele, or possibly a tenor banjo, and I am looking for suggestions.

I am beginner-level. I remember half a dozen chords on my old electric guitar, and it has been years since I was practicing regularly. But we recently got our toddler a $20 ukulele to bang on, and I think 4 strings look easier to learn on than six. While I could just get another low-end ukulele for my own use, something about the banjo-ish sound is more appealing to me.

I guess my banjolele fascination started about a year ago, after listening to "Thank you, Jeeves". Getting our son the ukulele has kicked that up a notch. I have looked about a bit on and off, lurking on banjohangout, ebay, and various musical instrument sites. I have not yet gotten to the point of plunking down cash for something, because (a) I'm still not sure, and (b) most everything I see seems pretty pricey, especially compared to more normal style ukuleles. I can easily justify spending up to $100, no problem. Between 100 and 200, I start getting a little more cautious -- is this something I am really going to get that much enjoyment from? Anything more than $200, and I'm going to have to wait for my birthday to roll around before I could spend that sort of cash. I have even thought about trying to make my own, but we live in a small apartment, with a young child. I don't really have space or tools to work on one right now.

I have also noticed banjoleles seem to be more expensive than 4-string tenor banjos (probably due to scarcity?), and I know that a tenor banjo can be tuned ukulele-style, so I was considering that as a possible substitute. I am a big guy, with large hands, so a bigger fretboard might also push me in that direction.

Another concern is I don't want anything too loud - like Bertie, I do have neighbors. I believe open backed instruments are less loud than ones with resonators?

So any suggestions on which way I should go, and where I should look? Either online, or near Hoboken, NJ (which means NYC area). Any particular brands to look for, or avoid?

New instrument, or vintage? While I like the idea of owning a 1920/30s era instrument, I do know vintage instruments often have peg tuners, which are tougher to use, and that shorter scale instruments are harder to keep in tune, so modern may be preferable.

Or should I postpone my dreams of banjo/banjolele, and just get a tenor or baritone uke? I see on Amazon I can pick a decently rated one of those up for under $100. I could learn on that, and if I make sufficient progress, then later spend the bigger bucks on a banjo uke or tenor banjo. The skills should translate directly, correct?
posted by fings to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think you'd be happier with a nice ukulele than a banjo. I understand getting bitten by the banjo bug--I was when I was 16. It's a really difficult instrument, though, with a much steeper curve for learning. You can pick up a uke and fairly easily bang out some chords. It's not so easy, really, to do that with a banjo. I don't think buying yourself a decent, sub-$100 uke as a stopgap measure could possibly hurt.

(Also, there's a huge difference in sound quality between a $20 uke and, say, an $80 uke.)

And even without a resonator, banjos are loud. I recommend both a towel thrown into the body of an open-backed instrument, and a mute, if you have neighbors.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:54 AM on January 22, 2011

I have both a tenor banjo (tuned like a uke) and a banjolele and I never ever play the tenor, and can't get enough of the banjolele. The Tenor is super-heavy and louder and harsher than I want it to be. The banjolele is small and light and nimble and just comfortable. I'm six three and my hands are proportionately sized.

Now, for sure, the individual instruments matter as much as anything. Maybe my tenor is just a POS and my banjolele is a peach. I don't know. And, of course, the tenor is steel string and the banjolele is nylon. But I am fairly confident saying that the benefits of the banjolele outweigh the benefits of the tenor banjo tuned like a uke. The tenor banjo is a lovely instrument, but I think it has evolved to be played like a tenor banjo, and not like a ukulele. The banjolele, although a strange hybrid, fills a satisfying little evolutionary inlet.

I've played a few Dixies, those weird all-metal ones, and they are great. I've played a few no-name banjoleles and they varied wildly. I'd stay away from the very cheap tambourine style banjoleles - they are untuneable, in my experience. I have an Elkhardt Banjo-ette, and it is terrific.

I got mine on eBay for around $100, I've spent maybe $20 on a series of new bridges. I intend to replace the pegs with peghead planetary gears (I even asked about it) . It's my favorite instrument.
posted by dirtdirt at 10:06 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have an old Gretch banjolele that sounds pretty good but find that there's very little sustain and it gets tiring on the ears pretty fast. Also, they're kind of heavy and you're less likely to pick it up on a whim. You might want to think about a Venezuelan cuatro or tenor guitar. They can both be found pretty cheap and have a much nicer sound

I got this cuatro on my local kijiji for 25 bucks. (warning-I'm warbling along with it)
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:17 AM on January 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've got a wee vintage banjo uke rather like this one (mine's a "Dandy Line"), that I bought on eBay, and while it has that jangly banjo sound you want, it's nowhere near too loud, like you might get with a proper George Formby monster, or a modern banjo. You can strum it quietly to yourself and bother no one. It's a great size, lightweight, super portable. You're right to avoid wooden tuning pegs, but I don't think you'll find too many on banjo-ukes... I tend to see them more on traditional bodied, pre-30s ukes.
posted by mumkin at 10:36 AM on January 22, 2011

I say you should hold off a very short while and get the banjolele Flea Market Music is about to start selling. Video from NAMM is here.
posted by treblemaker at 11:05 AM on January 22, 2011

I have a couple of 20s slingerland banjo ukes (the cheaper ones: May-Bells), and they sound great, stay mostly in tune, etc. I got one on ebay for about 40 bucks, and had to replace the older friction tuners, but had another one that worked fine for only a little more.

If you get a newish banjo uke, I have found that Gold Tone makes nicely made little critters. All of 'em sound pretty good, and are genuinely solidly made and easy to tune, but a little less 'rickety' and old-timey.
posted by LucretiusJones at 12:40 PM on January 22, 2011

PhoBWan, that's in part why I'm looking at a banjo-uke/banjolele instead of a full blown banjo.

dirtdirt, I think you've talked me out of going the tenor banjo route.

bonobo, the cuatro looks interesting, though I don't see anyone selling one for $25 near me. Still, I'll keep it in mind.

mumkin, Lucretius, thanks. Looks like I should lurk more on eBay.

treblemaker thanks, I didn't know that Flea was introducing a banjolele. It's an interesting thought. Any idea on price? I see that fleas and flukes are both over $200, so if I want to go that route, I'll probably have to wait until May.
posted by fings at 12:49 PM on January 22, 2011

I just got a uke yesterday, a sweet mahogany Fender Hau'Oli for $150 case included. Given you know a little guitar, you might want to consider a baritone uke. It is a longer scale, and is usually tuned like the bottom four strings of a guitar (although I usually tune mine I-V-I-IV). Might give you a bit of a jump on the learning curve. Also, the soprano uke has that pesky high string on top, which as a guitar player might throw you off a little. Good luck on either choice, however if you don't make sure to learn this song first, kittens will die.
posted by timsteil at 12:52 PM on January 22, 2011

I respectfully disagree with timsteil: the ukulele's high string is worth getting used to. Search your feelings; you know it to be true. The non-guitar side awaits.
posted by No-sword at 1:49 PM on January 22, 2011

Ukelele, banjo, whatever: as long as it's got a proper wooden neck, it should burn equally well.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:33 AM on January 24, 2011

Update: I have picked up a baritone ukulele (Lanikai LU-21B). I also have tuned up my son's Mahalo U-30 soprano, and played around a bit with it when he lets me. I am working on my chords, which are going well, though my big discovery has been my picking & rhythm need a lot of work. The soprano fretboard is too cramped for my liking, which makes me glad I didn't just pick up a soprano scale banjolele.

I do like the re-entrant tuning on the soprano though, so now I have been looking at the possibility of a tenor uke (or re-stringing my baritone at some later date, when I get tired of normal playing). Meanwhile, I will be saving my pennies, with an eye looking for a concert or tenor sized banjolele down the road.

Thanks to all of you!
posted by fings at 1:50 PM on February 23, 2011

You can get sets of strings that will let you tune a bari re-entrantly, even tune it as high as a soprano. Alternatively, get set of venezuelan cuatro strings will let you use soprano tuning with the highest string dropped down an octave. The bari and cuatro are same scale length.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:24 PM on February 23, 2011

...you might want to try the higher tunings before you learn a whole bunch of chords in bari tuning. The shapes are all similar but it could be a pain to have to learn all the new positions later.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:29 PM on February 23, 2011

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