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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!

6754 reviews in the archive.

Cases (Soft, Gig Bags): Access Stage-Three HB Gigbag

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 3/11/2015

Where Purchased: Kennelly Keys, Lynnwood, WA

Overall Comments

This is a thoughtfully designed, practical hybrid gig bag.  It was a special order for about $149.  The foam padding, combined with side wall stiffeners, affords good protection for general short-range transportation. Good neck support pillow included with the bag, can be moved and attached to the interior via velcro strips.  The detachable backpack straps are padded and fairly comfortable.  Two exterior pockets at the resonator end, plus a pouch at the headstock end, are sufficient storage to fit in pencils, recording device, extra strings and other typical banjo gear.  Certainly, more storage space overall than usually found in the neck storage box of a standard hard shell case.   

The bag is less bulky than the more expensive Reunion Blues Continental, and thus easier to sling over the shoulder.  This is a good compromise between the more solid (and heavier) protection of a hard shell case, but lightweight enough for short-term travel on foot.  

I have deducted 2 points because the clip-on backpack straps on my 2012 model have a slightly alarming tendency to easily bump open and dislodge off of the bag -- I take great care when placing the bag over the shoulder, or use the handles to carry the bag on its side.  Also, the large exterior pocket is slightly too small to fit a standard 10"x12" tab book.  Note:  I bought my bag in early 2012, photos on the Access website show the design has changed in the interim.

2018 Update:  The Access Three is sturdily made -- I have used this bag for the past 6-1/2 years, to transport a resonator banjo by car to and from lessons and workshops, and for carrying around at the occasional festival.  It now is showing visible scuffs to the exterior of the ballistic nylon.  The thin interior layer of nylon covering the foam beneath the headstock, is wearing out from contact with the tuners.  The vinyl covering for the handles started to crack/peel at the four-year mark, and is 95% worn off at the 6-1/2 year mark, but otherwise still usable.  I have not used this bag for longer car trips or airplane travel.  No problems with the zippers. I have had expensive leather purses that have not held up as well as this gig bag.

Overall Rating: 8

Tranjo: 8.1

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 3/5/2015

Where Purchased: Direct from Sam Farris

Year Purchased: 2014
Price Paid: 930 ($US)

Sound

Sounds surprisingly rich and full for a mini banjo with a PVC tone ring. It is not loud enough for a regular jam, but sounds like a banjo, probably would work for a house jam. Actually performs better up the neck than what I remember of my starter Fender banjo. Does not replace a quality full-size banjo, but more than adequate for an amateur to practice on while travelling, or to keep at the office.

Sound Rating: 8

Setup

The original set-up is fine. Sam Farris provides you with everything you need to tighten the head, and pop the neck off for travel. I did swap the bridge for a Kat Eyz bridge, which amped up the volume.

Setup Rating: 9

Appearance

Innovative, sparsely handsome design. My walnut Tranjo has a tasteful laminate strip down the back of the neck. Very well-thought out design to make a compact banjo while retaining a full-scale neck.

Appearance Rating: 9

Reliability

Everything seems solid and thoughtfully put together to survive your average plane trip as a carry-on, in a super compact form. The Steinberger tuners are recessed to help protect them. The stained finish is a bit prone to dings, but hey, the thing survived just fine after being stowed on top of several rollaways tucked into a 737-800 overhead bin.

UPDATE: As of the three-year mark, have tossed gig bag with Tranjo into back of loaded station wagon, on top of the family's stuff, for several long road trips, including several summer drives. Have also taken it on at least 6 plane trips, including a couple of overseas vacations. So far, this thing is solid, holds up like a champ, no problems at all.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Sam is a great guy to deal with.

Customer Service: 10

Components

It's nice to have a travel banjo with a full sized neck. The tuners take a little getting used to, and you're not going to easily practice D-tuner pieces. But, given this gizmo's mission as a lightweight, easy to carry & pack banjo for practice purposes, it gets the job done. The only item that bothers me is the soft gig bag that comes with the Tranjo -- something with stiffer side walls might be a good idea (finding something that fits the bill, though, might be the hard part).

Components Rating: 9

Overall Comments

This is a super-light banjo, less than five pounds.  I am not a large person, but easily carried this slung in its soft gig bag over one shoulder, with a backpack on the other shoulder plus pulling a rollaway through several airports.  The thing actually weighs less than my regular purse.  A Mike's Mute easily slips on for practice in hotels.  If I had to, it can break down and fit into the rollaway without it taking up much room.

Beyond the Steinberger tuners, there are other features that take a little getting used to. Without a nut, it's slightly less responsive than a regular banjo. The hand stop is behind the first fret, rather than set behind the nut (this is because the headstock was eliminated to save space).   But to stay in practice while traveling on business or with family, it is a compact, sturdy, cleverly-designed instrument.

Overall Rating: 10

Chris Cioffi

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 3/5/2015

Overall Comments

Abstract

Banjo players spend much time on the mythos of “set-up.” There is “set-up”: multiple rounds of bridge swapping, tailpiece configurations, trying out different string gauges, changing heads, muttering incantations in the name of Earl, etc.  

But then, there is “deep set-up”: a refit of the components for maximum performance. If you’ve found yourself saying your banjo doesn’t sound the way it used to, or have prime components that need proper assembly, I can recommend banjo whisperer Chris Cioffi (a/k/a “tubeandplate” on the BHO) to diagnose and cure your banjo.

Case Study:

I wanted to resurrect Sullivan R&D #4.  Sullivan R&D Sample #4 was the final prototype for the mahogany Sullivan Vintage 35.  December 2010, as the V35 series went into production, Tony Wray made a clip of #4:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3AgA5mxYqU

Two years later, #4’s first owner put it up for sale on the Hangout.  Alas, the neck suffered a heel break while in transit (if you’re curious, search on the BHO archives under “UPS Lied and Denied My Claim” for the sad tale).  The banjo was patched up, resold, and eventually parted out in June 2013. 

#4’s pot ended up with moi.  I previously had coveted the banjo, and the timing was right.  Collected a Huber-made Style 3 neck, plus a reskinned PW Gibson 00 resonator.  With help from my teacher, the pieces got plunked together.  The results were super promising, but there were visible fit and set-up issues.  My teacher noted that the pot was not true and straight in the first place.  The heel needed a reset.  The banjo threw off overtones up the neck.  Yet, even tossed together, the banjo was killer, but didn’t sound the way it did in 2010, and I knew “Fletcher” had more to give (yeah, I name my banjos). 

Numerous stories can be found on the Hangout about Chris Cioffi as a set-up wizard.  If anyone could cure Fletch’s problems, it would be Chris.

Chris’ method requires his taking in the banjo, get to know it, thoroughly go through it to diagnose its ills, and come up with a treatment plan.  I also chatted with Chris, by phone and several email exchanges, about what I hoped for the banjo.  To summarize, the components underwent a complete refit: rim trimmed for a slip fit and better ring seating, co-rods shortened, neck reset, installation of a Fults tailpiece, new 5th string tuner. I did stop short at Chris’ recommendation of a complete stainless steel refret and installation of a new nut, as the neck was nearly new and otherwise well above standard.  (Chris is a big believer in stainless steel frets and his fret installation methodology; I might try this after I beat through the current set of frets.)

The results were superb.  Here is what it sounded like in near final form, in Russ Carson’s hands:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nJ3JkhocisE

The final configuration is even more awesome, the sound has the grit and movement I wanted to preserve, yet clarity of note separation, and the hideous overtone problem is gone.  Several pros have commented on this banjo.  It was well worth the expense, plus the hassle of shipping the banjo from and back to Seattle, for Chris to take this banjo to beast mode.

Overall Rating: 10

Gibson: RB-4

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 2/24/2015

Where Purchased: Double-D Guitars, Baltimore, MD

Year Purchased: 2011
Price Paid: private ($US) (bought USED)

Sound

Powerful, classic bluegrass sound. Kulesh 20-hole ring powered tone was full and dry, great drive.

I never checked the tone ring fit, suspect given the reputation that Gibson reissues tend to have too tight ring to rim fit, this banjo might have had another notch in it, so I've conservatively put the sound rating down one notch.

Sound Rating: 9

Setup

2004 RB-4 was in near mint condition, it had sat in a collector's stand for several years without much play. The frets were perfect, wonderfully finished, ends smooth as silk because Gibson carefully lapped the binding over the fret ends (although this feature won't last the first refret). After sitting all that time, truss rod needed tweaking, head needed tightening, probably could have used a head with thicker frosting. Once the neck bow was adjusted, the banjo was rock solid.

The banjo was good from the get-go, but even better when replaced the not-so-great original Gibson bridge, with a Kat Eyz Prowler, which gave the banjo more dynamic, energetic tone. The banjo also responded well with a Yates bridge, and a Huber bridge. Also swapped the Presto with a Fults Cumberland, which increased the volume.

Setup Rating: 9

Appearance

Singularly beautiful banjo. Wonderful walnut finish, Flying Eagle inlay in MOP, the w-b-w binding had a beautifully aged look. One glue flaw in an inlay, an easy fix.

Appearance Rating: 10

Reliability

Never had any problems with this banjo, it overall looked well-built, solid. The nickel finish of the armrest seemed to oxidize at a normal rate.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Customer Service: not rated

Components

See above comments about set-up. The walnut used for the neck and resonator, matched beautifully, and rosewood fingerboard was a rich, even color. I might consider swapping the tuners for Gotohs, for smoother fine-tuning, but for the time the banjo was built in 2004, everything is at top-notch standard.

Components Rating: 8

Overall Comments

This was my third banjo, my first Gibson, and I could have been happy with this instrument and no other.  I thought it was great and as much banjo as most people could desire.  After the modifications described above, the tone was powerful yet never harsh, a bluegrass machine with the sense of tradition that comes with the "Gibson" name on the peghead. Unfortunately, due to a back injury, I had to give up on this one, as it tipped the scales at nearly 12.5 pounds (most varieties of tone wood walnut are denser than maple and mahogany), which turned out to be more than this little older gal could handle.  The Gibson reissue neck was on the clubby side of the spectrum, which was part of the weight issue.  Yet, two years after letting it go, I still miss it, and get wistful when I see a walnut banjo with burled resonator and purfling rings.

Overall Rating: 9

Mutes: Mike's Banjo Mute

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 2/24/2015

Where Purchased: Directly from Mike Stidd

Overall Comments

This really is my husband's review: "Our prayers have been answered."  

Overall Rating: 10

Capos: Perfect Pitch Capo

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 11/18/2014

Where Purchased: BHO Member

Overall Comments

As advertised, the Ferguson Perfect Pitch capo works beautifully for correct intonation, but ONLY IF you follow all the steps on the video on Mr. Ferguson's website.  It is a persnickety thing -- you have to make sure the bar directly beneath the string is flush against the fret, and then press on the top bar to exert even pressure across the strings, so that the 2 arms sandwich the strings properly without pulling them to the side, and then the pressure pad beneath the neck has to be tightened a bit tighter than you might be used to with another capo (I used Shubb capos for nearly 3 years, tried a couple of Paiges, and currently prefer the D’Addario/Planet Waves).  If a string is out of whack, or the capo is not properly aligned and mounted, you will get a LOT of buzzing and have to start all over again.  Once you figure out the sweet spot, it works great and doesn't easily fly off during practice.

Downsides:  Takes more time to put it on and take it off, and to change keys, since it takes both hands and some fine eye-hand coordination to thread it on, although like everything in life, it probably gets easier with practice.  I imagine its ideal setting is when recording.  I have some concern that because only the top arm is coated with rubber, the metal might scratch the wood if I'm not careful (the metal is machined beautifully).  If you're used to storing it behind the nut, need the one-handed speed to change keys, and don't like taking a capo off and putting it in your pocket during a jam/gig, this may not be your thing.  

Overall Rating: 7

Picks: blue chip jd thumb pick

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 6/3/2013

Where Purchased: Blue Chip Website

Overall Comments

I use the JD thumb pick, size small. It is ridiculously difficult for a fine-boned banjo player to find a good-fitting small thumb pick, but this is the one for me. (OK, I still had to scrunch it a bit tighter with pliers, but it worked and stays in shape.) Hardly any pick noise, very comfortable, stays on.  I used to grind off the tip of a Golden Gate every 3 weeks, but it took 125 weeks (nearly 2-1/2 years), 10-15 hours intermediate student use a week, to flatten the Blue Chip pick (about 5/32" worn off). I get more control given the tip's strength. I've tried several other thumb picks (Golden Gate, Acri, PerfectTouch, Propik), but this is the one I like and is worth the extra upfront expense given its longevity.

Here is some rough calculations on costs vs. benefits:  Golden Gate thumb pick, $2.25 (current price from Elderly Instruments) every 3 weeks for 125 weeks (call it 41 picks) = $92.25.  Blue Chip:  $40 + shipping for 125 weeks.  YMMV.

Overall Rating: 10

Cases (Soft, Gig Bags): Reunion Blues CONTINENTAL Gig Bag

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 10/28/2012

Where Purchased: Dusty Strings (Seattle)

Overall Comments

A heavily-padded, sturdy and well-made looking fabric gig bag. Probably the most protective soft case on the market. The zippered large outer pocket will accommodate a couple of standard 9" x 12" tab books, a thicker, spiral bound tab book fills this pocket. There are two more smaller zipped exteriors pockets for smaller items.

The bag’s best feature is the built-in backpack straps, which stow away inside a zippered compartment. Each backpack strap is anchored to the body of the bag at one end, and a clip at the other end attaches to a D-ring. There also is an additional D-ring near the top of the bag, so an additional luggage strap (not included) can be used if desired. A sturdy, soft handle also is permanently attached.

The bag weighs a bit over 7 pounds – this is not a gig bag that saves you more than a couple of pounds over a standard hard shell case. The thick padding actually makes this gig bag roughly 2-3” wider and 2-3” longer than a HSC. While I am not a structural engineer, the bag’s design protection philosophy apparently is to snugly hold the resonator (the resonator well interior is just shy of 4” deep, when closed the lid sits on top of the bridge). The interior features Velcro straps to anchor the neck, but leaves a little bit of "play" for the neck to move laterally. The pillow does not extend beneath the entire length of the neck, and there is quite a bit of air space around the headstock and neck area. My guess is the bag is designed so that the padding absorbs the brunt of a concussive strike to the exterior, which avoids a direct force hit to the headstock.

While this is as protective as a soft gig bag can get, it was impractical for a smaller gal like me because when loaded with 12 pounds of Mastertone, it was too bulky and heavy to easily sling over the shoulders. I found the extra long length shifted the balance so as the bag tips a bit more forward when carried by the handle, as compared to the typical HSC. My guess is that most healthy men can handle the load, smaller banjoists or folks with back problems may find the ergonomics off-balance.

Reunion Blues’ description of this bag’s features can be found at:
http://www.reunionblues.com/Banjo_Case-RBUB2.asp

For an archived discussion of this bag which includes better pictures than I can manage of its many thoughtful features:
http://www.banjohangout.org/archive/213442

Overall Rating: 9

Acutab: Steve Huber: Killer Tone

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 7/16/2012

Where Purchased: BHO Member

Overall Comments

A helpful visual walkthrough on how to affect tone with proper set up of your Mastertone-style banjo. Steve explains the basics of head tightness, bridge placement, tone ring to rim fit, adjusting the height of a Presto, truss rod adjustments, and how to hunt down and fix the common sources of annoying buzzes. He also shows you how to break down a banjo, replace the head, and put the instrument back together. Pick placement technique and proper maintenance of nut slots, also are covered.

John Lawless of Acutab did his typically excellent job producing a very useful DVD, but there are some minor shortcomings. When Steve removes the Presto, it would have been nice if there had been a close up shot of how he removed the tailpiece nut and bracket. Close-ups of his removing the nuts of the coordinator rods also were absent and would have been helpful.

This video includes a video documentary of Huber Banjos. Keep in mind that since the time this DVD was produced during 2002/2003, the Huber line-up has changed significantly, and much of the DVD’s information for ordering Huber Banjos is out-of-date.

Overall, an excellent review of banjo set-up basics, especially for beginners. If you don’t mind paying for a subscription to Tony Trischka’s banjo teaching site, which is part of www.academyofbluegrass.com, Mike Munford’s video banjo set-up lessons (located under the “Special Guests” tab) goes into some of most of these topics in greater detail, although as of the date of this review, Munford’s lessons did not discuss tone ring fit or how to tap for the source of a buzz.

Overall Rating: 8

Fender: FB-54

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 4/15/2012

Where Purchased: Kennelly Keys, Lynnwood, WA

Year Purchased: 2010
Price Paid: 349.00 ($US)

Sound

A starter bottlecap banjo, sounds pretty good for under $400 considering the lack of a tone ring. Properly set up, it's not bad for beginning bluegrass, gives you enough twang to decide whether you enjoy learning to play this instrument. But, once you start going up the neck, the lack of tone and tinny resonance becomes noticeable. Still, a lot of fun for a beginner!

Sound Rating: 6

Setup

The factory set-up was pretty bad. This banjo was fresh from the factory with a saggy head and an ill-fitting bridge, both easily remedied with a tightening and adding a standard Grover-style bridge. The guitar-style tuners worked fine. I never had to deal with neck issues during the year that I owned it.

Setup Rating: 6

Appearance

Attractive mahogany resonator & neck, rosewood fretboard, the pearloid (MOTS) floral inlay was reminiscent of the classic hearts & flowers pattern. The aluminum rim looked good. I was happy with the appearance, looked and felt like a classic resonator banjo, rather nice for the price class.

Appearance Rating: 8

Reliability

My original goal for this instrument was for to determine whether I really wanted to learn how to play the banjo, and this Fender accomplished that mission. It's not really designed to do much more than that. It is not loud enough to do well in a jam, and the lack of tone eventually will inspire you to shell out for a finer-quality instrument if you get serious about learning to play and can afford to upgrade. Only one rod for the neck, so adjustability eventually may be an issue. For personal learning and maybe performing in small settings, it's a good beginning. I did not keep it long enough to have any longevity issues, it held up fine without any hardware or finish problems for roughly 500 hours of playing time for a beginner over a one-year period.

Reliability Rating: 7

Customer Service

Never dealt with Fender. The folks at Kennelly Keys are very friendly and helpful. I later had spikes installed by a local expert, who also adjusted the action.

Customer Service: 8

Components

The aluminum rim is not bad for the price class, but also is the limiting factor on this instrument's sound (i.e., no tone ring, and can't add one). The neck was rather good, easy to handle.

Components Rating: 7

Overall Comments

I bought this a bit on a lark. It does its job as a decent starter banjo for a bluegrass newbie. Has the advantage over the Deering Goodtime series, in that the FB-54 is easy on the eye, and I did not have access to a Recording King at the time I made the purchase. The neck felt good, one of the best features of this instrument. I had spikes professionally installed by a local luthier, and it was a lot of fun for a beginner. I imagine most folks would be happy learning on this instrument for at least the first year or two (I had quite a bit of prior musical experience, traded up after a year, though I definitely wanted a new banjo at the 8-month mark). It can't compete with the Deering professional line, but it's not meant do do that, so strictly considering the Fender as a starter instrument, it rates a "6".

2013 Update: After a little more reflection from the standpoint of 2 years of banjo experience, I downgraded my original sound ratings a tad based on sound quality issues. On reconsideration, to start out I would have preferred a Fender B-55, Deering Goodtime 2, Washburn B14, or likely a Recording King, with the caveat that these likely are more expensive beginner banjos but would be a more satisfying beginning experience.

Overall Rating: 6

Deering: Eagle ll

Submitted by jswkingsfield on 4/13/2012

Where Purchased: The Folkstore (Seattle, WA, no longer in business)

Year Purchased: 2011
Price Paid: 2000.00 ($US)

Sound

Bright, clear sound, good bass range, good sustain, accurately advertised by Deering for its "vibrant highs". The sound in its original stock set-up probably was more like an "8" at first, because the sustain dropped off a bit at the very high end. Good bluegrass sound, best to my personal taste for "newgrass" and classical-inspired music. I was told the resonator and flange could be removed to convert it for clawhammer, as the flange is not bolted to the rim (it's a shoe & bracket design), but I never tried that. However, as noted below, when the set-up got upgraded, the sound improved significantly. Also, the brightness mellowed a little after a couple of months, as the instrument settled.

Sound Rating: 8

Setup

It was a good-sounding instrument when I bought it, I enjoyed how it sounded brighter and clearer than the Deering Deluxe and Deering Sierra (in both mahogany and maple) that I tried out at about the same time. Tuners needed tightening. Upgraded with a KatEyz bridge, which brought up the sound quality quite a bit, made the tone fuller, rounder, without losing brightness. Later, swapped the "True Tone" Deering tailpiece for a Kershner, which really amped up the sound into a real cutter. I rank the original set-up at an "8" only because the changes needed to take the instrument to its maximum potential (at least to my taste), but once the bridge and tailpiece were changed, it was at least a 9.

Setup Rating: 8

Appearance

Beautiful Italian pearloid inlays, overall a lovely banjo. Mahogany stained maple looked great (although I personally prefer a lighter stain for maple), ebony fretboard felt like quality. Minor appearance quibbles: the small shiny side dots on a glossy black ebony finish were difficult to see, and the white binding at the resonator was a tad plain. I would have enjoyed some binding up & down the neck along the fretboard, but that would have added to the cost.

Appearance Rating: 9

Reliability

No problems at all with the hardware and/or finish during the year I kept this banjo, looked solid through and through. Neck bow required correction at the one-year mark, looked like normal settling.

Reliability Rating: 10

Customer Service

Excellent customer service. Got a nice letter when Deering received my warranty card. Limited lifetime warranty for original owner, never needed any warranty work. The company separately sent the Deering Maintenance Manual and an ownership card. Also, they included some time on Tony Trischka's teaching site, and updates from their website are fun.

Customer Service: 10

Components

The slim profile neck is smooth and easy to play. No problems with the frets or head. If you're looking for a bright, clear sound, this instrument's bronze "Twenty Ten" tone ring (named, I think, because it was released in 2010) delivers. As a smallish gal, I appreciated having a professional grade instrument at 10 pounds (weight saved from the flange design and low profile ring).

As noted above, I recommend upgrading the bridge and tailpiece to maximize the instrument's potential. Also, the small side dot markers are a minus, but a very small minus.

Components Rating: 8

Overall Comments

I kept this banjo for a little over a year, and enjoyed tinkering with it to get it to its maximum bright, clear potential with good sustain & resonance. This was my first quality banjo, I put about 450 hours of intermediate-learning play into it over a 10-month period and was very happy with it. It was a huge leap beyond the starter bottlecap Fender I had prior to this instrument. I still feel that at a 2011 list of $2399 (generally found new for around $1900-$2000), this is the best new banjo for the money, a high quality build. I would have kept it, except a 2004 Gibson RB-4 came into my life, and it turned out I preferred the more traditional BG tone.

2014 update:  In the two years since I originally wrote this review, I have gone completely bluegrass and own or have owned several different banjos, and have had the opportunity to try other current/recent bluegrass instruments.  I have adjusted the sound and components ratings down slightly, mostly because of the tailpiece, now that I've experienced banjos and parts built by Huber, AMB, Robin Smith, Fults, and others.  If you seek the classic full, slightly tubby Gibson type of sound, the Eagle II is not made to produce that sound, although bluegrass does sound good with this instrument.  If you want to upgrade from a starter banjo, I stand by the opinion that for the price class (currently at a 2014 list of $2549, generally found new for ~$2100) it is an excellent choice to obtain a new, quality American-made instrument with a really nice neck that is good for exploring a variety of playing styles.  I found this banjo to be an excellent intermediate step from a starter, with which to gain enough pleasurable playing experience to branch off into a particular tonal style.  The overall "9" rating is meant to rate the banjo within what I believe is its target market: an entry-level professional grade banjo for under $2200.  It is a good banjo, but if you want to focus on a particular sound, you may be happier with a different, likely more expensive instrument. 

Overall Rating: 9

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