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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!

6991 reviews in the archive.

Capos: G7th Banjo Capo

Submitted by Clawhamr on 1/17/2020

Where Purchased: Banjo Studio

Overall Comments

I've been playing the banjo professionally for fifty-five years, and when it comes to capos I've literally tried them ALL. From the days of the old elastic band ones and the Hamilton lever-type, through the many attempts over five decades to improve a basic tool we all use, I've made it a point to try every new-fangled clampy-doo that hits the market. As a sales rep for thirty-eight years in the instrument industry, I've been to sixty-odd NAMM trade shows and I've been presented with samples of most every new capo that came out. Each had a gimmick, and the Heritage by G7th is no different. The maker claims to have licked the tuning issues that plague every capo ever designed. This capo is a jewel-like accessory that's as pretty a piece of neck candy as one could wish for. Its highly polished finish and mechanical precision are superb, and the company says that its technology all but eliminates sharping of the notes at the fret you've capoed. Thus, I plunked down $140-plus (!!!) in the hopes that this was finally the solution.

It's NOT. The Heritage capo is precise, it's beautiful and well made, but it sharps the notes at the new fret just like every other capo ever marketed. Save your money and stick with Shubb capos. Still the champ and worth what you pay.

Overall Rating: 5

Tuners: Cheat-a-keys

Submitted by Clawhamr on 7/11/2018

Where Purchased: Banjo.com

Overall Comments

I've used Keith D-tuners since they first came out; I was handed my first set by Bill himself. While I appreciate the design goal of having an unobtrusive and elegant way to "scruggsify" one's banjo, I've always felt that the amount of adjustment needed (after choking a string, after changing a string, after looking cross-eyed at a string) was annoying in performance situations. I've never had a set of cam-operated Scruggs tuners on my banjo before, so I did some research and found the MDT tuners and the Cheat-A-Keys. Reading up thoroughly on both, I opted to send for a set of Cheat-A-Keys. They arrived thirty minutes ago, and were installed on my '63 RB-250 flathead and operating perfectly five minutes later. The ease of installation, combined with the ease of adjustment and maintenance make these D-tuners the clear choice for me. They are beautifully made of high quality materials and will certainly outlive me (I AM seventy-one...). Highly recommended

Overall Rating: 10

Picks: Saddle Thumb Pick/ finger picks

Submitted by Clawhamr on 5/1/2016

Where Purchased: Direct

Overall Comments

Gearhead that I am, I feel it incumbent upon me to test any and every banjo accessory I come across. After fifty-plus years of playing, setting up and designing banjos, I think I've looked at some pretty poorly designed and/or executed finger picks. Not one of them comes close to being as bad as the Saddle picks.

Here's an example of a set of picks designed by a man to suit his particular anatomy and playing style who thought that his design would work for everyone else. It doesn't. Let's first deal with the thumb pick...

The inventor makes a big deal about comfort; the band wraps around the thumb, providing a warm embrace instead of a prickly pinch. Unfortunately, the thing starts to rotate around the thumb the first time it makes contact with the strings. It's really hard to execute "Shucking the Corn" cleanly when your thumb pick is retreating around the top of your thumb. Without the flat bottom (found on all conventional thumb picks), it's impossible to keep the business end of the pick at the correct angle of attack. Yes, I followed the fitting instructions to the letter; no, my digits are not misshapen or undersized; yes I fitted the Velcro cushion to the underside of the band. The Saddle thumb pick simply DOES NOT WORK. I feel bad for the inventor; he likely spent a considerable amount of time and money developing his creation. It's a bomb.

The finger pick is just as bad. First, the metal is too thin. The tone it produces (provided one can get the thing to stay on one's finger long enough to strike a string) is thin as well. The Saddle pick will manage to make even your pre-war megabuck flathead sound like a Kay. The blade is shaped like the bill of a platypus and it has a cup-like depression inside that probably results from the crude method used to form the shape. The split band is supposed to prevent the pick from creeping toward the fingertip as one flexes the first joint of the finger. It's touted to accomplish this by trapping a lump of flesh between the bands. The problem is that the bottom of the pick is so long that the rearmost band butts up to the joint and this forces the pick forward anyway, despite how much meat you've trapped in the thing.

Save your money; these things are awful. Buy a set of Sammy Shelor's wonderful stainless steel finger picks and a Blue Chip thumb pick. They're not cheap, BUT you'll get great tone, and (if you don't lose them) you won't have to buy another set of picks, EVER.

 

 

Overall Rating: 1

Nechville: Brand overview

Submitted by Clawhamr on 12/16/2012

Where Purchased: Direct from maker

Year Purchased: 2012
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

See overall comments

Sound Rating: not rated

Setup

See overall comments

Setup Rating: not rated

Appearance

See overall comments

Appearance Rating: not rated

Reliability

See overall comments

Reliability Rating: not rated

Customer Service

See overall comments

Customer Service: not rated

Components

See overall comments

Components Rating: not rated

Overall Comments

This year, I bought two new banjos, both from Tom Nechville; an Atlas openback (custom scale and full scoop) and a Vintage bluegrass banjo. Here's why I think that Tom is a genius, and that the future of the five-string banjo resides in Minnesota.
Rather than issue yet another "masterclone", Tom embarked some twenty-five years ago on a quest to correct several design deficiencies inherent in existing banjo tech. Number one on his hit list: the inconsistent sound and setup stability caused by the hook-and-nut head tensioning scheme. If the Helimount system had been around in the 30s, skin heads might still be in wide use. The ease and simplicity with which the player can tune the banjo head on a Helimount instrument cannot be overstated; one can get PRECISELY the tone desired in seconds. Genius.
The second proprietary invention (but no less epoch-making) is the neck attachment scheme that's an integral part of the Helimount frame. The precisely curved surface at the neck heel matches the one machined into the frame, and enables the player to set the action to the desired height with ANY desired bridge of ANY height, from 1/2" to 3/4". This capability, coupled with the Helimount tensioning system, lets the player set up the banjo exactly as desired, without a trip to the luthier. Additionally, without the standard cuts in the contact surface of the neck heel inherent in the Mastertone paradigm, the mating surface of the neck to the frame is greater in area by far. This makes for more (and more efficient) transfer of vibratory energy from the neck to the pot. I believe that this is the primary reason for the Vintage's completely even timbre of tone from the first to the last fret. There is a purity of sound in the notes issuing from a Helimount banjo that seems to contain more apparent fundamental than distracting overtone.
Both of these banjos have re-invigorated my playing, even after fifty years of practice and professional experience. The Atlas, though not a Helimount, has the Nechville neck attachment block and the solid, woody tone I get from it inspires my clawhammer efforts. The Vintage gives me the combination I've been seeking for decades; even tonal response along the whole span of frets, ease of maintenance and adjustment, and (due in no small part to the wider-than-standard, compound-radius fretboard) an ease of playing the just pulls new music out of me. I strongly urge fellow five-stringers to make an effort to play a Nechville banjo, and to support Tom's effort to perfect the design of an instrument which had remained largely unchanged since the nineteen-twenties.

Overall Rating: 10

Nechville: Vintage

Submitted by Clawhamr on 4/10/2012

Where Purchased: Direct

Year Purchased: 2012
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

I was looking for a sound between classic M*st*rt*ne and a darker tonality; a "Fleckish" tone. I told Tom Nechville what I was after and he replied, "no problem. He delivered. Punchy yet articulate, full-toned but not tubby, it's exactly what I asked for.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Setup was perfect per my spec. The Enterprise bridge (3/4") intonates near perfectly. I anticipate no changes except the addition of Keith tuners on 2 & 3. Playing action is comfortably low with zero buzzing. The compound radiused fretboard is a joy to play on.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

The mahogany resonator and neck are of top-grade wood; the frets are jumbo and nicely crowned and finished and the bindings and other details are first rate. The very traditional flying eagle inlay is precisely installed and gives me the vintage vibe I love.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Like all of Nechville's instruments, this is a solid banjo that feels like it's all one piece, rather that something that's an assemblage of parts. I have no doubts as to its durability and I'd rely on it to carry me through any playing situation for decades to come ( I should live so long...).

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Tom and Al are the best. They want to give the player exactly what he or she wants. and they go to great lengths to provide complete satisfaction.

Customer Service: 10

Components

In my humble opinion, The Helimount pot is sheer genius. It provides a solid base for the banjo to be built upon, as well as making maintenance and adjustment stupid-easy. It also (I believe) is largely responsible for the Vintage's dense, focused tonality. The other inspired Nechville innovation is the neck mounting system, which facilitates a rock-solid connection between the pot and the neck as well as giving fingertip control over action adjustment.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

This is my second Nechville banjo purchase this year (see my recent review of the custom Atlas openback). I believe that Nechville is in the forefront of banjo development today, turning out high-quality, hand-built banjos that are innovative in the best way; his engineering achievements improve tone and playability and increase the durability and stability of the instrument. Bravo Nechville.

Overall Rating: 10

Nechville: Atlas

Submitted by Clawhamr on 10/29/2011

Where Purchased: Direct

Year Purchased: 2011
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

The Atlas took the least amount of tinkering to get my sound than any other banjo I own. The blend of "pop", short note duration and mellow tonality is perfect for clawhammer playing. I use a Renaissance head (I spray the back with lacquer to add mass) medium tight and a Sampson "Rivet-Busting" bridge for the desired sound. It's perfect.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

The "Flux Capacitor" neck coupling block makes setup a breeze. Loosen one Allen bolt in the neck heel and slide the neck up or down and re-tighten the bolt; that's it. This enables one to use any height bridge one desires and still set the action to suit. The mount also allows head changing with the neck in place. The truss rod adjuster is (hallelujah!) in the headstock where it belongs, so you can set the relief with the banjo strung up and tuned to pitch. Other builders take note!

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

I chose the Standard model with flat fretboard, a Saturn inlay at the fifth fret and tiny starburst inlays at the appropriate positions. The dark walnut stain is attractive, though I wish Tom would buff out the finish to a smooth matte rather than leaving it in a slightly rougher condition. Still, it feels good to the left hand. The hardware is first-rate, the plating deep and rich and the hoop-mounted tailpiece (a la Stelling) is three-point adjustable.

Appearance Rating: 9

Reliability

The tuning stability seems rock-solid. I would use the Atlas in any playing situation with no reservation.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Tom Nechville is a banjo visionary that cares deeply about his customer's satisfaction. He even made the neck in my desired 25.5" scale length and with a slight V profile. He's always available by phone during business hours and loves to talk banjos. His products carry a limited lifetime warranty.

Customer Service: 10

Components

The elegant engineering evident in Tom's Helimount designs is apparent in the Atlas as well. The all-wood pot (designed by Wayne Sagmoen) does away with bracket shoes, metal flanges and bracket bands, making for a super lightweight instrument that I know will be a delight to tote around at festivals. The dowel stick is not a part of the structure; it's there for looks and to serve as a pickup mount or to hold your choice of tone-modifying "stuffing" in place.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Since meeting Tom Nechville many years ago at a NAMM show, I've been impressed with each successive innovation in banjo design to issue forth from his shop. His approach to banjo design is function first, and while his instruments have caused some traditionalists to scratch their heads, those pickers that admire original thought will continue to bolster Nechville's reputation and sales. My next acquisition: a Nechville Vintage bluegrass model.

Overall Rating: 10

Tone Rings: Bill Rickard Dobson tone ring

Submitted by Clawhamr on 1/24/2010

Where Purchased: Direct

Overall Comments

While I've been really happy with the sound of my Will Fielding "Rooster" openback, I'm an incurable tinkerer, always looking for that extra little "something" to enhance my tone. This 12" banjo ( with a custom Tony Pass sunken birch block rim) first went from being a woody to having Will fit a 1/4" brass hoop under the head. After playing it this way for a few years, I was speaking with Mr. Rickard at Clifftop last year when he said that his Dobson rings were now ready for sale. I first installed one in my Brooks Siverspun six months ago to replace the Bacon ring that was already in it and it gave this nylon-strung beauty a whole new dimension of tonal subtlety and volume. I ordered one for the Rooster ten days ago, and when it arrived I discovered that,indeed, the rim need to be lathed down a hair at the top to accommodate the ring. Not having access to a huge lathe, I packed up the rim and the ring and sent them down to Tony Pass in Arkansas. It's all together now, and I'm happy to report that the Dobson ring adds just the right measure of depth and definition to the tone of this already outstanding instrument. I heartily recommend Bill Rickard's tone rings to anyone building a new banjo or as a retrofit to an existing one.

Overall Rating: 10

Other: Gold Tone Clip-on Tuner

Submitted by Clawhamr on 1/24/2010

Where Purchased: Direct

Overall Comments

At the recent NAMM show in Anaheim, CA, I obtained a new clip-on tuner from Wayne Rogers at Gold Tone that's so good I had to tell you all about it. This tiny tuner boasts one-button operation and (the MOST innovative thing) a clamp design that enables it to be oriented in ANY position. Some clip-ons work well enough but because of the clamp designs, they present a ninety degree off-axis view. Not so this one; the ingenious mount makes it easy to orient the thing to read upright any place on any instrument. If this isn't enough, the tuner itself sports the now-popular "turns green when the note's right" feature and has presets for guitar, 5-string banjo, mandolin/fiddle and uke as well as a chromatic setting. The internal chip at the heart of this tuner is designed to respond to ONLY the note you've plucked, filtering out any sympathetic vibrations from the other strings. In other words, hit the first-string D on a 5-string and the low D string's vibe will NOT cause the tuner to fluctuate like the rest of the tuners I've tried always do. The index fairly "leaps" to its resting point and locks onto it, which greatly speeds up the tuning chore. It turns on and off by holding the one button down a second or so. Once it's on, the same button scrolls through the different instrument presets. It couldn't by easier to use. There's no (mostly useless) "calibration" button; how many times have you needed to change your "A" reference from 440 to anything else? The green/red backlight makes it highly readable and the price is right: $34.95 list. Highly recommended!

Overall Rating: 10

Gold Tone: OT-6

Submitted by Clawhamr on 2/25/2009

Where Purchased:

Year Purchased: 2008
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

Wow. With a 14" pot, this behemoth really puts out the low frequencies generated by that low G string! Even so, the rest of the sound spectrum is there; the Renaissance head does indeed assure that the higher strings are well-represented. Overall, the OT-6 is a sonic home run.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Hats off to GT for a well-made nut, proper neck-set and low action. Maybe a little too low; I re-topped a 3/4" Moon bridge to raise the action a bit and carved a new 5th string nut. Perfection.

Setup Rating: 9

Appearance

Bearing in mind its Chinese origin, this banjo is very well appointed, with tasteful early 20th century-style inlays, an attractive peghead shape and a good (albeit shiny) finish on the wooden components.

Appearance Rating: 8

Reliability

The OT-6 seems very robustly built. I feel it will last for centuries.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Wayne and his crew are really committed to putting out a quality instrument with authentic vintage vibe coupled with modern materials and dependable performance. What questions I had were courteously answered and I found it a pleasure to talk with them.

Customer Service: 10

Components

Everything on this banjo speaks of quality for the dollar. A full complement of Gotoh machine heads handles tuning, the tailpiece handles loop end or ball end strings and the nut is real bone.

Components Rating: 9

Overall Comments

I love this thing! That bottom string ROCKS. The neck is comfy and I got used to extra width in five minutes. It's a great value.

Overall Rating: 10

Brooks Masten: 30L Special

Submitted by Clawhamr on 11/26/2008

Where Purchased: From the maker

Year Purchased: 2008
Price Paid: 2200 ($US)

Sound

I was looking for a sound unlike any of the other banjos in my stable. This unique combination of a spunover rim and a Bacon tone ring provides a full, bell-like quality that recalls the 1890s New York banjos, but with LOTS more power and presence.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

The bridge that Brooks made was too mass-y for my tonal preference, so I subbed an 11/16" Moon bridge in the heavy weight. Perfect. The quality of Brooks's self-made hardware, as well as the solidity of his woodcraft make this banjo a pleasure to tweak.

Setup Rating: 9

Appearance

Done up in the style of the turn-of-the-century NY school, this banjo is spartan in a appearance, with small dot inlays in the fretboard and on the side of board facing the player. The only other ornamentation is Brooks's trademark Indian head penny inlaid in the headstock, and the stunning grain of the Oregon walnut neck. Also, the interplay of the unplated brass tension hoop, brackets and nuts against the nickel-plated tone ring and the brushed nickel-silver spunover rim is a delight for the eyes.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

First-class hardware, meticulous fit and superb finishing would seem to ensure decades of reliable use. I would rely on this puppy in any playing situation.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Brooks kept me up to date during the whole construction process with emailed photos of the banjo from its first day to its completion. He built exactly what I asked for and delivered it in just ten months from the date of order. UPDATE: After much discussion with Brooks regarding several issues, he graciously volunteered to make a new neck to address my concerns. The result is perfection. This underscores the benefits of working directly with a maker to achieve the exact result you desire, as well as finding a maker that stands behind his work and is committed to customer satisfaction. Bravo Brooks!

Customer Service: 10

Components

I plan to replace the repro No-Knot tailpiece with one of Will Fielding's new tailpieces; other than that, there are no inferior parts on this instrument. Brooks makes ALL of the hardware used on his banjos except for the tuning machines (Five Star planets and a Waverly fifth string peg, all with black buttons), the tailpiece and the dowel brace.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Since I already own several other banjos of various types (Tu-ba-phone, Whyte Laydie, and Fielding) I was looking to have something made for me that was completely different from anything I have. I heard of Brooks last January and contacted him. After talking my ideas over with him, he enthusiastically took up the challenge of building something he's never attempted: a spunover rim with a Bacon-style tone ring. The result is far more satisfying than I could have imagined. I love it. My favorite feature? The true old-timey vibe coupled with modern precision and superb craftsmanship.
UPDATE: I've replaced the Bacon ring with a Rickard Dobson-style ring, and fitted a beautiful 1920s walnut resonator from a Slingerland tenor. Wow. I'll have it with me at Clifftop 2011 if anyone's interested in trying it...

Overall Rating: 10

Fielding: NorthStar 0773

Submitted by Clawhamr on 4/8/2008

Where Purchased: Will Fielding (maker)

Year Purchased: 2008
Price Paid: 6500.00 ($US)

Sound

This 12" Whyte Laydie pot produces the limpid, round tones of an all-wood banjo with the added focus and edge of a brass tone-ringed pot. The sound is simply superb; clear, yet not at all strident, with enough reserve power to drive the largest session.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Will Fielding is a clawhammer player and knows full well how to set up a banjo for the intended user. The NorthStar is fitted (as are all of Will's instruments) with a bridge of his own make. Action is on the high side but appropriate for the style of playing and the fretboard is free of any hint of buzzes or rattles. The Renaissance head is a fine choice, allowing maximum nuance to emerge from the Whyte Laydie's innards. The head tension as shipped was a bit loose for me; a little bit more tension produced the added attack I was looking for. This instrument should be easy to adjust to suit the ear of any discerning player.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Will loves to work with the woods native to his New England environs. The NorthStar is built of cherry wood, a dark-blond colored material with a beautiful, wide longitudinal grain and tight structure. This banjo, however is a true collaboration of three consummate artists: Will Fielding (luthier), Michelle Holzapfel (a world-renowned wood-turner and art carver) and Glenn Carson (a banjo-maker in his own right, now emerged as a pearl-inlay and engraving specialist of the highest skill). The deep-relief carving applied to the neck heel is a magnificent oak-leaf-and-acorn-themed delight, a treat for the eyes and for the fingers as well. The tactile sensations one receives when running one's fingers over this still-life in wood are an added dimension of enjoyment the owner of this banjo will cherish as much as the sound the instrument produces. Glenn's faultless pearl-work and frighteningly sharp and precise engraving are literally the icing on this cake. The entire banjo is carried off as a harmonious whole; a tribute to the three superb artisans who collaborated on its making.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

The grooved stretcher band, cobra hooks and ball-end nuts as well as the tone ring and the tuning machines are all first-rate. The tailpiece is Will's new design, something of a cross between the classic no-knot and the tailpieces on the old Lyon & Healy banjos. It provides a bit of downward angle on the bridge; this is a good compromise between a no-knot and a heavy Kirschner-style tailpiece in that it adds some tension on the bridge (which helps keep it in position) and adds focus to the tone. I own three other Fielding banjos and all have proven extremely reliable.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

In my experience, Will Fielding is among the finest small banjo makers on the planet. He stands behind his instruments one hundred percent. Any issue I've had with any of his pieces was attended to quickly and courteously. He's a pleasure to work with.

Customer Service: 10

Components

As noted above, this is a first-class instrument. Nothing needs to be changed, but the owner might experiment with different bridges, heads and tailpieces to individualize the sound to taste.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Will is on vacation this week and graciously sent the NorthStar to me for evaluation. I haven't pulled the trigger on this yet as I've got another project in the works that's taking my available resources at present. If I don't buy this beauty in the next few days, I will undoubtedly purchase one of the next in the series. The price is extremely reasonable for the level of craftsmanship involved, and the owner of this banjo can be assured of a lifetime of prideful ownership.
It's still up for grabs, folks. Go for it!

Overall Rating: 10

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