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 Banjo for travel/backpacking - mellow, light, decent tone

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4 posts
since 4/12/11

06/19/2017 00:28:06 Reply with Quote

Hiya folks!

I'm coming over to the US pretty soon (from Australia) for two and a half months, and I've decided my Nechville Phantom is too heavy, fragile and expensive to backpack around with. I was hoping the BH brains trust might have some suggestions on a good travel five string I could purchase and use while in your fair country. I know there's a lot of travel banjo threads out there, but I think my situation is a bit unusual. You be the judge! :)

I'm an advanced player in a particular brand of three finger melodic style, and I do a lot of jamming, but not specifically on bluegrass (I cover a bit of everything: World, Classical, Jazz, Blues, Funk, Celtic, Klezmer; anything with melody, harmony and rhythm, really). I'm a singer also - generally around the high tenor and falsetto registers - and I use my banjo to accompany myself in that.

So, with that in mind, I'm after something that:

  • Is full scale, but fairly light and small (at least, relative to a proper BG banjo); definitely an open-back
  • Will hold its own in whatever style session I'm in (including Bluegrass, if it comes to that)
  • Has a warm, mellow, darkish tone to complement my voice and different genres of music
  • can keep its tone for gentler picking, i.e., low volume, shallow and close to the fretboard
  • Is as cheap as possible while meeting the above criterea. I reckon my absolute upper limit, budget wise, is 750 USD (which is about 1,000 AUD)

I know this is a ambitious set of wants! Please feel free to tell me if you think I'm dreaming. :)

I've been looking at a few instruments on the cheaper side - Gretsch G9450, Gold Tone CC-OT/CC-100 - but it's hard to know whether they're the go without actually playing them, which I may not get a chance to do if I'm buying online. I borrowed a Deering Goodtime for a bit (they're everywhere in Australia, and over $1,000 generally!), but I just can't get decent tone at low volume, no matter how I set it up (perhaps due to the lack of a tone ring?).

Anyways, thanks to those that made it to the end of the post, I know it was a long one! Any recommendations or opinions would be greatly appreciated, as would references to classified listings. :)

Thanks again and all the best,



10163 posts since 2/7/08

06/19/2017 06:06:28View Fathand's MP3 Archive View Fathand's Photo Albums View Fathand's Blog Reply with Quote

If you can't get the tone you want out of a Goodtime, I doubt you will get it out of a CC 100 or the Gretsch as they are even less responsive.

If you want an open back that will hold it's own in most jams including bluegrass, I am going to suggest something with a Whyte Laydie style tone ring about half the weight of a flat head on a reasonably thick likely maple rim. Or for more weight savings a 1/4 " dia. brass tone hoop.

My suggestion is to build to your own specifications, SInce you want full scale,get a Saga Neck for around $75 usually available on ebay. Buy or build an 11" rim at least 5/8" thick and at least 2" deep. Use a limited amount of Hooks and shoes to save weight and money, 16 should do with a grooved tension hoop.. A Waverly or Presto style tailpiece are a little lighter than Kershner types. There are planetary tuner sets on ebay for around $25 and are likely what you get if you buy most Asian built banjos like RK or Epiphone, they seem to work just fine at least for a while. 

To save more weight, Build a rim to 10" dia. use a rolled brass tone hoop the size of the inner diameter and build a tension hoop out of aluminum and the coodinator rods too. You can also trim down the size of the peghead. I am estimating you can build something like this to weigh around 6 pounds or half the weight of a Mastertone type banjo.

One other thing, if you pack a wrench you can disassemble for travelling if you don't mind putting it back together when you arrive. 



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Zachary HoytPlayers Union Member

United States
1929 posts since 2/18/09


06/19/2017 09:49:47View Zachary Hoyt's MP3 Archive View Zachary Hoyt's Classified Ads View Zachary Hoyt's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

Another thing that can help with lower weight is smaller size.  I made a C scale banjo out of mahogany with an aluminum tension hoop on a 10" pot with 12 hooks if I recall correctly, and it weighed 3 pounds 1 ounce and was quite bright sounding.  It was tuned like a regular 5 string capoed at the 5th fret.  You said 'fairly soon' so I don't know if you have time to build one but if you do it might be the best option for both price and optimizing what you want.


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United States
2994 posts since 10/13/05

06/19/2017 13:01:32 View banjered's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

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4 posts since 4/12/11

06/19/2017 18:23:39 Reply with Quote

Thanks for the info, guys.

Very interesting hearing your recommendations, Fathand. You're right, my best bet would be to build my own. I've never done this before, but there's no better time to learn, I suppose! I just worry I may not the time, skills or equipment to do this before I leave (the 14th of July), and my itinerary in the US is pretty packed; I'm not going to be in one place for very long. Sounds like I need to lower my expectations and settle on a something pre-built for now, but when I get back to Australia, I should definitely look into putting something together myself, so you're suggestions are definitely useful.

Thanks too for your input, Zach. One of my concerns with bright/higher range instruments is that they don't play well with the registers in which I like to sing. I'm really after something dark in tone. I hear ya about size, though; I have a traveller friend that frails exclusively on a parlour banjo (an old 1890s Buckby) in G tuning. He loves it.

Thanks for the link, Banjered, looks like a great instrument. It's above my budget, unfortunately; I overspent on my last two banjos, I can't do that again!

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John GribblePlayers Union Member

4156 posts since 5/14/07

06/21/2017 17:01:43 View John Gribble's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

I would think a tubaphone might have a bit more punch than a whyte laydie, if playing bluegrass is part of the mix. There's used Wildwood in the classifieds here for under a $1000 US and might be negotiable. This is a pro-level instrument. I have one and like it, but it is a bit heavy for travel. A Goodtime could be had (no pun intended) within your budget, fine and servicable instruments. They are not cannons and they are  "plain Janes," but they sound good and play well.

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United States
17 posts since 1/3/09

06/21/2017 20:19:49 View TipTop's Photo Albums Reply with Quote

I'm afraid I don't have a recommendation but I wanted to tell you that your avatar is amazing, Joe.

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United States
40 posts since 8/30/12

06/22/2017 05:11:13 Reply with Quote

Have you considered a Gold Tone BG-Mini? It's a nice little banjo, 8" pot, 19.5" scale, and has a rolled brass tone ring and resonator. They're about 600 bucks or so, and are definitely nicer than the cripple creeks you were looking at. As a bonus, they look pretty nice too.

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United States
77 posts since 4/13/10

06/22/2017 18:01:30 Reply with Quote

An Enoch Tradesman is really lightweight and ALWAYS sounds good..  That is my experience anyway.  Full size so a bit big but fits in an airline overhead compartment.  You can find these used over here as well, usually for under $1000.

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