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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!

6942 reviews in the archive.

J. Mogi: #25 13" fretted

Submitted by banjers51 on 1/15/2011

Where Purchased: Directly from maker

Year Purchased: 2010
Price Paid: 800.00 ($US)

Sound

This is a BIG banjo purposely designed to be tuned a 4th lower than standard, and fitted with Nylgut minstrel gauge strings. It has an amazingly clear, low voice without being in the least bit muddy--exactly what I was hoping for when I first contacted Jason about this particular project. I am constantly surprised at the subtle tonal variations this banjo can produce: it's very responsive with even the lightest touch, but can also be played quite percussively without losing any distinctiveness.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

The banjo arrived set up exactly as anticipated/requested: high quality skin head, Nylgut strings, and a relatively tall bridge. Additionally, Jason provided an extra bridge of slightly lighter material, and generously offered to make another if neither was sufficient.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Jason managed to strike a fine balance in its design, so that it doesn't actually appear "large" in any particular dimension, despite the fact that it's obviously a bigger instrument. I specifically requested that it be kept simple in appearance, leaning toward a mid-19th century aesthetic, and Jason hit it right on the mark. The neck is walnut with rosewood peghead overlay, heel cap and fingerboard (no inlays); thin, deep oak rim stained black; brass hardware; and Pegheds 4:1 tuning machines. Nice carving detail around the fifth peg and a slim, squared off peghead.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

The hardware is all top quality. Brass hooks, nuts and shoes supplied by Bill Rickard; Jason makes his own tension hoops; brass No-Knot reproduction tailpiece. The Pegheds tuning machines were Jason's suggestion, and I'm very happy with both their appearance and their functionality, especially with the Nylgut strings. The finish on the banjo is minimal, just like its overall design--nothing glossy or out of place, very much in keeping with the ideas I had from the beginning.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

From start to finish, this was a great experience. Jason contacted me regularly with updates and photographs of the whole process. He was open to my input on several different features, and provided excellent advice whenever I asked for his opinion. When it developed that it would take a bit longer to complete than anticipated, Jason contacted me immediately, even though I had made it clear that I was in no hurry, and didn't want him to feel pressured in the least by this project. He clearly cares about keeping his word and maintaining excellent communication with his customers.

Customer Service: 10

Components

As mentioned above, the hardware is all very well made and works well together, both functionally and visually. I really can't imagine changing anything on this banjo other than replacing strings as needed.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I was very impressed with Jason from our first point of contact (email), and this initial impression merely expanded over the few months before I took delivery of the banjo. We had many good email conversations along the way, and it was clear that he was enjoying the challenges with which I presented him in the design and execution of this instrument. I would highly recommend Jason as one of the emerging banjo builders--his work is top notch and he's very open to customer input, a combination that makes for excellent results.

Overall Rating: 10

Johannes Bonefaas: Fretted

Submitted by banjers51 on 8/23/2010

Where Purchased: Private purchase

Year Purchased: 2010
Price Paid: Don't Remember (bought USED) historic exchange rates / currency converter

Sound

At the risk of reiterating what has already been written about Bonefaas instruments, I have to concur with John Balch that the sound of this banjo is "complex". It's not particularly loud (not an issue for me), but it has the most "round" tonal quality I've ever encountered, including both Dobson originals and contemporary banjos with a Dobson tone ring. My wife, who has listened to me playing for more than 30 years, commented that it was the most "resonant" banjo she'd heard, and perhaps that's an even better descriptor. There is surprisingly little bleed from one note to the next, yet each note is very full. The bass response is surprisingly rich, given the fact that this is an 11" pot, and the higher frequencies are remarkably warm, not in the least bit bright. I play a fairly melodic style and have a light touch--this banjo suits me perfectly in that regard.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

I purchased this from its original owner, who assured me he had made no changes in the instrument (other than changing strings) since purchasing it directly from Mr. Bonefaas in Denmark several years ago. Usually, I am faced with changing bridges, heads, etc. when acquiring a new banjo, but I really can't think of anything I'd do differently, short of beef up the strings a bit.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Again, as the other reviewers have commented, this is a very plain instrument, but it is also an absolute delight to behold. Every dimension is obviously well thought out, and the handmade hardware is pretty amazing. The walnut neck and brass pot prove to be extremely complementary to one another, and the fact that the brass has begun to oxidize only adds to the banjo's old-fashioned appearance.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

I have to admit I was initially drawn to the Bonefaas banjos because of the handmade hardware. Something about that really appealed to me, and I have not been disappointed. Nothing about this banjo looks like it came from a factory, including the hooks and nuts, which exhibit tiny differences if one looks closely (and long) enough. On the other hand, all of it appears substantial, so I don't anticipated any issues in the future.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

I have not had cause to contact Mr. Bonefaas, but everyone else has commented that he is quick to respond. I purchased the banjo used so it came with no warranty.

Customer Service: not rated

Components

Well, certainly the pot is worth an extra mention. The Dobson-style tone ring is exceptionally thin, particularly compared with the other contemporary iterations of this particular bit of hardware. In that respect, it's much closer to the original H.C. Dobson "Silver Chime". The wooden shell is also very thin, comprising just a single lamination of maple, but it's also fully encased by the spun brass. The result is a surprisingly lightweight banjo, which I suspect has a lot to do with its unique tonal response. The head is the original "shaved" goat skin, stained a very dark brown--quite possibly the thickest skin head I've encountered, and very cool looking.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

This is an extraordinary banjo, period. That said, however, I'm not sure I would choose this as my one-and-only if ever pushed to make such a disastrous decision. It has nothing to do with the quality of the banjo or my general feelings about it--it's just so different than anything else I've ever owned/played. The larger problem (well hardly a problem) is the fact that I also own a lot of other really nice instruments, most of which I'm much more familiar with. Let me put it this way, the Bonefaas would be among the first bunch I grabbed should there be a fire or some other catastrophe, and that's saying a lot from my perspective.

Overall Rating: 10

Chuck Waldman: Wood-O-Phone

Submitted by banjers51 on 2/3/2010

Where Purchased: Directly from Chuck Waldman

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

Sound

Let me begin by stating that I made up the model designation "Wood-O-Phone". I have no idea what Chuck calls these instruments, but they're the result of his own experiments and design concepts. One really has to see the instrument to grasp what he's accomplished, but suffice it to say that he has designed something similar to a Tubaphone tone ring, only the entire thing is made of different varieties of tone wood, in this instance primarily spruce. The resulting chamber is suspended directly under the head and is further subdivided internally into smaller chambers, utilizing the Golden Mean. The sound is simply astonishing--no other way to describe it. Loud, clear and very distinctive. Every time I play it with other people, they ask about it and are invariably amazed that the tone ring is wood--most people assume it's yet another variation of a WL or Tubaphone. Nevertheless, I don't want to mislead anyone, since the Wood-O-Phone has its own unique voice. It has the volume and projection of instruments with complex metal tone rings, but there is a snap evident that I've not run across before in my 35+ years of playing banjo.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

I purchased the banjo from Chuck, after having spent some time with him previously, and finding that we agreed substantially on banjo setup. This particular instrument came with a Renaissance head cranked down just about as tightly as it would go and a bridge of Chuck's own fabrication (maple w/ebony top). I eventually loosened the head a bit and substituted one of Greg Galbreath's fine bridges, which rolled off some of the high end, but really opened up the middle. I have to say I'll probably keep it setup like this, but in general terms the banjo was delivered in perfect, playable condition, with the action just where I would have set it myself, and medium gauge strings.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

This particular banjo is constructed with mostly local California woods (Chuck lives in the Gold Rush region), with the neck and rim being simple, unstained maple accented with black walnut trim, including a short backstrap on the peghead. As mentioned above, the tone chamber is primarily spruce, but I believe the top (i.e., immediately under the head) is some species of acacia. The fingerboard and peghead overlay are plain ebony. I'm not much for inlay, so there are no decorations at all. To my eye at least, this is very much in keeping with Chuck's design aesthetic: clean and simple, letting the shapes speak for themselves--if I didn't know better, I'd think the Shakers had a hand in this one. I suppose if I could change anything, it would be the hooks/nuts/shoes, but only because I think the instrument deserves something less generic. Not a negative comment on function, but simply a difference in taste.

Appearance Rating: 9

Reliability

The finish is first rate, and I've already hauled this banjo around to a number of musical events with no wear or marring evident, despite having been handled by a lot of different players. The hardware is nothing special, just typical Stew-Mac. I swapped the stock pearloid tuner buttons for some ebony ones, but that's just a reflection of my personal taste, not a comment on the functional quality. The build quality is also of the first order, so I have no qualms about taking this out as my only banjo for an evening of playing.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Dealing with Chuck is a treat, no other way to describe the experience. He's one of those individuals who is incredibly enthusiastic about his work, but is also eager to hear other people's opinions. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with Chuck and his wife last summer while passing through his area, and knew instantly that I'd eventually end up with one of his banjos, if for no other reason than wanting the excuse to remain in contact with him! Have to admit we never discussed warranty, but I can't imagine there would ever be an issue should I require service.

Customer Service: 10

Components

As mentioned above, I swapped the bridge and the tuner buttons, but neither of these components was of substandard quality. The most obvious standout on this banjo is the tone chamber, which is the result of Chuck's ongoing experimentation. I guess I've become a bit jaded when it comes to hardware, since there are now some pretty spectacular options available, but all of the stock hardware on this instrument is perfectly functional, and certainly will outlast me.

Components Rating: 9

Overall Comments

I've been hesitant to submit this review, not because I have any issues with the banjo or its maker, but because Chuck currently only has one retail outlet, Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, California, and they don't always have one of his banjos available. Moreover, if you search for Chuck Waldman, you'll quickly discover that he's primarily known for his paintings of Northern and Central California landscapes, with virtually no mention of his other passion, banjos. Nevertheless, after receiving nothing but positive feedback from the various builders and players to whom I've shown this instrument, I decided it was time to put Chuck's name out there for folks on BHO. Incidentally, Bob Carlin did a nice interview with Chuck a few years back for Banjo Newsletter, but Chuck's designs have evolved considerably since then. I'll try to post some photos and a sound file on my member page for those who might be interested in seeing and/or hearing the Wood-O-Phone..

Overall Rating: 10

Brooks Masten: Silverspun Custom

Submitted by banjers51 on 8/2/2009

Where Purchased: From Brooks

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

Sound

Very clear, full sound; quite unlike anything else I own or have owned. This is an 11.5" pot, which Brooks had available when I contacted him. I also asked if he could use his "butterfly" shoes with the Silverspun pot, and he readily complied even though it meant custom drilling since it will only accommodate 18 shoes (his stock Silverspun pots come with either 20 or 30 shoes). This is a loud banjo, but not in the least brash or overly "ringy"--every note is clear and the bass response is amazing.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

I asked Brooks to set this up with a thick skin head and medium strings, both of which he took care of. When I picked it up, it had a generic bridge in place to check the action. Once I determined that this was fine, he made me a bridge of his own design while I waited and watched the process. At this point, I really can't imagine changing anything about the setup, particularly since I was there for the final fitting.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

Like most of Brooks' banjos this has a walnut neck with a fancy burl peghead overlay, while the interior of the pot is birdseye maple. Have to admit I was a bit dubious when Brooks first proposed this combination, but he sent me photos showing how he matched the pot to the neck by staining it--the results are stunning. The butterfly shoes, hooks, nuts and the tension hoop are all unplated brass, which makes an excellent contrast with the polished nickel of the Silverspun pot. Add to that the slight staining of the head to blend it in with the dark woods, and the overall appearance is striking. I asked for no inlay on the fingerboard, so the only decoration (other than the fancy shoes) is Brooks' trademark Indian head penny in the peghead.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Since Brooks makes his own hardware, the quality is actually a step above the usual. All of the castings are clearly well done and nicely polished. The only possible issue I can perceive is the tuners, which are standard 5 Stars, and obviously beyond the control of the builder. At this point, however, they function fine so perhaps I'm being overly critical--I've just had mixed results with them in the past few years.

Reliability Rating: 9

Customer Service

Brooks was incredibly helpful through each step of the process. We corresponded both via email and telephone, and in each instance he listened carefully and responded quickly--even sent me some photos as the banjo was being built, which was a very nice touch. Once it became clear that I was going to be able to pick it up myself, Brooks was very accommodating to my schedule. With this experience, I can't imagine ever encountering a problem.

Customer Service: 10

Components

As mentioned above, one of the hallmarks of Brooks' banjos is the hardware, which is of his own design. This is what drew me to him initially (that and the Silverspun option), and I certainly wasn't disappointed with the results. I may end up changing the tailpiece for one of Will Fielding's at some point, but that would be the only thing I can think of swapping out. Wouldn't surprise me if Brooks comes up with his own tailpiece in the future.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I took a real flier with this banjo, having only played one of his instruments in the past, and that was very different than what I had in mind for myself. Nevertheless, I'm thoroughly delighted with the banjo and the whole process of dealing with Brooks. If I didn't already own a few too many instruments, I could easily see ordering another one from him, perhaps one of his half-fretless models or even one of the non-Silverspun pots. If I were somehow to become separated from this, due to theft or irreparable damage, I wouldn't hesitate in the least to call and order another one. Moreover, given the work involved in creating these Silverspun pots, I'd say Brooks' instruments are an unbelievable bargain, particularly if you're looking for something a little different.

Overall Rating: 10

Enoch: Dobson 11"

Submitted by banjers51 on 5/16/2009

Where Purchased: Directly from Kevin

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

Sound

As others have commented, this model has a unique voice, which is what attracted me in the first place. Had an opportunity to play one at a banjo gathering and that was it--decided to order one almost on the spot. Now that I've had it for a few months, I've really come to appreciate the difference in tonal colors this banjo offers compared to my other instruments. I would agree with the other reviewers that this isn't a loud banjo, but that's actually an asset as far as I'm concerned--makes me work a bit harder to dig out the potential of the instrument.

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

I discussed setup with Kevin when I ordered the banjo, and it arrived exactly as I had specified: relatively thick skin head and medium strings; the combination really seems to work well with this tone ring/pot. I haven't done a thing to it, other than occasionally fool around with a chunk of foam stuffed under the head, just to play with different tonal possibilities. Have to admit, I invariably revert to the way I received it.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

There is a lovely simplicity to these banjos that's hard to beat. I really like the round shaped shoes--something about that choice just works, to my eye at least. Additionally, the walnut used in this particular banjo neck has a bit of figure, which was a nice bonus.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

I've been playing this daily for the last few months, and don't see (nor do I anticipate) any issues at all. All of the hardware seems to be nicely plated and polished, and the finish on the neck simply gets better (i.e., a bit more glossy) with playing.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

I received the banjo in the middle of what turned out to be a very cold New England winter, which means our house was quite dry from the heating system. As a result, there was a bit of shrinkage in the fingerboard after a couple of months, leaving the fret ends protruding just enough to be noticeable while playing. I knew I was going to be in the DC area, so called Kevin who invited me to swing by his shop. I had expected that I'd need to leave it, but he and Pete Ross took care of it while I was waiting. Can't imagine better service than that.

Customer Service: 10

Components

None that I can find. It strikes me that everything on the banjo is very well thought out, with no apparent cutting of corners. If there were anything about the whole package that I might change, I suppose it would be the gig bag, which was clearly designed for an electric guitar. But frankly, the case's flat, narrow profile has made it easier to get the banjo on a plane and in the overhead bins, so at some level I guess I should consider the case an asset.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I was looking for a banjo with a different sound than the other instruments I own or have owned in the past, and the Enoch Dobson model has provided me with that. I should add that I also played a 12" Dobson, and for my needs, the 11" was a pretty clear winner. Nevertheless, the differences were subtle, so I would advise interested parties to play both size pots and choose for themselves if at all possible. And finally, if something were to happen to this banjo, I'd call Kevin immediately and order another one without hesitating.

Overall Rating: 10

Buckeye: 12" Bay State Style

Submitted by banjers51 on 4/11/2009

Where Purchased: Directly from Greg Galbreath/builder

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

Sound

I've been a bit hesitant to take the plunge into the 12" shorter scale world, but this banjo has made me a convert. The tone is a fine blend of "plunk" and clarity, and that's the case anywhere on the neck. I have a fairly light touch, but have no problem getting a very big sound out of this beauty

Sound Rating: 10

Setup

Greg and I discussed setup briefly in advance, and he agreed to refit the banjo with a nice skin head and medium strings. Let me simply say that he nailed the setup perfectly. The action was right where I would have set it myself, although he included two extra bridges (different heights), making it very easy to change. Since I live in New England where our summers are humid, this was a particularly nice consideration.

Setup Rating: 10

Appearance

The emphasis here is on simplicity, which is very much in keeping with my own preferences. The finish is flawless, and lends a nice golden hue that contrasts well with the ebony fittings. There is a small vaguely leaf-shaped inlay on the Bay State style peghead and simple dots in the fretboard, but it's quite clear from Greg's website that he's more than capable of doing much more elaborate inlay work if that's what you're after.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

I've only had the banjo for a few weeks, but there is nothing about it that would suggest that it won't last longer than I will. I have a feeling I won't ever change much other than strings. As mentioned above, this banjo has lots of volume potential, even for someone like myself with a relatively light touch, so I wouldn't hesitate to use it in group settings, either in jam sessions or gigs.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

I first contacted Greg via email, and we followed up with a phone call or two. Since I knew I was going to be in VA on business, I decided to make the drive down to Eggleston and pick it up myself, which was well worth the time. Greg and his wife, Cindy, are most gracious hosts, and their place up in the hills makes me envious. Additionally, they're both fine musicians, as I found out later that evening, when I accompanied them to a gig.

Customer Service: 10

Components

All of the components are of high quality, and work well together, both functionally and aesthetically. The hardware is nicely polished and Greg uses ebony buttons on the tuners, a very nice touch.

Components Rating: 10

Overall Comments

I can't possibly remember how many banjos I've owned over the years, but this one is quickly becoming a favorite. I usually keep a couple of banjos readily available, and find myself reaching for the Buckeye on a regular basis, both as an obvious alternative to my 11" instruments and on its own merit. Greg's banjos are under priced in my opinion, but I doubt that this will be the case once folks discover what he has to offer. If someone were to ask me about a similar purchase (i.e., 12" simple pot), I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Greg as my first choice.

Overall Rating: 10

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