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!
7071 reviews in the archive.
Where Purchased: Bernunzio Vintage Instruments
Year Purchased: 2008
Price Paid: 299 ($US)
The RB-110 is an inexpensive (but not cheap) open-back entry level banjo made by the Saga group. Sound quality is similar to other lightweight wood pot OBs with good range and tone. Not loud, but a surprisingly nice instrument for a "personal" banjo and makes a good parlour/porch instrument for laid back playing. There is a surprising amount of resonance from the brass tone ring and its sounds pleasant in either clawhammer or picking style. With a change to a renaissance head it becomes somewhat more musical and the notes seem to have greater clarity.
Sound Rating: 9
Banjo was set up when I received it, however the bridge had to be placed as it had been removed for shipping. The dealer had penciled the intonation position on the head so tweaking it up was simple. The action was set slightly higher than I like but that is adjustable was no big deal. I hadn't specified any particular setting. The tuner action screws were a bit slack and need to be firmed up a bit. Since this was a mail order, it needed tweaking in any case.
Setup Rating: 8
The Rover RB-110 is a new model open-back with a wood laminate pot. Its a 24 bracket traditional open back design with 15/32"(just under 1/2") 9 ply mahogany pot and mahogany neck, Stewart style peghead, rosewood finger board, and Vega style armrest. The bound fretboard is dotted only and the fretwork is clean and the edges smooth. The wood is finished in a fairly dark red-brown stain and clear coated with a high build finish. There were no blemishes and staining and end grains were nicely done. The build quality seems to be very good for the price. Plain in decoration, yet it looks good. I changed out the standard white Remo head for a renaissance head, and it really upgraded the looks. The lack of decoration now looks intentional and the ren'sance head suits the banjo both in looks and tone.
Appearance Rating: 10
The hardware seems to be quite good. The tuners are smooth with little lash (they look like stainless, rather than plated, but not sure). The Waverly tailpiece is well plated and operates smoothly. The instrument is not gig grade, i.e. not as heavily built as some O/Bs but then that's not the market. The word "dainty" comes to mind when you pick it up, although its not the least bit flimsy. When you handle it it does give you the sense of it being an "instrument".
Reliability Rating: 9
Julie and I exchanged emails several times as I went through the purchase and she was patient with my questions and "demands". Instrument was very well packed for shipping and arrived without incident. I have no doubt they would be willing to assist me with any issues. Having said that, not expecting any at all. Bernunzio is "not your average music store", especially if you like vintage banjos, their specialty.
Customer Service: 10
Everything seems to be appropriately chosen for its purpose on the instrument, so there is no standout item, but rather, a logically complete instrument. Since it doesn't rely on fancy inlay, you get the sense that it is indeed the sum of its parts. The only change I would encourage the factory to consider is to make the renaissance head standard on it - it does look much better with it. It comes with a 5/8" standard maple/ebony bridge. I tried a 1/2" compensated bridge (since I tend to prefer them), but the 1/2 inch didn't lower the strings much and it really killed the sound, so 5/8ths it is. I was going to put a no-knot tailpiece on it, but I actually like how smoothly the Waverly works, so won't change it likely. I would like a bit thicker pot I think -to 5/8ths maybe, but really I have no complaints with it. The brass tone ring is substantial, fits tight, and is shaped at the top edge, sloping away from the head toward the inside. I was expecting the ring to be a simple brass band, and was surprised to find that it was not.
Components Rating: 9
I think Saga/Rover has hit a home run with this one if your taste runs to basic but nicely done open-back banjos. Its not expensive, so that upgrades won't break the bank (not that any are needed). Its light and comfortable to handle, will work well with small hands (women should find this comfortable to play). I'd be unhappy if it were stolen 'cause the deductible on my insurance wouldn't cover it! I fully expect to cosy up with this one quite often.
From a marketing standpoint, Saga might consider doing this one with a scooped fretboard as well. This instrument with the renaissance head and scooped board at this price would be very popular I suspect.
Overall Rating: 9
Where Purchased: Ray Hill Audio (Ebay)
Year Purchased: 2008
Price Paid: 169.95 ($US)
Once properly setup, the sound volume and tone is surprisingly good. 30 bracket heads need less tension per bracket than 18 or 24, so its easy to overtighten the head. Shipped with light/medium gauge strings. Once I got this dialed in, it has only slight less bottom end and resonance than my BB-250 with a cast brass tone ring. As a banjo newbie, I can't pick worth a darn, but I can make the instrument sound good (guitar dweeb). The common cast aluminum pot used in these is popular for a reason - they work when properly setup, and are cheap.
Sound Rating: 9
Out of the box, this instrument was good to go, mostly. I don't know if the dealer set it up or not (don't think so). String action is set low (my taste), neck is straight and tight. Brackets needed to be tightened/tuned. Intonation needed to be adjusted (bridge placement). Truss rod is adjustable, tailpiece basic but adjustable and functional. A word about tuners - these "guitar style" tuners work well. At 14:1 ratio, easy to find tune and they stay put. Not bluegrass "cool", but they work better than the planetaries on my other banjos. There was a problem with the armrest, which I discuss down below.
Setup Rating: 7
Fit and finish is excellent all around. Neck appears to be lauan mahogany (like most mahogany guitars and banjos), attractively stained. Foot and peghead are blended to black, all coated with a flawless clearcoat. Pot is buffed to bright metal above the cast-in flange. Fingerboard is a bound east indian rosewood set with the standard snowflake inserts, and is well made. The resonator is basic but well finished with a good looking mahogany veneer, clean binding and a flawless deep clearcoat.
Appearance Rating: 9
This banjo is solid as a rock. The mahogany neck and the aluminum pot keeps it light, the neck fastens tightly to the pot and all of it appears well made. The finish on the wood parts is about as durable as it gets.This banjo is well suited for active kids, to take to camp, or to enjoy at home without worrying about the investment. Doesn't have enough cool factor for gigging, but would get the job done in competent hands. I think the tuners would hold tune better than most planetaries.
Reliability Rating: 9
Haven't had to deal with the retailer. The brand is a house brand of a fairly large east coast distributor, and its Asian made, but the parts are standard and in common use by many American companies. The instrument was very well packed, double boxed (doesn't come with either a case or gig bag) and suffered no ill effects from shipping. I rated service based on shipping - no other service has been required.
Customer Service: 9
Over all the banjo uses basic but solid components that should hold up well. There was one serious difficulty: The arm rest would not tighten to the brackets, no matter what. On closer inspection the cause was the mounting screw - it was too long, and would hit the pot before the clamp tightened. Trimming the screw didn't help - the length is very critical, since this banjo uses flat style brackets and there is not much room to clamp the rest. Also, the screw is metric, so finding an alternative wasn't easy. Solution (and here come the advantage of the aluminum pot) - remove the armrest clamp and screw entirely. Drill the pot where the screw needs to go between the brackets, tap and thread for a 10-32/24 allen head bolt. The pot is thick enough to allow this and it works slick.
Components Rating: 8
Other than the issue I had with the armrest, this is a great banjo for the price. The pot is used by many manufacturers and when properly set up, gives the instrument good banjo sound. Most of the complaints about aluminum potted banjos (at least using this pot) I believe are misplaced. The instrument is stable, playable, light and fun. Take the resonator off and its a perfectly acceptable open-back to frail with. I'd be upset if someone stole this cheapie, its an easy banjo to like.
Overall Rating: 9
Where Purchased: Axe 'n Gear
Year Purchased: 2008
Price Paid: 499 ($US)
The Morgan Monroe/Bean Blossom BB-250 is an affordable bluegrass 5 string banjo with a cast brass tone ring, and this sucker is heavy. The effect of the cast tone ring is readily apparent, and with heavy strings will pound out a tune. With light strings, its tamer, but there is good range and clarity. In skilled hands and good attention to setup this will perform. String choice appears to be important in the sound character.
Sound Rating: 9
To be fair to the dealer, who was just getting into banjos, he really didn't know what to do with setup and frankly I'm glad he didn't try. However, that is the good news. The bad news is, out of the case, this instrument was a disaster. It came with quite heavy strings, set very high. As it turned out, it was almost impossible to setup, which I'll discuss in components. If the rest of the inventory is like this one, a shop tuner can expect to spend hours getting this set up. The 5th string pip was not set to the correct height - took me quite a while to work out a bad howl off the 5th string 5th fret.
Setup Rating: 3
The BB-250 has an attractive minimalist look about it which will appeal to those who are put off by the gaudy tackiness of many of the over-inlaid instruments out there. The simple offset fret dots, low luster dark walnut finish suggests more a working instrument than a showpiece. On the one hand its plain, on another, its simply understated. I did some cosmetic upgrades which personalized it - added gold tuners, brackets, resonator clamps and a gold clamshell tailpiece. The additions added a bit of pizzazz and it looks good. Gold-filled the stock engraved armrest. The metal parts appear to be nickel plated, not chrome. Tarnishing might be an issue. Finish of the wood parts was acceptable. I'm not sure how I feel about the low luster finish, but it seems durable enough.
Appearance Rating: 7
This banjo uses many stock parts common to Asian made banjos, so reliability will be the same as is the case for most of the banjos in the general marketplace. Many of these parts are easily replaced if needed, so on a price per performance basis, it should be fine. Stock aftermarket parts seem to be interchangeable. The least well made part of the banjo is the pot. The resonator attachment lugs screw directly into the resonator shell without benefit of a threaded liner. This is an unnecessarily cheap shortcut which will cause trouble over time likely. Rated due to neck/pot issues described below.
Reliability Rating: 4
Within a couple of days of getting it, the 5th string pip split. Since I have no local supplier for these, I contacted Morgan Monroe, who promptly sent out replacements. Below I talk about a problem, that, if I lived in the US, would have resulted in my asking for a replacement instrument. To be fair to Morgan Monroe, I haven't brought this particular issue up with them, due the high cost of shipping, and my ability to make the repair myself. The instrument doesn't come with an owner's manual. It should, especially in regard to basic setup. Most of the info on the web about coordinator rod setup appears to be just plain wrong. Not everybody has a capable shop at hand for banjos.
Customer Service: 9
This instrument is an early release in the BB-250 production line, and by now I would hope some things would have changed. This instrument was assembled by hand by someone with no skill with hand tools. Period. The finish work on the fretboard was amateurish and careless - sanding scratches that took some work to clean up. When I replaced the 5th string pip, I noticed that the pip had had its notch cut in the instrument - you could see a saw cut in the fret ahead of it. Not serious, but careless.
The reason I could not set this banjo up was because the coordinator holes and neck screws were so poorly and inaccurately placed, the upper coordinator rod succeeded in pulling the neck screw out of the neck. The factory (or somebody) repaired this by puttying in the neck screw and shimming the neck. When I tried to lower the action, the screw kept pulling loose. It took substantial repair to the neck to get the neck screw secured. When I reassembled the banjo, I needed a shim to correctly center the neck (neck screw holes drilled crooked, neck screws installed crooked), but didn't need the shim for action height.
Now that its back together it seems to be holding fine, the coordinator rods will now work as they're supposed to to set the action. The tone ring is not a particularly good fit to the pot, but is adequate (and may be no worse than most mass-produced banjos with cast rings). While the pot and neck are supposed to be maple, its not a particularly hard specie.
Components Rating: 3
Its taken a lot of work to get this banjo to be what its capable of. The quality issues are unusual given the superb quality of Morgan Monroe's guitars. ( I have an MM M-10, which is just superb). A bit more care in assembly would have prevented all of this. If the assembly issues can be eliminated, then I think this banjo is an exceptional value. Hopefully this instrument is not representative of the line, because I think there is a good market for it. For a buyer, check that the action is acceptable and the neck is tight to the pot. If the neck wiggles just a bit, try another - it must be tight. Examine the fretboard and fretwork. If it passes muster, then you have a bargain. If Morgan Monroe now has these issues in hand then I would rate this a 9, not a 5.
Overall Rating: 5
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