Hello, all! Newbie here with questions regarding my first banjo purchase. I have played guitar for over 30 years with limited success. It seems that the guitar, while enjoyable, never got my heart beating like the sound of a ringing banjo melody. After all of this time, I’ve decided to sell off my guitars and take up the banjo. I’ve been researching the different styles of banjo music and the types of banjos used to play those styles. After much research, I’ve come to some conclusions as to what I THINK I want, but would like to solicit your opinions and advice.
At this point, I’ve settled in my mind on the 22-fret plectrum as the banjo I would like to purchase and learn for a variety of reasons. I’ll be mainly playing old-time folk songs, some newer folk, and a little bit of bluegrass. I realize many would recommend the standard 5-string in clawhammer and Scruggs styles for these types of music, but with the plectrum I can tune it in Chicago or guitar tuning (D-G-B-E) and use the fingerings and techniques I have already learned in guitar to get a quick start. I can later tune it normally and learn the proper plectrum style. I’ve also seen some accomplished plectrum players on the internet use alternate tunings and use a 3-finger roll to play some pretty convincing bluegrass. At this point, I see the plectrum as the perfect instrument to get me going quickly so I can enjoy the banjo immediately with the guitar skills I already have, yet be versatile enough to carry me across several styles of music and provide enjoyment for years to come. I hope I’ve not mislead myself and I need your feedback on my thinking to this point.
As far as my first instrument goes, I’m leaning heavily toward the Gold Tone PS-250 Plectrum Special since it seems to be a quality instrument at a good price. I’d like to modify it with the ‘Gold Tone’ engraved chrome-plated armrest, the mother-of-pearl and abalone truss rod cover, the Tensiator tailpiece, deluxe leather cradle strap, and hard case. I’ve even wondered about a Renaissance head with a bronze tone ring to mellow the tone a bit for the folk songs I’ll mainly be playing. I’d like your opinions on my thoughts about my instrument choice, too. I can only spend about $1,000 all-in for my first instrument.
You can be brutal with your advice and opinions on this topic without hurting my feelings. I've got rhino-tough hide and I’m looking to get started right, not be encouraged to go down a ‘wrong road’ that I’ll regret later. Thanks in advance for your help and insight. Big Bad John
Hello, BBJ: When I was a teenager, I started off playing 5-string banjo folk-style, then dropped it for guitar. About six years ago I won a beautiful Kasuga plectrum banjo at Sandy Bradley's instrument auction at the Seattle Folklife Festival. I tied a guitar strap to it and played it that same day for a dance. The thing is, I did just what you're talking about - tuned it like the bottom four strings of a guitar (e.g Chicago style). It works fine that way! I discovered I could even play it like I did the folk-style 5-string - it sounds cool. Fifth string? Who needs 'em? What I'm saying is you're on the right track, in my opinion.
I think you are on the right path, too. The standard plectrum tuning of CGBD is pretty close to guitar, and some plectrum players use DGBD which is even closer. And the general sound of the plectrum is closer to the guitar than the tenor banjo, which is also a good choice. The Goldtone model looks great, as they are known for quality without having to shell our several thousands of dollars for a banjo like most members of this forum do. I wouldn't get the blond-colored Cripple Creek model, as it is too bare-bones for what you want to do.
I have been playing both plectrum and 5 string for 40+ years. I use the standard CGBD plectrum tuning, because (a) that was the first tuning I learned on the 5 string, and (b) all the arrangements I've ever seen for plectrum use that tuning. There are, however, excellent plectrum players that use the Chicago tuning, so I guess there is no "right" or "wrong" way. From what I gather on this site, there are only a handful of plectrum players that are HO members. I know Mike Stanger, Bill Miller, and Cliff Fitch play plectrum ,and quite possibly will chime in on your thread. I have a Gold tone neck on a masterclone 5 string I built and it is quite playable, and was a bargain compared to custom necks. Before I bought a Gold Tone, however, I'd keep an eye out for a good used plec on ebay, perhaps a pre 1930 Vega, as they tend to go for a fraction of their 5 string counterparts.