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 Playing Advice: 4-String (Jazz, Blues & Other Trad Styles)
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Banjo buying advice wanted

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

malarz - Posted - 10/11/2018:  11:36:14

I’ve been playing a Deering Goodtime 17 fret open back tuned CGDA since about mid-April since I started playing banjo. I’m getting itchy and ready to look for that “next step” banjo for playing traditional jazz and western swing. I think I understand correctly that the “golden age” of tenor banjo playing and production was in the 1920’s and 30’s right up to WW2 and then maybe for a short time thereafter. (i might be mistaken, though.)

My searches appear to indicate that tenor banjos from that era are prized for their playability and tone and construction but usually they come at a price which is more than I want to spend. My question: are there any currently manufactured banjos which are, if not as good as those older instruments, still of good quality and sound and good bang for the buck?

And, realistically, how much should I think of spending for a banjo that is professional quality (constructed well of good materials by good builders)?

I’m guessing that these questions might be too broad and open-ended but I am looking for a starting point. So far most banjos I see for sale are not local to me (CT,USA) and the purchase might need to be sight unseen. I’m not against that but I’d like to have knowledge and a little more understanding about what it is I’m looking for.

Thanks for any help.


darwinyarwin - Posted - 10/11/2018:  15:12:53

Ken, if you go back to Deering's website and look at their Tenor banjos. you'll see the not-very-promising story about any major manufacturer's banjos right now. The Goodtimes top out just below $800, and then any of what you think of as "professional quality" start around $2000+ and go up into $7000s for the Vega professional tenor which on the website mentions how good it is for jazz, etc. Other banjo companies will be in the same expensive ballpark.

Have a little patience here with your post and I'm sure you'll get some great recommendations for craftsman banjo builders and the smaller shops who might cut you better deals. The lesson here is "professional banjos are expensive".  If I were you I might also start checking eBay, there are usually some cheaper deals on good vintage/antique banjos.

And whattabout plectrum banjos? Swing and jazz were filled with them in the old days. More versatile than tenors, imho.

Just my two cents, YMMV.

good luck!


guitarbanjoman - Posted - 10/11/2018:  17:27:34

Do you live at all close to Rochester NY?

There are some nice Silver Bell tenors at Bernunzio's for around a thousand bucks which you can check out for yourself if you go to the store.


PS But as you may have noticed, us plectrum players are physically unable to let any opportunity go by to try to persuade a tenor banjo player to make the very logical switch to plectrum, ha ha...

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 10/11/2018:  17:32:08

Oh yeah, forgot to say... always buy the most expensive model banjo you can possibly afford because in a few years it's going to help you trade up to an even nicer and more expensive model...

Truth is, in a few years, nobody is going to want to pay you what you paid for your El Cheapo banjo...

Trust me; been there done that!

beegee - Posted - 10/11/2018:  17:40:19

I'd be looking for a vintage B&D or Paramount.

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 10/11/2018:  17:47:33

Did you see this one?

Might need a trip to your local luthier, but the price is nice and it has the original case... always a desirable feature in proving that your banjo is an original of genuine vintage and not a Franken-banjo... like my first Silver Bell turned out to be...

malarz - Posted - 10/11/2018:  18:10:38

Thanks to all, to guitarbanjoman for the link to the Paramount and to beegee for the brands recommendation. Those are two brand names I recognize. I think I remember my neighbor from the late 50’s/early 60’s who played, and still plays, a Paramount in a polka band in Michigan.

Banjo Den - Posted - 10/11/2018:  22:44:08

The advice Will Wilson offers is spot on especially his advice on, "... buy the best you can afford". I met Will this past July at All Frets in Buffalo---and he "practices what he preaches". He found a beautiful period (mid 20's) instrument and he was thrilled.

If I needed to take out a loan to buy a classic 1920's B&D, Vega, or Paramount tomorrow morning, I take out that loan. I've seen banjos at All Frets, NAIBC and other festivals that I still see in my dreams, but I couldn't pull the trigger. Just like puppies - a nice B&D or Vega - will be in your future and hopefully soon. I'm a B&D guy and waited almost 30 years to buy one. If you could find a B&D Silver Bell # 1 you'd be very happy. You'll spend between 1,000 to 1,500. Check out Hearth and Home Acoustics - they're very honorable people.

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 10/12/2018:  05:49:22

Hey, Dennis! Nice to hear from you!

Yesterday I mailed off my final payment to Bernunzio's for a 1962 plectrum VegaVox IV, of which I will take possession soon.

Don't worry, there will be pictures soon!

sethb - Posted - 10/12/2018:  09:57:22

I think it's also worth nothing that a brand-new banjo in almost any price range will probably depreciate in value over time, but a vintage banjo will likely hold its value if and when you ever decide to sell it. It's also true that in many cases, the craftsmanship is better and more accurate on vintage banjos than on many brand-new instruments.

On the other hand, newer (1960's and up) banjos probably have certain important technical improvements, like an imbedded metal neck rod that helps keep the neck straight, easier and more precise ways to set/change the action, and better geared tuning pegs, that may help the instrument to remain in good playing condition for many years.

I think it's always worthwhile to have a potential instrument looked at by an experienced luthier, who can spot old/poor repairs and potential problems for you, so you know what you're getting into.

Finally, as a dyed-in-the-wool plectrum player, I second all the comments about plectrum banjos and strongly suggest you consider that option! SETH

malarz - Posted - 10/13/2018:  06:53:41

OK. i’ve narrowed the search to either a B & D Silver Bell and a Paramount A. Both are going to end up costing me about the same. Any final opinions on why one and not the other? Either one would come with a two-day approval period.


davidcava - Posted - 10/13/2018:  07:03:27

I've owned and played them both Ken. Great banjos. You should really play the both of them before you decide on one or the other.

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 10/13/2018:  08:30:39

Hey, if I played tenor I'd be all over this one...

Veerstryngh Thynner - Posted - 10/14/2018:  05:59:39


Please don't take the last part of my reply, particularly, as a nasty put-down of plectrum banjo.

I think that preference of plectrum or tenor has also much to do with taste and, perhaps, level of technique. Speaking for myself now, I never played plectrum banjo - and I probably never will, having started with tenor almost right away, about half a century ago. And I'm still learning. I speculate, though, that most plectrum players made the transition from guitar; as former or still present guitarists the switch to "Chicago" in particular not that difficult to make, I imagine.

My first ever band asked me, at one point, to try and add some 6-string guitar, for variation. But coming from 4-string in the first place, I never successfully made the leap. Even today, I only manage basic rhythm guitar, in a "banjo" sort of way. Long way past that first band, I finally took guitar lessons, for a year, but soon found that transition from CGDA to EADGBE wasn't going to be a great success. And at an even later point, after flat-body electric tenor guitar had been added to my instrument collection, I decided to use just that, if I want a guitar timbre.

I also mentioned taste, previously. And having just written about timbre, that's the other thing with plectrum banjo, as far as I'm concerned. Much as I honestly admire the virtuosity of Cynthia Sayer and Buddy Wächter, I can't listen to plectrum long. To my ears, its timbre seems much sharper and (I hope you'll forgive me) far more metallic, in comparison to tenor banjo. I have noticed that this starts grating on me, after a while. In the same way clunky tenor playing would turn me off, I guess.

Maybe that's just me. I don't know. But this is where taste comes in, in my view.


Veerstryngh Thynner

Edited by - Veerstryngh Thynner on 10/14/2018 06:14:02

sethb - Posted - 10/14/2018:  08:56:25


Originally posted by Veerstryngh Thynner

Much as I honestly admire the virtuosity of Cynthia Sayer and Buddy Wächter, I can't listen to plectrum long. To my ears, its timbre seems much sharper and (I hope you'll forgive me) far more metallic, in comparison to tenor banjo. I have noticed that this starts grating on me, after a while. In the same way clunky tenor playing would turn me off, I guess.  Maybe that's just me. I don't know. But this is where taste comes in, in my view.

I agree that taste in music is a very individual thing.  And although I admire their technique and musicianship, I also don't enjoy listening to Cynthia Sayer or Buddy Wachter.  I think Buddy's style is derived in part from Eddie Peabody, who had amazing melody chord technique, but whose full-throated playing could grate on your ears after a while. 

Before giving up on the plectrum, I suggest you listen to some other plectrum players like Don Van Palta, Sean Moyses or Dave Marty on YouTube.  They have a completely different sound, and one which, to my taste, is more musical and better complements the music of the period,  But again, that's just my opinion. 

In the end, I don't know that matters very much whether someone plays a plectrum or a tenor.  Both are capable of making great music, and I think it depends more upon the player than the instrument.  SETH


Edited by - sethb on 10/14/2018 08:57:43

parlour player - Posted - 10/14/2018:  16:43:42

I have a question, is there differences between the plectrum used for the guitar and banjo.

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 10/14/2018:  23:00:37

For me personally, yes. For acoustic guitar I use a big thick purple Dunlop pick, it's about 2.5 or maybe 3mm.

But for banjo I play using the same kind of pick as my banjo buddy the amazing Tim Allan... a thin light grey Dunlop which I believe is .60mm, or possibly .65?

Anyway, it's as thin as I can get away with!

sethb - Posted - 10/15/2018:  10:33:39


Originally posted by parlour player

I have a question, is there differences between the plectrum used for the guitar and banjo.

The choice of pick is a very personal preference, and a lot depends on your playing style.  But generally, I think single-string workers, and especially guitarists, often prefer a harder pick, say 1 mm and up, while the strummers may prefer somewhat thinner picks, which are easier to control and less likely to go flying out of your fingers.  But you don't want something so thin that it won't snap back to its original flat position before your next strumming stroke on a very fast strum.

I like to use a .60 Dunlop for plectrum banjo, and can go up to a .70 Dunlop as the evening progresses.  But you really need to try a few different types, sizes and thicknesses to see what best suits you and your playing style.  SETH

Edited by - sethb on 10/15/2018 10:34:39

easy - Posted - 10/15/2018:  10:40:43

You may want to consider a custom built banjo. I paid a bit less than $1000 for mine from Ken Levan (a regular contributor to these threads), and he built me a killer rim/resonator for the B&D flange I sent him. I stuck a B-stock Gold Tone neck on it, and it both looks and sounds superb.

rcc56 - Posted - 10/15/2018:  11:31:32

Pre-war Vega Tubaphone tenors can be bought for $1000 or less.

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 10/16/2018:  09:34:13

Malaria, you do realize that this thread must conclude with a picture of yourself and your new Goddess?

guitarbanjoman - Posted - 10/16/2018:  09:35:13


Stupid autocorrect!

Dogface - Posted - 10/18/2018:  07:12:28

As was posted by Bob above, Vega tubaphones from the 20's are underrated in my opinion.. There's a youtube of Tyler Jackson playing a really nice upscale Vega on a tune "Exactly Like You"...It will show you the sweet tones they have... Steve Caddick also plays Vega's and he's surely worth a listen..also a Hall of Fame member and is all over YouTube

Other than that, if you could find a Richelieu Golden Eagle you'd never look back. No longer made but they're out there


malarz - Posted - 10/31/2018:  04:03:48

Thanks to all who replied withcomments and advice. I bought an older Fender
Artist tenor from Heart’s Home Acoustics. I was warned that the banjo is heavy. And, it is, at least 12 lbs. But the the banjo plays and sounds very nice. The “price was right” due to two repaired cracks and a few other cosmetic blemishes. For the first step into a more professional players banjo I’m satisified. Now I’ll have to work to develop and cleaner and more accurate fretting technique to make this banjo sound good.


davidcava - Posted - 10/31/2018:  04:06:25

Congrats Ken, I'd love to see it if you have any pics?

malarz - Posted - 10/31/2018:  14:43:07

Here it is. (Not really sure how to attach photos, though.)

mike gregory - Posted - 10/31/2018:  14:51:07


Originally posted by guitarbanjoman


Stupid autocorrect!

That's ridiculous!

BUGS do not play BA....

Oh, never mind!

Billybiltbanjo - Posted - 10/31/2018:  15:07:06

If you don't mind a 19 fret, here is a very nice 1920's Maybell with original case and hang tags for $500.

davidcava - Posted - 10/31/2018:  15:34:40

Nice looking banjo Ken. It's a flathead?

malarz - Posted - 10/31/2018:  15:47:43

Yes. From all I've read it can be converted into an archtop.

davidcava - Posted - 10/31/2018:  16:28:54

Why would you want to though. Do you have a way to record Ken? I'd love to hear it.

malarz - Posted - 10/31/2018:  16:53:42

I don’t know why or why not, I’m new to resonator banjos and for now this is more than fine for me. I’ll try to get a recording but all it’ll be is me playing chords. For now I’ll leave chord melody to more experienced folks.

davidcava - Posted - 10/31/2018:  17:19:57


Dogface - Posted - 10/31/2018:  17:39:36

It all comes with time and practice...

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