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!
6880 reviews in the archive.
Where Purchased: BHO Classifieds
Year Purchased: 2014
Price Paid: 1250 ($US) (bought USED)
This is proving to be a nice banjo for the way I do clawhammer/frailing... some traditional style and some not exactly, with some occasional 3-finger without picks.
I would describe the sound overall as "woody with some zing". The zing is not the same zing you'd get with a metal tone ring, but it's there, and you can emphasize or de-emphasize it with setup (see Setup below). I think the stock Renaissance head is a good choice for this banjo, but I'm partial to Rens anyway. You could probably get a more old-timey sound with a Fyberskyn or Elite head. It has a sweet clear tone in general.
Volume is less than a metal tonering banjo, but I think it would hold its own in a string band. In the sea shanty goup I use it for, it needs amplification to be heard with all the voices, an accordion, and Illian bagpipes... an extreme situation you must admit!
Sound Rating: 9
Setup was not an issue for me, as I knew the strings would be de-tuned and the head loosened before being packed to ship and travel internationally by air. This banjo has the unique Nechville Flex-tone (a.k.a. FLux Capacitor) neck attachment system that makes action adjustment easy for almost anyone. I haven't tried it, but it's supposed to be easy to detach the neck for travel. There's a removable dowel stick that isn't really necessary, as it doesn't have anyting do to with adjusting the neck. I'm not sure why it's there other than it makes the thing look more like a traditional open back banjo.
The action was set very low, even lower than my bluegrass banjo and I was hitting the fretboard all the time, so I raised it some. This has a really interesting approach to a scoop: the fretblard is scooped under the 5th string only, so you have access to all notes up the neck on the other strings. Nice combination of both worlds.
I found there was quite a bit of sound variation possible just form head tension. With the Ren head looser, I got a more plunky, old-timey sound, with more wood characteristics. Tighter head starts brightening things up, bringing out that "zing" I mentioned before. I got a sound I preferred with a pretty tight head... in fact, I was starting to worry that any more might be too tight for the wooden flange.
I took some angle off the tailpiece from where it was set when I got it. That not only got me to the sound I liked, but actually increased volume a bit. Tailpiece is weird - it attaches to the tension hoop with 3 hex (allen) screws. But the mounting is solid, which helps a lot when you change tunings. It takes 2 different size hex keys to adjust fully. (The angle is adjusted with just one). All in all, super easy DIY setup.
Setup Rating: 10
The banjo has kind of an understated look, which I happen to favor in general. There is one block in the rim near the neck that isn't quite flush with the others, and it looks like some glue has dried, powdered, and fallen out of the joint on one side. I suspect the banjo might have been stored in dry conditions and not humidified, especially since the fretboard was in need of oiling. According to the seller it hadn't been used much for quite a while. It's not serious enough to worry me, and I will inject some glue into that joint and keep an eye on it.
Overall the materials and workmansip are what you'd expect from Nechville.
Appearance Rating: 9
The person I bought it from is a well known professional musician who, to judge by the case, had traveled and gigged with this banjo. But you wouldn't know it from seeing the banjo without the case. Not enough fret wear to be concerned about, and other than needing the fretboard oiled, the instrument was in primo condition. So I would have to call it solid and reliable.
Reliability Rating: 9
Well, even it it has a lifetime warranty, it's in Russia now and I'm on my own something needs fixing. I'm used to that. All the setup adjustments require hex (allen) keys and I didn't know if they were U.S. or metric, and didn't find the info online. So I sent a PM to Tom via the BHO and got a quick reply back.
Customer Service: 10
The neck is a joy to play... slim profile and fairly narrow. Coming from bluegrass banjo, I really like it. But serious clawhammer players might find it a bit too slim and too narrow. It's the "Standard" (i.e. non-radiused) model.
I like the tailpiece, but it's worth mentioning that beause of the mounting design, you couldn't easily replace it with a different one because there's no mounting bolt down thru the flange. The whole thing attached to the tension hoop.
I ended up replacing the Nechville bridge that came with it. I had a Kat Eyz McCormick spice factory maple + ebony bridge lying around and when I tried it I really preferred it. The Nechville is a nice bridge though. In fact, for grins I tried it on my 1924 Vega conversion, replacing a Kat Eyz purple heart top bridge, and ended up keeping the Nechville there. BTW - both bridges are compensated, and this particular banjo seems to need that, at least with the current amount of neck relief, which I don't want to mess with unless really necessary.
Components Rating: not rated
This "Standard" model openback is the most comfortable banjo I've ever played. It's an all-wood pot (except for the tension hoop), with a walnut block rim and some kind of wood tone ring ("exotic wood", according to Nechville's web site). So it's lightweight, which is great for my bad back. The Nechville arm rest impresses me a lot. If I'd thought they were this comfortable I'd have put one on other banjos I've owned.
Setup is super easy, feel and playability is amazing if you like a slim, narrow-ish neck. I think there's quite a lot of potential for varying the sound... I got quite a bit of variation from head tension, tailpiece angle and bridge. Different head would be a whole new ballgame.
I've been intrigued by Nechville banjos for years but the price was always well above what I felt I could justify given my level of playing skills. This one cropped up in the classifieds at quite a nice price which included a hard-shell bump case. It proved to be in excellent shape, so I'm a happy camper. It's a gigging banjo for me because, in worst case, it's readily replaceable whereas my old Vega is not.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: White Mountain Banjos
Year Purchased: 2013
Price Paid: 1200 ($US)
Best thing is the sound. Surprisingly good volume and pop, nice clear bluegrass tone. You wouldn't suspect it's a woody. Unfortunately it's the best thing I can say about this banjo.
Sound Rating: 10
Very poor. The action was so low out of box that I was getting the first string ringing on the first fret. I had to tweak the single co-rod and add some relief to the neck. Some of that could have been due to shipping and climate change, but so far I can't correct it. Maybe have to have to shim the neck.
The strings were poorly installed. Barely 1 wrap. Would not hold tune. Half-inch of thumb-piercing wire left on the 5th peg.
There seem to be serious problems with the fret work up the neck. Many notes on all stings about the 12 fret are unplayable. This is not the action issue. The neck is not bowed or warped that I can see with a straight-edge. There's about as much relief as you'd ever want to put in. I really begin to wonder if the frets were ever leveled and dressed at all. I'm going to have to take it to a luthier. I hope I don't have to have it re-fretted.
UPDATE: Took it to a luthier. Diagnosis: frets were never leveled or dressed. He also observed a rather major sag in the bridge, which I'd never noticed. That could have happened while it sat in the case for several months, although I did have the strings loosened during that time.
Setup Rating: 1
At first glance, it's a really good-looking instrument. The wreath inlay pattern is nice. The woods used are nice looking and good quality.
On closer inspection you can see less than stellar workmanship. There are 2 inlays where air bubbles popped in the glue leaving little holes around the inlay.
The finish is nowhere near the quality of the Bishline I used to have, but this instrument cost less than half as much, so I'm not really complaining about that - it's good enough. However, I didn't expect to see places where wood stain had stained the white binding. I would expect that on a mass-produced instrument, not on a hand-made instrument.
Appearance Rating: 5
When I went to change the strings because of the poor installation, the 5th peg fell out. I put it back, but I can't string it up to tension without It rotating in the hole. I wonder what was keeping it there with the original strings? Will have to go to the Setup and Repair forum to see what I can do about that.
UDATE: the hole is oversize for the peg. Also, the screw for the button was missing. I thought it was some kind of newfangled thing that tightned with a hex key. Nope... no screw. Fortunately I had a spare Gotoh 5th tuner on hand and it had a larger diameter knurl that fits the hole and is stable.
Reliability Rating: 1
Very friendly during the sale process. They stored the instrument in climate controlled conditions for several months until I could get over the the US. But after I got there, when I emailed to ask about how to adjust the action using a single co-rod, I got no response. Had to go to BHO forums.
Customer Service: 5
The clamshell tailpiece had 1 defective hook. Looks like a bad plating job causing excess plating to catch the loop as it goes in, but won't let it come out. The 5th string loop was caught and I couldn't get it out without cutting it. I replaced it with a Presto I luckily had lying around.
The other metal components are about what I would expect in an instrument in this price range, with a decent grade of finishing. However, the tension hoop had a couple of dings down to the brass that I don't think could have been the result of shipping. The tuners seem good enough. Some model of Gotoh I think.
Out of the box I could not tune the 2nd string. It kept catching and going "ping". I don't think it was the string binding in the bridge, though it might have been. Seemed more like the nut. I ran some fine emery paper thru the nut and bridge slots before restringing and it seemed to cure it. But I can't believe anybody actually played this thing before it was shipped. The problem would have been obvious.
There is an obvious filled hole in the neck just at the 5th fret near the binding. Yes, really.
Components Rating: 3
I have to say I expected better workmanship and quality control in a hand-made American banjo. I've read a lot of good things about this builder, so I'm extremely disappointed. I could have bought an Asian RK in this range that would not have such problems. I would advise anyone buying a White Mountain instrument to make sure you have a return option, and inspect it carefully when you get it. It's my own fault for not asking for that, and for not giving myself enough time to try to straighten things out with the builder before I took it overseas. Live and learn.
That said, I really do like the sound of this banjo, and the light weight is a joy to my bad back after owning a serious heavyweight. It really is one of the best sounding woodies I've ever heard. It's going to be a pain to correct the problems from where I am, but ultimately I think I will have a good sounding lightweight banjo. But as things stand, I simply can't give this a high overall rating. It was not fully playable all up the neck out of the box, and won't be without significant professional help.
Overall Rating: 3
Where Purchased: http://www.banjohighway.com
This capo is a very decent solution for those who don't want to drill holes in a fine instrument. It works well and I have not found a way to get it to pop off in any kind of normal playing situation. It is much faster to attach than the Regan in a gig situation.
The size might be a detriment for some. Doesn't bother me, but it is almost like having a second mini-size 5th peg on the neck. It raises the action of the 5th string noticeably. Not enough to bother me at least, but I can image it bothering someone who frets the 5th string a lot. They tout this as a benefit to the sound. I don't hear a huge difference between it and a RR-spike.
Materials, workmanship, and finish are all top-notch... and at the price of this thing, they'd better be. The currently advertised price is $75 US dollars! I got mine on some special early-bird promo for I think $59 and thought THAT was pricey. The fact that it's made in, and shipped from Australia probably contributes to a big chunk of the cost. Despite the distance, I received mine in the USA in about a week.
If you have several banjos and compare the cost of professionally installed spikes or sliding capos all of them, the price of the Banjo Highway capo can look a little better. I had 3 banjos that I didn't want holes in, and $59 spread across them made even that price a little easier to swallow. I am not sure I would bite for this thing at $75 and only 3 banjos. I might just settle for a Regan...maybe even 3 Regans. Ultimately you'll have to decide if you see enough benefit for you in this capo to get you to pull the trigger. You will get a well made, easy to use product for your money.
A little thing like this is quite easy to lose. It's something I worry about. At this price you DON'T want to lose it! Mine came with a small drawstring bag, but that's not really going to prevent me losing it. Since I bought mine it looks like they're trying to reassure buyers by offering a "gig clip". But that looks like a plastic bracket that just sticky-tapes on the back of your peghead. If I won't drill holes in nice wood, I sure am not going to stick that thing on it! Nice try, but not a solution for everyone.
I've downgraded my rating totally because of the price. They have actually raised the price since it was introduced. I totally understand they have to recoup their costs and make a profit operating from way Down Under. It is a good but very pricey thang, and the market will say if it survives and thrives or not.
If not for price, I would give it 10. I really do like it!
Overall Rating: 6
Where Purchased: Mike Smith direct
I installed this bridge on a 70s vintage StewMac "Eagle" kit with an integral cast aluminum pot and archtop tone ring. That should tell you a lot about it - tinny, kind of harsh, very bright. After owning the thing for 20 years I discovered it sounded much better when tuned down to E or E-flat, and that's where I've been playing it for last year or so. I was looking to see if I could improve that sound any more.
I described the general sound characteristics and how I'm playing it now to Mike Smith and pointed him to a recording. After that, I let him recommend what to put on it to improve it. He sent me one of his first McCormick spice factory wood bridges in the KatEyz style, with ebony top wood, at 2.3 grams.
I was immediately struck by the workmanship. I got the same impression I might get from a piece of fine, Amish hand-crafted cabinetry. But sound is what really matters. So I put on a fresh set of American Made Banjo cryo strings with the el cheapo Grover bridge I'd had on this Mutt for years, thinking it deserved no better. After breaking in the strings for a while, I replaced the old Gover with the new Kat Eyz. I was expecting some improvement, but I was not prepared such a transformation of the banjo.
It was like the whole instrument came alive for the first time. I felt that the eitire head was resonating now - never had that feeling before. I could feel the sound resonating thru the neck - also something new. Gone was the harshness and tinniness that had always been the hallmark of this banjo. I had told Mike I wanted a "woodier" sound. I can't say the sound now is "woody" - it's definitely a metal tone ring sound, but with the Kat Eyz bridge it's now much fuller, rounder, mellower, and more balanced across the tonal spectrum than it ever was before. I messed with the head tension a bit (less) and things only got better. Down in E, E-flat, this banjo is now just sweet, with a sound that's very much its own, and very good for a lot of my original tunes.
Just for curiosity, I tuned up to Bluegrass G. Wow - it's got volume and pop that it never had before. And no aluminium jangle - how can that be? It's not Ralph Stanley, but it's a decent Bluegrass archtop sound.
Maybe a pricier instrument would not be so radically improved with just a bridge change, I don't know. All I know is that suddenly I have to adjust to the idea that I've lost a beater banjo and now have 2 good sounding banjos. I could not imagine there was such potential in my old Mutt. This Kat Eyz bridge transformed it from a beater to a valued one of a kind instrument. Now I gotta find another beater!
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: Bishline Banjos
Year Purchased: 2006
Price Paid: 2300 ($US)
I would describe the sound as rich, balanced, and responsive. The dynamics are excellent, soft to loud, and the response curve is very natural. It's easy to feel just how hard you need to pick to get the response you want. Very even sound response up and down and across the fingerboard, and it will really bark if you punch it. I got a tonering upgrade from the standrard Kulesh to a Hopkins Prewar model (see Customer Service) and this contributes to the great sound, though I'm sure I'd have been quite satisfied with the standard Kleush.
I am not much of a traditional player (cut my teeth on "newgrass") and the sound is great for what I do. But I think traditional Bluegrass players would be quite happy with it too.
Sound Rating: 10
Not really knowing what I'd want in my first really good banjo, I had Rob do his "middle-of-the-road" setup. I can only describe the action as "rich and creamy" - I in fact still overplay. It is so much faster and more responsive than my old banjo. I don't have to work nearly as hard, and I'm finding the adjustment a little difficult, but that is A Good Thing. I may raise the action just a bit, though for now I'd rather persist and try to learn how to back off and go with the inherent capabilities of this instrument.
In any case, you can talk with Rob about your preferred setup and he'll deliver it, and help you with any adjustments that might be needed after shipping (I'm assuming buying direct as I did - if you buy thru a dealer, they should handle final setup)
Setup Rating: 9
Traditionalists may not like the appearance of this banjo. Not being one myself, I loved it at first sight. It was exactly what I'd had in mind but had not found anywhere else - simple, almost minimalist, but with just a touch of elegance. Toward the peghead there are just small MoP dots. Then there is a lovely MoP inlay pattern over the top several frets. The pearl is some of the nicest I've ever seen, with lots of pastel hues in direct light. The neck is wider in the high end than most banjos, which some might find unsettling, but which as a long-time bass player suits me just fine.
Rob offers a choice of woods. I went the the walnut. The burl on the resonator is simply stunning! The resonator and neck are bound in maple - so much nicer than the usual plastics. Though not strictly traditional looking, this is a beautiful work of art that I would have expected to cost much more.
Appearance Rating: 10
Hard to say about reliability with a brand new instrument. Certainly all the parts are top quality, so I don't expect reliability problems. Finish seems better than average and I expect it will hold up.
Reliability Rating: 9
Rob and Frank at Bishline Banjos were both great to work with. Banjo has a lifetime warranty and I'm confident Rob will stand behind it all the way. There were some slght problems out of box, partly the result of shipping (that box had taken some hits), and partly due to changes absolutely to be expected in a brand new wooden instrument coming from dry Oklahoma to a very humid Cleveland Ohio. Rob talked me thru some neck adjustments over the phone that did the job. He's a believer in educating people on basic adjustments, which on a banjo are really pretty simple if you're even halfway handy with simple hand tools. I personally appreciated this, as I'm taking the instrument to Russia where anything that gets done to this instrument will have to be done by me. It's good to know that advice and help are just a phone call or email away.
But the real kicker in this area was the tone ring upgrade. As it turned out, Rob was out of the standard Kulesh ring and he had been backordered on his resupply. A lot of places would have just said sorry, you gotta wait. Rob knew I was on a tight schedule to go back overseas, and rather than miss that, he put on the more expensive Hopkins Prewar ring at no extra charge. Now don't go expecting that every time! But I think it illustrates just how committed Rob is to meeting commitments to his customers.
Customer Service: 10
I'll talk here about the custom stuff I opted for. I went with this model because I loved the look, and I'm sure I could have been happy enough with the standard model - nothing wrong with anything in it's specs. But I found the standard Heirloom so reasonably priced that I decided to explore some customizations that I'd always dreamed of but didn't think I would ever get in the low $2K price range, and these turned out to be affordable.
I'm a believer in laminated necks. In the climate where I live, the added strength of a laminated neck is highly desirable. Rob is one of the few builders that even offers a laminated neck. It's not standard on the Heirloom, but I opted for it. I also opted for ebony in the fingerboard, which I much prefer to rosewood, and for a slightly radiused fingerboard on account of my small hands and short stubby fingers. The result is a neck to die for - really! (I hear they had to pry it out of Frank's hands to ship it!)
I opted for walnut, partly because I love that wood, and partly because I liked the sound of walnut banjos I've played. The fact that it was a no-extra cost option was very attractive (the Heirloom offers a choice of mahogany, maple, or walnut). The walnut burl resonator is nothing short of eye-popping. And I love the binding with wood (in this case maple) instead of plastic. The result is an understated, elegantly beautiful instrument that I still have to occasionally pinch myself to realize it's actually mine.
Components Rating: 10
This banjo compares favorably with banjos costing hundreds if not thousands more. I think the simplicity of the inlay contributes to that. As I said, the price of the standard Heirloom was so reasonable that I was able to afford my dream customizations, which were also very reasonably priced.
My situation necessitated buying this instrument sight unseen, which I have never done with any stringed instrument before and which I normally would avoid. Were anything ever to happen to this one (heaven forefend!) I would have no hesitation about ordering another.
In short, it sounds great, it plays like a dream, it's in tune all over the neck, it's my idea of gorgeous, and the price was right. What else can I say?
Overall Rating: 10
'Bluegrass Power Picks' 6 min
'Vega Style M Conversion' 40 min
'Simple Gifts' 1 hr
'Uncloudy Day' 1 hr