Banjo buying bonanza
September 6, 2005 2:07 PM   Subscribe

BanjoFilter: I am looking to learn to play the banjo. I would like to buy a nice banjo that I can grow into (something with a decent tone ring), but I'd prefer to not spend a fortune on it.

I live in the Philadelphia area and am having a VERY hard time finding banjos for sale. Does anyone have any suggestions about where to buy and what to buy? I am reluctant to buy over the internet because you don't get to play the instrument first.

Also, I really enjoy the clawhammer style of banjo playing, but everyone seems to suggest I learn Scruggs-style picking first. Am I going to develop bad habits by learning frailing first?
posted by amelliferae to Shopping (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To hell with the Scruggs-heads, I say. The only thing bad about not learning to play Scruggs-style first is not being able to play Scruggs-style first. Clawhammer to your heart's delight; it's more fun and natural to do when you're starting, and keeping things fun and less agonizingly technical is, for most people, a more enjoyable/encouraging way to start on an instrument. After you get settled in, you can certainly start drilling on your finger rolls for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and ...

Are you set against an open-back? I really like all 500 or so pounds of my Sweetgrass, but (a) lighter can be nice, (b) clawhammer sounds pretty good on 'em, and (c) open-backs can certainly a lot more affordable for someone starting out on a new (and, possibly, soon rejected) instrument.
posted by cortex at 2:33 PM on September 6, 2005

Also, can't speak to Philly specifically, but if there are any late-summer bluegrass fests in the area, I would strongly recommend that you go to one and kibbitz with some banjo pickers, see what they play and what they'd recommend -- real tangible store of knowledge there, and the people are usually pretty damned friendly.
posted by cortex at 2:37 PM on September 6, 2005

Well, you seem to have a little more familiarity with styles and types of banjos than most beginners do, so I'm not sure if you're looking at strictly entry level or something beyond that. I'd recommend looking at Deering banjos. I bought their Goodtime model when I started playing and was more than happy with it. I think I paid a little less than $300 for the banjo with a case. The Goodtime open back model is suited for clawhammer, but you can still get a good three-finger sound on it. These instruments are really a good deal for the price and are very easy to play. They don't have much of a tone ring though and really are designed to be a entry level/travel/practice banjo, but if you are looking for more expensive model I'd still recommend Deering. (In fact, from what I remember when I was shopping, you'll find this model as a general recommendation for first banjos at most banjo sites.) I've tried some of their other models and was impressed, particularly the Boston and the Sierra.
posted by greasy_skillet at 2:39 PM on September 6, 2005

If you're looking to get into folk in general, get a mandolin. They are much more affordable and are of decent quality even at a lower price level.

About a year ago, I bought a Kay plectrum (4 string) for $25. It's a piece of junk. The neck is warped beyond Pluto.
posted by mr.dan at 2:49 PM on September 6, 2005

Am I going to develop bad habits by learning frailing first?

Lord, no! That's real banjo! Although I will readily admit my old-time bias.

Bluegrass is a whole different bird. Just as playing guitar and playing bluegrass guitar are different, so too for the banjo. Bluegrass is way stylized. Get comfortable with the instrument first. I second the suggestion about hanging around festivals. Also, you may meet musicians who will hook you up with personal deals once they know you're looking.
posted by Miko at 2:53 PM on September 6, 2005

I've played dozens of gigs with this open-back Goodtime. It sounds pretty good and has held up well. There's also a resonator model. To my ears, the open-back sounds better because it's warmer, less strident in tone, and isn't so freakin' loud it hurts my ears to play.

The major corner cut with the good time is that there's no truss rod. A truss rod is a metal-reinforcement in the neck that can be adjusted to straighten out a warped neck. What this means is that you should use light gauge strings on the instrument to reduce the tension on the neck. Mine has held up fine with mediums, though.

Gold Tone banjos have a good reputation as well, but I haven't any experience with them myself.

For purchase, I agree with you on buying an instrument in person. If you can't do that, I'd buy from Elderly Instruments. I've had good luck with them in the past.
posted by stet at 2:53 PM on September 6, 2005

I have the same model banjo (the open-back Goodtime) and I'm happy with it. Sounds good, looks nice, plain but cleanly made. Being relatively quiet is a major advantage when you don't live alone.

(Still can't play for shit though).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:38 PM on September 6, 2005

The Deerings are beautiful instuments, especially for the price. I god mine sight unseen as a gift a few years ago and I love it.

Regarding style; My uncle used to play with Scruggs and Flatt in the 60's and 70's and could match Scruggs note for note, but he started by learning the clawhammer my grandpa taught him when he was a little kid. If that's what's calling you, go for it! If I had a better pc rig I'd send you some songs. Good luck!
posted by snsranch at 5:15 PM on September 6, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great advice! I actually just attended the Delaware valley bluegrass festival and got to spend some time with a lot of great musicians. I basically got too many conflicting suggestions from them, and ended up being more confused after the weekend was over.

I have played a few Deering goodtime open-backs, but I feel that they're not really well suited for picking. I'd like to have something that I can use for both styles. My price range is $300-700.

I was hoping the festival would have instrument vendors, but there was only one (selling Deering goodtimes...)
posted by amelliferae at 5:34 PM on September 6, 2005

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