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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!

6909 reviews in the archive.

Lame Horse Instruments: open back banjo

Submitted by maryzcox on 9/18/2009

Where Purchased: Chris Jenkins

Year Purchased: 2009
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

Clear and pretty tone. Records extremely well. Good volume for playing with other instruments without being too bright or ringy.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Yes, it was set up nice, but it was shipped from Texas and I had a local luthier set it up for the new environment.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

The wood and craftsmanship on this banjo are breathtaking--but very tasteful and not gaudy.
The pot is made of 48 solid blocks of wood.
The pot is bubinga and anigre. Both are
west African woods, which are very beautiful, and very good tone
woods. The neck is anigre, maple, and bubinga. The peghead overly is
ebony, as is the fingerboard. The peghead inlay is mother of pearl
(gold and white), and the inlay at the 5th fret is ivory.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

It has those new black tuners that are so expensive--but they work wonderful.
This whole banjo is made of quality parts and workmanship.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Chris Jenkins is the best. This particular banjo was the prototype for this model.
This is a top notch luthier who is interested in producing an awesome open back banjo for the Lame Horse Instrument line.

Customer Service: 10

Components

Everything is lovely on this banjo. I particularly like the clear woody tone--it has the woody tone without sounding muddy. The ebony fretboard is particularly smooth and easy to finger.
There is a pretty scroll at the top of the scoop. The inlays (a small lame horse and a shooting star) are understated but exquisite.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Love this banjo--we bonded immediately and it had to stay here. It is one of my favorite banjos.
You can hear an MP3 of it on my webpage:
maryzcox.com
You can see detailed pix of it and hear sound samples on the Lame Horse web site:
http://www.cjenkinsluthier.com/Lame_Horse_Instruments/Shooting_Star_Banjos/Shooting_Star_Banjos.html

Overall Rating: 10

Chuck Lee: custom

Submitted by maryzcox on 4/21/2008

Where Purchased: Chuck Lee

Year Purchased: 2007
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

This is the perfect sound for playing in old time bands. Gutsy, but clear.
Good volume without being overly bright. You will not need any stuffing in this banjo head--it sounds perfect just the way it is.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

This banjo was set up wonderfully out of the box. All I have to do is occasionally change strings. I've put medium gauge bronze wound cryrogenic American Made Banjo strings on it and it sounds great.
It came with a Texas scoop which I really like a lot because I can capo into D or A and not loose the last two notes up the neck while playing.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

This banjo is extremely easy on the eyes. The woodwork is both beautiful and flawless. There is a color inlay on the peghead of the girl sitting in the moon playing a banjo and her basset hound floating on a cloud. The neck has the prettiest piece of marbled walnut I have ever seen and it is set with paduc and maple stripes that are a beautiful touch.
Everything about this banjo is quality. Chuck even stained the natural skin head to have a slight sepia appearance.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

The gears are Bill Keith and they have black plastic buttons.
The rim is Tony Pass ancient wood birch.
Of course I can depend on it. I've already played it on stage and in the field and it works wonderfully. Folks are always asking to see it and play it when I take it to festivals.
It also has a clear and pretty recording voice. It is recorded on "Turkey In the Straw'' (banjo & bass duet) on my new CD, "Florida Banjo."

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Chuck is the creme de la creme of instrument makers.
He is polite, considerate, and jovial and it was a pleasure to work with him every step of the way.

Customer Service: 10

Components

The whole banjo is a showpiece--the woodwork, the rim and tone ring, the gears, the inlay--the neck is easy to finger and I love the slightly shorter scale--25 1/2. This banjo takes a multitude of tunings and sounds good tuned up into high D and A as well as a low A tuning.
Love the Texas scoop--wish I had that on my other scooped banjos.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

This banjo is worth every penny. I love it and feel this banjo was built just for me. You can't hardly go wrong with a Chuck Lee. I've played many of his models and regardless of price or ornamentation--the consistantly have that Chuck Lee old time tone that is so sought after in a 12" headed old time banjo.

Overall Rating: 10

Recording King: ne plus ultra 036

Submitted by maryzcox on 4/19/2008

Where Purchased: Recording King

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

Sound

Ne Plus ultra has a white laydie style tone ring and it has a warm,yet bright tone. It is one of the nicest tones on a maple rim with a white laydie tone ring I've heard. The tone is close to that of a vintage banjo.
It fits my style of clawhammer quite well.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Setup included my name engraved on the truss rod cover and railroad spikes installed for the fifth string.
It came slightly damaged in shipping--the tailpiece screw was bent and the tailpiece was out of place.
I took it to a local luthier for the repair and set up--and it sounded awesome.

Setup Rating: 9

Appearance

The inlay is awesome--Greg Rich designed it and it looks like a cross between tree of life and flowerpot except it is all in motion. An exquisite piece of art. I also love the appearance of the blonde maple with the ebony stripe and cap. I fell in love with this banjo the first time I saw a photo of it.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

It appears sturdy and the gears keep it nicely in tune. I've already taken it out to a couple performances and in the field and it holds up very well.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

I love Recording King and Ali and Greg. They have been very generous with me and I've only had positive dealings with them.
They offered to fix the part that was damaged in shipping, but it was easier and quicker for me to have it done here.

Customer Service: 10

Components

I think this banjo is worth about double of what you would pay for a new one. It is a nice all around clawhammer banjo that looks as nice onstage as it does in the campground. The gears work nicely and everything about it sounds good. I may in the future, change the bridge to a moon bridge (because I like them) and the head to a real skin head--but the sound is so nice as is that I'm hesitant to change anything at the moment. The neck fits my hand well, not too thin or thick and it fingers easily and in tune all the way up the neck.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

This is about the nicest banjo I've seen in this price range. You can buy this banjo from Elderly Instruments for just under a grand and it is one of the best deals around. It sounds and plays much like a Wildwood Troubador that I owned years ago--except the Ne Plus ultra has a prettier tone, and it is actually prettier with the fancy inlay and the contrasting maple and ebony woods.
Please don't steal this banjo--it has my name on it--and I love it.

Overall Rating: 10

Bowlin: Fretless Banjo 1865 Model

Submitted by maryzcox on 4/13/2008

Where Purchased: John Bowlin

Year Purchased: 2008
Price Paid: 795.00 ($US)

Sound

Big booming sound with gut strings, skin head--very robust and fun to play.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Sounded wonderful right out of the box. John marked where to put the bridge very well --easy set up.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Lovely with elegant dark wood, dark fingerboard, hardware is antiqued.
Looks like a vintage 19th century banjo, but with new parts and construction that make it so easy to play. I particularly love it that the fingerboard is glossy.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Everything quality. In fact, I plan to take it in June on a tour from Tallahassee to Pasadena to Albuquerque to Brasstown, then back to Tally again. This is the first minstrel type of banjo that I have felt comfortable with on the road in changing climates. I took it festival camping last weekend and it played quite well around the campfire at night.
In fact, the folks camped next door who we didn't know, came over the next morning and said "What was that big banjo you were playing last night? My husband and I think that is the most beautiful banjo we have ever heard. "

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

I love John Bowlin. He is such a gentlemen and I enjoyed every communication with him. :)
I hope there will be John Bowlin Society gatherings in the future--I would love to meet him and his lovely wife in the future. (She is a wonderful quilter)

Customer Service: 10

Components

I love the little period tuning wrench he slipped into the case. I'm really tempted to wear it as a necklace. :) Also, the bridge is heavy duty and carved like a heart. The whole banjo is very elegant with a romantic, yet boisterous personality.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Sure--this banjo was a wonderful value.
I'd cry if someone stole it. Please don't steal it because it would not fit your hand or play nicely at all for you. It was made especially for me and would not sound as good for anyone else. Also, my sons would hunt you down and take it away from you and they may even use violence--so it's best to not even think about taking my banjo.

Overall Rating: 10

Deering: John Hartford #1

Submitted by maryzcox on 8/12/2007

Where Purchased: Deering custom shop

Year Purchased: 2007
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

Wow! Light weight, wooden tone ring, big sound. 22 fret open back--it doesn't need a pop on resonator. :)

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Awesome--it arrived in the mail set up wonderful!
I'll put a bronze fourth string on it when I change strings--other than that--wonderful!

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Regular steamboat inlays--dark wood finish--very awesome.
I ordered gold hardware and a black head and this combo looks the best I've ever seen a John Hartford look.
This is an expensive banjo, though, and feel for the price, it should have heel carving and a little inlay on the little heel spot. :)
The front of the banjo is exquisite and think it should have just a touch of extra on the back.
Also--it would be nice for the tuning pegs to be black instead of white.
On the extreme end--it would be nice to replace the white plastic with real black pearl--but that would add a huge custom expense.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Yes! Especially love the Deering gears--they stay in tune better than anything!

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Custom shop is friendly and has made me two awesome banjos. :)
Carolina Bridges has been a very helpful and cheerful saleswoman.
Her phone number is in my cell. :)

Customer Service: 10

Components

Top woods with great sound
Beautiful inlay pattern
Beautiful concert quality banjo
One of the lovliest banjo voices I've ever heard!

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Love this banjo. I've always wanted a John Hartford model.
I am chronically on "banjo restriction" so I sold a beloved Ramsey Woody to help finance this banjo. I thought I would be pleased--but wow--I was unprepared for the wonderful tone and appearance of this banjo. My husband was against this project from the first, but when I pulled the Hartford from its case and began to play--he nearly fell off his stool ! "Wow! No wonder you wanted that banjo!" he said.
Now--you know it is one heck of a banjo that would make a confirmed banjo restrictor agree that this was a good banjo buy. :)

Overall Rating: 10

Deering: N/A

Submitted by maryzcox on 11/27/2005

Where Purchased: Deering Custom Shop

Year Purchased: 2005
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

Warm, like a bell, bright with depth, clear and lovely tone on the sustain.
Sounds a little like an Ivanhoe--but better.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Came set up--sounds perfect to me!

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Takes my breath away! The mermaid/shell inlays of abalone and pearl with etching are exquisite. The heel carving is a deep sea fighting fish. The walnut neck and abalone binding are lovely, as is the gold. It has a snap on resonator and the piece of burl walnut is stunning with a simple abalone trim.
I studied the big Tsumara (spell?) book for over a month before ordering this banjo and I don't think any other banjo in that book is as beautiful as this one! Even my beautiful Gabriella comes in second. :)

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

No cheap parts--it is beautiful to the eye, ear, and soul.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Deering went over the top on this banjo! The custom shop was proud of this banjo and it really shows! Carolina called me about every detail for over two years and I was beginning to think of her as a relative--we have talked so many times. Thank you--thank you--all the folks at Deering. Can you believe that it came all the way from California to Tallahassee, Florida in just one day? That was the quickest shipping I have ever seen!

Customer Service: 10

Components

Love the new gears, love the new tailpiece. This is my first walnut banjo and now I am so glad Carolina recommended it.
Everything about this banjo is first class--the tone, the materials, the appearance.
The base model they started with was the GDL. Carolina suggested it because of the walnut and also because the abalone and ivoriod binding would really compliment all the abalone and pearl in the inlay.
The inlay was done by a wonderful artist named Arlene in the custom shop. I had originally ordered the Gabriella heel carving--but Arlene came up with a breathtaking drawing of a deep sea fish that was perfect. Other extras were the scooped fingerboard, 20 hole tonering, engraved truss rod cover, pop on resonator, new tuners and tailpiece, spikes for fifth string.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

Yes, I would recommend this banjo to anyone who wants a first class recording or concert banjo.
Please, please--do not steal it--I've waited my whole life for a banjo like this one. I'm not sure it could ever be exactly replaced.
Love it, love it, love it, love it! The inlay, the wood, the heel carving, the tone, the fingerboard--everything is my favorite feature.
I own two other Deering banjos. A Vega Old Time Wunder and a Gabriella. The Vega is lovely and has a very old time plunky tone--a great field banjo--but not in the same category as the "White Shell Laydie." The Gabriella, of course, is one of the finest banjos ever made (IMHO). It is like a golden, Brazilian rosewood museum piece. It is a rainbow of sound and sight. I love it--but my custom was made especially for me and fits my playing the best. :)
I've had a chance to play the following top of the line Deerings:
Gabriella, Ivanhoe, Golden Era, John Hartford and Calico--I think my "White Shell Laydie" is the best!

Overall Rating: 10

Deering: Gabriella

Submitted by maryzcox on 11/23/2005

Where Purchased: used from collector

Year Purchased: 2005
Price Paid: Don't Remember (bought USED) historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

Loud, full, rich, mellow, like a rainbow

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Looks and sounds fine to me. I put on new strings. :)

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Looks like a golden castle. Glows in the dark. Beautiful Brazilian rosewood, gold and inlay. Some folks are hypnotized by the combination and get dizzy while playing it.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Banjo was already ten years old when I purchased it. It looks new.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

The Deering company contacted me to tell me that they would not warrantee this instrument in any way.

Customer Service: not rated

Components

This is an awesome banjo--no cheap parts. :) I do like their new tailpiece (like the one on my new White Shell Laydie) better.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I'm very happy to be able to rescue this banjo, even though I had to charge it and be in debt for the rest of my life. I will be recording on it soon and it is a joy to play!

Overall Rating: 10

Gold Tone: Dojo Deluxe

Submitted by maryzcox on 12/12/2004

Where Purchased: Won it at the Florida Folk Festival banjo contest

Year Purchased: 2004
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

The Elite Classic sounds like an old SS Stewart would if it were in good condition and set up well.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Yes, the banjo sounded nice with the metal strings when I got it.
I had the luxury of having Ken Miller set it up like a vintage SS Stewart and now it sounds really awesome.
Here are the changes:
4 gut strings, one silver spun silk string for the fourth string
new bone nut/to fit gut strings
moon bridge
new tuning pegs (we kept the actual tuners which were fine, but switched out the bright white plastic for German ones with a little shell in them. They really blend better with the abalone tree of life inlay on the neck, giving the banjo a more vintage glow.
With this set up, I entered the old time band contest at the Florida Fiddlers Convention with a pick up band and we won first. This is a nice sounding banjo, capable of placing first.
It already came with a natural skin head that is perfect for the spun rim dowel construction.
This is such a great head that I'm thinking about putting one or two on some of my other banjos.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

The abalone tree of life is lovely. This inlay runs over $1500 as a custom option with some other makers. With this banjo costing around $1200--the inlay is an awesome deal. The silver spun rim is very pretty too.
The white real skin head looks wonderful--the peg head is very pretty.
It almost glows at night around the campfire. It is a lovely banjo.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Too soon to tell--but it seems just fine and certainly worth more than the list price.

Reliability Rating: not rated

Customer Service

I met Wayne Rogers after the contest and he is a sincere banjo builder with a generous streak. He tries to bring repros of famous styles to the banjo world at remarkable prices. He also is a solid Florida businessman and really backs the banjo community in many ways.
I knew nothing about Gold Tone banjos until I won this one and as a third generation Floridian--couldn't be happier with this model.
I have never asked for customer service on this banjo--but there do not seem to be any issues on it at this time.

Customer Service: not rated

Components

This is not a $20,000.00 banjo. This is not even a $5,000 banjo. It was never meant to be that. The maple neck is pretty plain--but it frets true and fingers easily. Sure--it would be great if the neck was a premium grade rosewood or walnut--but then--you would be talking big bucks.
This is not a White Lady Clone--it is a very reasonably priced, light weight banjo for folks wanting the old spun rim sound in a new banjo rather than an actual vintage model. I don't know if anyone elses even offers a banjo like this.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I have many banjos. (And I'm very pleased with each and every one)
They all have different voices. I keep the Elite Classic in a low A tuning and have it on a stand in my living room. It is the one I pick up and play for myself. I love the sound of the skin head and gut strings in the low tuning. It is so light weight that I can carry it around the house.
When I play an old time dance next Saturday--I'll take it to play all the A tunes because it sounds awesome against a fiddle.
If you are looking for this sound in a banjo--this is an awesome buy.
Please don't steal it--its set up just the way I like it.
I've promised this banjo to my daughter, Natalie when she learns to play the banjo, but the more I play it, the more I think she'll have to get it after I die. :)
If you would like to hear a sound clip of this banjo with metal strings --there is one on the Gold Tone page: www.goldtone.com
Go to endorsing artists and click on Mary Cox to bring up the sound clip.

Overall Rating: 10

Cedar Mountain: Appalachian 2

Submitted by maryzcox on 9/10/2004

Where Purchased: Lo Gordon

Year Purchased: 2004
Price Paid: Don't Remember historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

This is a beautiful banjo. Mine is Honduran rosewood rim and tone ring with a mahogany neck, gingseng inlay on the peghead. It has a scooped area, black tuners and there are side dots but no inlay on the ebony fingerboard. It is sleek and beautiful and has a perfect tone to play in an old time dance band or with a fiddle. The workmanship on it is the highest quality--it frets with a lovely tone to the very last fret down the neck. Lo has one banjo with marled rosewood that is slightly prettier than mine--but it is not for sale. However, the rosewood on mine is the nicest one he's made except for that one. :) My banjo is #237 of his rosewood models. I think this batch of banjos will end up collectors' banjos. It also has my initials on the wooden rod on the back so it won't get mixed up with any one else's Cedar Mountian banjo.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Lo set it up and sent extra bridges. He talked to me about everything before and during its building. I even got to see it being built in his shop.
The shop was a wonder in itself--Lo is meticulous and organized and it was fun getting to see all the steps in making a custom banjo.
He is also jovial and congenial and I feel he would be willing to re set it up if I were unhappy with it in any way--but I love it.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

I love fancy banjos. Love the gleam of abalone, pearl, and gold. But this banjo's beauty resides in it's simplicity and sleekness that allow the lovely woods to be the main feature. Lo knew I really wanted the look of marled rosewood--but he could not find anymore pieces that were exactly like his--but he searched and found me one of the prettiest pieces I've seen. The Honduran mahogany neck sounds wonderful too.
This banjo is brand new and already sounds great--I can't imagine what it will sound like in twenty years.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Pegs are nice--no knot tailpiece--actually the only feature that I didn't get was heel carving. It is not an available option--but Lo assured me that if he started doing that--he would carve the heel on my banjo.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Wonderful. Lo's wife, Mary, is also a great fiddler/guitarist and is a most helpful and knowledgable music store owner. They have two grown sons that play fiddle and banjo and they are talented and delightful too.
We enjoy visiting and picking with them.

Customer Service: 10

Components

Woods and workmanship and wooden tone ring are the standout desirable features.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I would reccommend this banjo for the price I paid.
If this banjo were stolen I would cry and scream and stomp my feet like a toddler and I would hunt down that person and force them to give it back.
I would attend every festival and check every Cedar Mountain Banjo back for my initials and number 237. I would pine until it was found and returned. Please, please--no one take number 237--my family and friends and I will make your life miserable--you will have to leave the continent and run and hide for the rest of your life. It won't be worth it.

Overall Rating: 10

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