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What to look for in a banjo, differences in heads and other n00b questions

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Jan 26, 2020 - 5:51:58 PM
23 posts since 1/21/2020

Hey all, so my love for banjo has really skyrocketed recently and I’m trying to study/learn everything I can about the actual instruments themselves.

I know I’ve read up on the major differences in banjo types/play styles, but what should someone new looking for their first banjo look for/stay away from?


As for the heads, I’ve seen the coated, clear and fiber skin ones (I like the look of those, they look “old”). Is there any major difference in sound between them (going off the remo brand)


While I’m asking questions, what got you hooked? What made you pick up this particular instrument? And since it’s kinda unconventional these days, what kind of reaction do you get when others find out/hear you play?

Thanks!

Jan 26, 2020 - 6:35:46 PM

12679 posts since 10/30/2008

David K, what kind of music do you want to play? And I presume you're asking about 5 string banjos, not 4 stringers. Do you want to play bluegrass, or old time? The "first banjo" usually should align with the type of music you want to play, BUT, it's not a critical factor. Neither is the type of head. Don't worry about that yet.

1. You want a banjo you can try out. See how it feels to you. Ask someone to play it so you can listen to it and see if it sounds good to you. AVAILABILITY.

2. You want a banjo you can afford. If you're just starting out from scratch, don't be afraid of an inexpensive Asian banjo. You can buy a beginner banjo at Guitar Center for about $200, and then you can GET PICKIN'!!! I think it's more important to GET PICKIN' that to spend a ton of time hunting for specific parameters in banjos. If you find you like banjo picking and are making progress YOU'RE GOING TO BUY A BETTER ONE LATER ANYWAY. Don't get the cart before the horse. LEARN TO PICK.

3. Once you get a beginner banjo (I recommend a $200 Asian open back) you need to figure out HOW you are going to learn. That's much more important shopping than getting into banjo tech. Do you have a banjo friend who can get you started? If not you'll need a teacher, or some kind of "canned" lessons: DVDs, books, on-line courses, banjo camps, etc. You need to find the kind of instruction that points toward the kind of music you want to play. The exact banjo you get makes much less difference than the kind of instruction you find.

Don't over-analyze at this point. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good-enough.

Good luck and have fun.

Jan 26, 2020 - 6:45:25 PM

2052 posts since 5/2/2012

Here is Deering's take on banjo heads  Banjo heads 

Jan 26, 2020 - 6:53:20 PM

David K

USA

23 posts since 1/21/2020

quote:
Originally posted by The Old Timer

David K, what kind of music do you want to play? And I presume you're asking about 5 string banjos, not 4 stringers. Do you want to play bluegrass, or old time? The "first banjo" usually should align with the type of music you want to play, BUT, it's not a critical factor. Neither is the type of head. Don't worry about that yet.

1. You want a banjo you can try out. See how it feels to you. Ask someone to play it so you can listen to it and see if it sounds good to you. AVAILABILITY.

2. You want a banjo you can afford. If you're just starting out from scratch, don't be afraid of an inexpensive Asian banjo. You can buy a beginner banjo at Guitar Center for about $200, and then you can GET PICKIN'!!! I think it's more important to GET PICKIN' that to spend a ton of time hunting for specific parameters in banjos. If you find you like banjo picking and are making progress YOU'RE GOING TO BUY A BETTER ONE LATER ANYWAY. Don't get the cart before the horse. LEARN TO PICK.

3. Once you get a beginner banjo (I recommend a $200 Asian open back) you need to figure out HOW you are going to learn. That's much more important shopping than getting into banjo tech. Do you have a banjo friend who can get you started? If not you'll need a teacher, or some kind of "canned" lessons: DVDs, books, on-line courses, banjo camps, etc. You need to find the kind of instruction that points toward the kind of music you want to play. The exact banjo you get makes much less difference than the kind of instruction you find.

Don't over-analyze at this point. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good-enough.

Good luck and have fun.


I've been reading up on the types so no worries there. I'm asking more... what makes X banjo better than Y. Materials, construction etc, what to avoid and what's desirable.  
 

Here's a scenario: a persons at a yard sale and their phone is dead. They see a banjo and look it over, what things should they look for/avoid?

Jan 26, 2020 - 7:05:40 PM

79 posts since 10/4/2018

It will be very hard to find out what kind of banjo YOU want by looking at it. You have to hear it and feel it. Listen to a lot, I mean a lot of banjo music. Decide what sound you like, then listen for those sounds when you pick the strings of banjos you are interested in.

Jan 26, 2020 - 7:16:26 PM

2052 posts since 5/2/2012

Go to the magnifying glass on the left side of the page to access the search function on the site. Type in "buying a used banjo" and you will see some previous discussions.

Jan 26, 2020 - 7:22:03 PM

David K

USA

23 posts since 1/21/2020

I think I’m being misunderstood a bit.

I'm not trying to find out what's going to be a good banjo for me, rather what are some things to avoid or to look for in general.
 

For instance if I know I want to play Scruggs style with a nice resonator, if I had 6 different banjos sitting in front of me (with the brand hidden) what are things that would make one better or worse than the next? 

Jan 26, 2020 - 7:26:13 PM
likes this

2052 posts since 5/2/2012

If you're not risk adverse, check out Charleton's Craigslist. There is an Epiphone banjo on there now for $200/OBO. The seller says it is "like new". Now, this is probably only a $200 banjo, but the case is worth around $100. If the seller is a player, even a beginner, ask him or her to play it and see what it sounds like. If it sounds OK, make an offer $150 - 175 maybe?

And I almost hate to say this, but Charleson's Guitar Center may have some banjos on site. Looks like they have a few in the $200-300 range. Don't expect a lot, but if the banjos are actually there, you can play a few and see/feel/hear what the differences are. Call ahead to make sure they have the banjos in stock.

Components and craftsmanship is what separates the decent and really good banjos.  The construction of the rim and neck, the quality of the metal bits, fit and finish, all contribute to the desirability and cost. Sometimes you can see the difference, but the proof is in the sound and playability.  

Edited by - thisoldman on 01/26/2020 19:31:12

Jan 26, 2020 - 7:43:52 PM

David K

USA

23 posts since 1/21/2020

GC definitely does have a couple, I think there’sa recording king in the wall. Unfortunately I hate this GC with a passion and upon my last visit, I saw the banjos were way out of whack. Still, can’t hurt to look.


I also so on cl a good time for under $200 at one point but they didn’t reply to me lol

Edited by - David K on 01/26/2020 19:44:16

Jan 26, 2020 - 8:28:08 PM

12679 posts since 10/30/2008

"For instance if I know I want to play Scruggs style with a nice resonator, if I had 6 different banjos sitting in front of me (with the brand hidden) what are things that would make one better or worse than the next? " The least expensive Asian made banjos often have metal parts that are distinctly lightweight, thin looking, roughly cast looking. Much of the metal looks thin, weak, cheap. Better banjos have stout looking, clean metal by comparison.

At this stage it's REALLY not the banjo that counts. You're not going to find 6 at once all at a price you can afford to choose from.

But to try to answer your question:

DESIGN: The Gibson Mastertone, or copies thereof, known as Master"clones" is the undeniable standard for playing bluegrass. Other designs can be OK, but some can be "off" a bit in a number of ways.

FEATURES: Nothing should be broken or showing a cobbled-up "farmer's repair job", or missing, like the bridge being missing, or the tailpiece. Nothing should be loose for parts or in its assembly (the neck should DEFINITELY not be wobbly). The tuners should all match and be "geared" and turn smoothly in both directions. There should be a decent finish/varnish on the wood, whether matte/satin or glossy. No big obvious cracks in wood anywhere. It should have a tone ring visible from the outside of the pot, which means it will have some weight to it. 10 lbs or more total. The most common banjo to find (maybe even 6 at a time) is the Asian made "bottle cap rim" banjo. Not a Masterclone. The edge of the flange looks scalloped, like the bottle cap on a bottle of beer or soda. OK for a beginner banjo, but not one you'd stick with for the long haul. It's not a "better" banjo. If the 5th tuning peg is geared, that's a slight positive. The first 5 frets should not show so much wear where the previous owner played it that a few frets need replacing. If you can identify banjo wood, the 3 usual choices in bluegrass banjos are maple, walnut and mahogany. They are different, but no one can say one wood is always "better" than another wood.

CASE: If it has a hard shell case that's usually a sign that the manufacturer or owner "cared" enough about it to have a good case. Many a cheapo banjo has no hard case.

The type of head makes no difference. Hopefully it's tight enough to show that it's not broken, not sagging except for where the actual bridge feet press down into it a mm or so.

Of course the price is some indicator of "better". A $2500 banjo is bound to be "better" than a $250 banjo. But after a certain point, higher price means more "bling", not more banjo.

Beyond this, it's REALLY hard to tell what is a better banjo. Because it all depends. It depends on YOU and your situation. No one can tell you. You have to shop, and listen to all the banjo nerds that you can to begin to pick up on the fine points of banjo choice.

Sorry I can't just simply answer your question, because it's just too complex.

Jan 26, 2020 - 9:30:38 PM

David K

USA

23 posts since 1/21/2020

Thanks old timer, that’s what I was looking for more or less. I’ve come across several under $200 recently (any more $ and I’d just buy new), one a bottle cap with no name but several white stars on it (def a Gibson clone of the cheapest sort) and have come across Davidson’s, Honda II and others. I know I can always look up review stuff (which is what led me to this forum) but sometimes it’s nice to know what constitutes quality/crap other than the name on the headstock.

Y’all are helpful and handy. I'm going to try to save my pennies for a bit and see what's available then. 

Edited by - David K on 01/26/2020 21:31:35

Jan 27, 2020 - 6:25:22 AM

12679 posts since 10/30/2008

DavidK there may not be a nickel's worth of difference between any of those banjos, presuming they aren't broken/repaired. All pretty much cut from the same cloth. If you can post photos of them here you'll get detailed analysis from folks.

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