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The banjo reviews database is here to help educate people before they purchase an instrument. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for playing the instrument yourself!

7100 reviews in the archive.

Recording King: RK-R85-SN

Submitted by Bohonkie on 1/20/2008

Where Purchased: Angie's Banjo

Year Purchased: 2007
Price Paid: 1,450 ($US)

Sound

Edit: I thought I'd include the serial number: 0000077. I lucked into this one; couldn't try her out before purchasing. Sound is what most folks call "pre-war." Bright (not as bright as an archtop), rings true through the upper neck. Deep tones on the bass stings with a lot of "punch." Very clear, once set up properly. As they say, "Rings like a bell." Very close to my archtop, but more depth and grunt and more ringing in the upper registers. Very clear with absolutely no muddiness.

Sound Rating: 9

Setup

Banjo was not set up well as received. Spikes were installed opposite of how most would do them, one of them too high, and interfering with each other, which causes a buzz when used. Action extremely high (didn't know you could get it that high), head very loose (didn't expect it to be spot on, though). Truss rod was way off (bowed). Bridge in wrong place. Was extremely disappointed when I received this one. From Roger Siminoff's book, I set the truss rod (press 1st & last frets, distance from bottom of G string to top of middle fret is .015) and action (.094, 1st string @ 12th fret; .078, 4th string @12th fret). I like a medium-high action and this one sounds best this way. I replaced the tail piece (original is way too weak and thin and non-adjustable) with a heavy Kershner (13 degree or so angle). New bridge is a Snuffy Smith premium 11/16 (tried several). GHS medium phosphorus. Head tuned, evenly with torque wrench, to D#. Also replaced truss rod cover (see Customer Service). Set up rating is now a 9, but as recieved is 1 because she was pretty much unplayable and proper set up should have been easy for any shop.

Setup Rating: 1

Appearance

Beautiful banjo. Even better now that I have fixed the damage and the factory and set up problems (see Customer Service). The maple is not highly figured, but that might contribute to her wonderful sound. I really like the appearance of the headstock. The neck is not too thick - another feature I like and one that is enabled by using maple in lieu of a softer wood. Nickle plating is clean and bright. Only change I would make would be to add an inlay ring on the back of the resonator, similar to my old Granada. Inlays are clean without fillers. Frets are a bit rough, but correct heighth and shape. Ebony fretboard is even and dense. Binding is even and solid. Good tuners. Plan on installing Keith D tuners.

Appearance Rating: 8

Reliability

I've only had her about 7 months (a/o Jan 08), but so far everyting is lasting. I had to set her up at least 4 times before she settled down and aclimated. Finish seems good; only time will tell if she's dependable enough to use on a gig without a backup. Might earn a higher rating later on.

Reliability Rating: 7

Customer Service

After writing, e-mailing, and posting several comments on B.H., Angie finally replied. Very nice lady and I still don't know why she didn't receive my attempts to contact. Apparently she believes her set up is good because, after telling her of the problems, I never heard from her again. Expect this if you buy from her, but I'm not so sure that's a problem. As banjo players, we should expect to know our instruments and be able to set them up for our own tastes and to get the best (what is the best to us as individuals, anyway) out of them. I didn't like the non and the slow response, though. As far as R.K. - forget them honoring any warranty or replying to you. I've heard they have a lifetime warranty, but from my experience you'd never guess it if you try to contact them. I wrote letters, I sent e-mails, I called, I wrote to the company headquarters - have never received a reply. My biggest complaints were a sloppy paint job on the rim of the resonator (spots where paint was missing, fingerprints where it was handled before drying, etc.) and a scratched truss rod cover (and head) where someone (factory or Angie's) had obviously slipped with a screwdriver and actually sanded the cover to remove the scratches so the upper half of it was very dull and scratched. All I asked for and expected was a replacement cover. Since I never heard from either of them, I made one out of German silver (using the old cover as a pattern) and polished and engraved it. See my photos at Banjo Hangout. For the rim, I steel-wooled it and hand painted it and used a razor blade to scrape off the excess. Looks better now than it did from the factory.

Customer Service: 1

Components

Maple and inlays are outstanding as is the finish (except the problems outlined in Customer Service). A bridge is a personal thing, but the tailpiece is definitely something they should replace. Also, just my opinion, as are all of the things I am writing, but they might charge $17.00 extra and inlcude a copy of Roger Siminoff's book. Not to continue to berate them for poor set up, but this book should be read by all banjo players and if they use it to get the best set up, that would be a good thing for RK. I believe all banjo manufacturers should include this book. A final word about the banjo overall - component wise - this banjo has so much potential and if I had given up on her, I'd not only be out $1.5K but I'd never realized her great sound. Lots of potential in these banjos!

Components Rating: 8

Overall Comments

Price is way below the potential of this banjo. Again, the book is a must (for ANY banjo), "How to Set Up the Best Sounding Banjo" - Roger H. Siminoff; Hal-Leonard Books, ISBN: 0-7935-8998-3. I honestly don't know what I would do if this banjo was stolen. I would lean toward and exact replacement, probably the gold-plated model, but would expect to set her up as well. I love the way she plays and sounds like a pre-war Gibson (which I also own). If I didn't want to accept the responsibility of setting one up, I'd ask the store to set her up per Roger's book with a meium-high action. I have not played a lot of the newer banjos, but can't imagine any of them sounding this good. I'm sure there are some that do, but they cost a lot more. Some of the newer banjos sound like rubber bands stretched over a cardboard box (one major brand in particular and it costs thousands of dollars), but I'm not going to mention names. Haven't played one of the new Gibson's yet; might buy one of them if my RK was stolen.

Overall Rating: 8

Roger H. Siminoff: How to Set Up the Best Sounding Banjo

Submitted by Bohonkie on 1/20/2008

Where Purchased: Janet Davis Music

Overall Comments

As mentioned in my review of my Recording King at this site, this book - no kidding - saved my banjo! At the risk of sounding overly opinionated, I believe every banjoist should have this book and refer to it to set up banjos to their preferences and to obtain the best out of any given banjo. When should a beginning banjoist buy this book and start setting up? When you learn that you can get a different tone out of picking near the bridge as opposed to near the fret board - it's time. True, some banjo work is beyond the average owner, like neck cutting, and this book will not teach you how to do that, but discusses it. You should know what is going on (might help you determine problems of a banjo you plan to buy) and Roger tells you why these angles are important and how to tell if there is a problem. He also describes how sound travels, how it resonates, and broaches the subject of tap tuning. However, where this book really shines, and the focus of the book, is on set up and getting the best sound possible. We all should know how to set up our banjos and this book does the best job I've ever seen of teaching you how to do so. Roger's easy to understand explanations, directions, and descriptions are unmatched in any other technical book. I recommend keeping records of your own set up on the final few blank pages - with references to the cognizant page. With this book, and a few basic tools, there is no reason not to set up your banjo properly and to reset your banjo when weather or time change it. Still under $20.00, this book is a must! From Hal Leonard Publishing; ISBN: 0-7935-8998-3.

Overall Rating: 10

Gold Tone: Deluxe

Submitted by Bohonkie on 1/20/2008

Where Purchased: Directly from Gold Tone

Year Purchased: 2007
Price Paid: $775 ($US)

Sound

Very mellow tone. For those who believe these Banjolas sound like a regular banjo with a mute, you're missing something. In case you're not familiar with them, they are a banjo neck mounted to a large mandolin body. Martin used to make them almost a hundred years ago, called Banjolins. You play them just like you do a banjo. True, the sound is quieter, but so is a loving woman as compared to an angry wife! This banjola has an even tone throughout the fret board and each individual string. It's a pleasure to sing with and works not only for slower tunes, but can sound good with the faster stuff as well. This banjola shines in four situations: First, when you're in a mellow mood and don't want to play at break-neck speed but want to play something like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" - but NOT like Jens Kruger! Second, when you want to play on a summer evening on your porch or patio and don't want your neighbors trying to flush you AND your banjola down the toilet. Third, when you have tunes going on in your head, can't sleep, and want to play late at night without your wife or other family members calling the neighbors for help in flusing you and your banjola down the toilet. Last - when you go to a jam and you want to look really cool and have folks ask, "What's THAT you're playing?" I have never played any other banjola, so I can't make comparisons with other models or brands, but I can tell you that my wife loves the tone of this banjola. It's very rich and, much the same as most politicians, not overly bright. But in this case, not being bright is a good thing.

Sound Rating: 8

Setup

This banjola has a truss rod, but doesn't have any way of adjustng the bridge or string height as the neck is set in and the bridge is non-adjustable. I set up the truss rod several times before the instrument settled down. The best strings are mediums to heavy because they don't buzz and they have the richest, loudest (for a banjola) tone.

Setup Rating: 7

Appearance

Beautiful with flowers and hearts inlays. Walnut sides and back, mahogany neck, pine sound board. Inlay is accurate. See my pictures at Banjo Hangout.

Appearance Rating: 9

Reliability

Now that I've replaced the tuning buttons, everything else should be long term. Once I fix the neck (see Sustomer Service and Components), should be very dependable. Using on a gig would not be a concern as this is a novelty instrument and would not be used the entire gig.

Reliability Rating: 6

Customer Service

This banjola came directly from Gold Tone. It was a replacement for one I bought from a music store (don't want to mention the name) because the one I bought had a cracked neck. Maybe at the factory, maybe later on when humidity changed, the neck split for 2 to 3 inches beginning at where the 5th string tuner is inserted and ran paralell toward the body. This music store (who was moving locations at the time and in utter chaos) referred me to Gold Tone who initially suspected I might have damaged it or, more likely, that it had been damaged in shipment. When I e-mailed photos, their customer service agreed the split was their fault. They paid for shipping back to the factory and sent me a replacement immediately. However, as received, this banjola had a severly cracked 5th string tuning nut. I notified customer service again, who sent out a replacement, but the replacement was cracked also (obviously it was used as the inside was full of dirt and black residue). I decided not to bother them anymore and bought a complete set of buttons made from ebony, from Janet Davis Music. I had to find replacement screws, and I polished them to a mirror finish. Again, see my photos at B.H.

Customer Service: 7

Components

Finish is great. Looks fantastic. Originally with very cheap tuning buttons, as discussed, but now the neck is warping. Please note that I use a humidifier religiously. I contacted Gold Tone over the holidays, and heard from the president who said he'd be in touch after the holidays, but I haven't heard back from him (a/o Jan 08). I think there is a lifetime warranty, but what good does that do if they won't get back to you? I get buzzing at higher registers (8th fret onward) only on the G, D, and 5th strings. The high D and the B don't buzz, indicating a twist since it didn't buzz before. I might have to just live with it, but the $775 I paid is a low price and this instrument has a suggested retail of over $1,200 - that's way too much to pay for something that warps and buzzes. I might add a 1/64th" shim under the bridge and that would raise the strings, which are low action, but I believe it will cure the buzz on the two bass strings.

Components Rating: 4

Overall Comments

I recommend this banjola as something different for the player who wants a more mellow and quieter sound. I love to play it but am concerned about the buzzing. I love the sound and the looks. It's also light weight.

Overall Rating: 7

Bridges: Snuffy Smith Style III

Submitted by Bohonkie on 1/20/2008

Where Purchased: Janet Davis Music

Overall Comments

I've tried many different bridges, but this one has the best sound of all. I use them on my 1929 Gibson Granada and on my Recording King - both love this bridge. I use the standard spacing and have messed with 11/16 and other heighths, but tone quality and transmission remain great.

Overall Rating: 10

Bridges: Sullivan Old Growth Bridge 11/16"

Submitted by Bohonkie on 1/20/2008

Where Purchased: Janet Davis Music?

Overall Comments

Sullivan makes top notch stuff and I'm a fan of most everything old so couldn't wait to try this old growth factory floor bridge (maple/ebony, uncompensated) on my 1929 Granada archtop and on my RK85. If you want a good, rich tone, this is a good one. However, I like a bright, biting sound with clear, deep tones and this one is a bit muted for my taste. Workmanship is flawless, but I went back to Snuffy Smith.

Overall Rating: 6

Tailpieces: Kershner Tailpiece - Heavy

Submitted by Bohonkie on 1/20/2008

Where Purchased: Janet Davis Music

Overall Comments

My RK85 came with a very cheap, thin, non-adjustable tailpiece. I replaced it with a Kershner which is adjustable, long, and heavy. If I remember, correctly, Kershner might make two different models - this one is the heaviest one. Setting the correct string agle (see my review of Recording King), this tailpiece is absolutely the best! I'm tempted to change the original clamshell on my 1929 Granada, but want to keep that one original. Highly recommend!

Overall Rating: 10

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