I am trying to evaluate the different banjos at, say, the $800-$2000 level.
The other instrument I play is the kora, and in that context it is not hard to understand what makes the instrument more desirable - a reinforced neck with carbon fiber allows heavier strings, a larger gourd=more resonant tone...
I understand that there are different types of tone rings, head material et al, but don't have a great sense of what impact they have?
You do not state what style you play. There is a difference between old-time banjos and bluegrass banjos, and differences within in each type.
Action must be low enough to make for easy fingering, high enough not to buzz and rattle: neck angle, bridge height and fret configuration(height, width, crown, levelness).
Must be responsive to allow clean tone and clarity under a lighter touch. This depends a lot on the bridge and head and tailpiece adjustment. Tone rings of the "Mastertone" design should be made of quality brass alloy and not pot metal. Old-time tone rings should follow the known styles such as White Laydie, Tubaphone, B&D. It's possible to get a good-sounding banjo with no tone ring. These qualities are really subjective.
Neck must be slim enough and properly-shaped to allow easy chord formation and heavy enough to resist bowing and flexing. Radiused fingerboard or flat? personal preference...
Best thing is buy quality in a known type and hopefully from a reputable maker. to do that, you should play as many banjos as you can and see what you like.
Sorry, I thought because I was posting in the clawhammer/old time section it was implied, but I am playing clawhammer. Thanks for your comments, very helpful!
Within the clawhammer camp there is very wide variation, even more I'd say than within Bluegrass banjo.
If there is a particular player whose sound you especially like let us know and we could advise you toward that sound.
1) In general, you'll want an openback banjo. 12" dia rim for a deeper sound, 11" for a more focused, brighter sound.
2) A rolled brass hoop for a tone ring- this is a good basic choice.
3) From bright to plunkier:
frosted plastic head > Rennaisance head > Fiberskin > calf/goatskin
4) Steel strings, nylon/Nylgut for a plunkier sound.
5) Ebony-topped maple bridge is a basic choice. Different wood types yield different sounds
6) A No-Knot tailpiece is a basic choice, adjustable tailpieces can provide some tonal variation.
Things like string type and gauge, head type and tension, bridge height and material can make a lot of difference.
You can get a wide variation in tone from any banjo, but if you know what sound you like, you can go in that direction from the start.
For example, if you already know you like a deep plunky sound, then starting with an 11" with frosted plastic head, steel strings, and an arch-top tone ring is counter productive.
There are lots of banjos and makers on the market, but just as a general starting point, look at Bart Reiter's standard 11" or something similar. Chances are you'll end up doing some horse trading over your banjo career, but a banjo like that can be adjusted to get a wide variety of sounds through adjustment and/or swapping out relatively inexpensive components.
Originally posted by R.D. Lunceford
"Chances are you'll end up doing some horse trading over your banjo career."
According to my wife I do more hoarding than trading.
I second the request for examples of players that produce a sound you like. Perhaps links to youtube videos.
Virgin Islands (U.S.)
With openback banjos, there is so much variation in design that it's very difficult to give specific component recommendations. I've played thin-rim banjos with no tone ring that sounded great, and I've played thick rim banjos with heavy metal tone rings that also sounded great.
The important thing is this: Quality materials, built to precise tolerances, and assembled with skilled hands.
If those three rules are followed, the banjo will be easy to play and sound good. The specific materials and style of components are just preference.
Once you get above $1000 or so, you are into the range of handmade domestic banjos. You'll be hard pressed to find an openback banjo in that market that isn't high quality. At that point, it all comes down to your personal preferences.
To add to R.D.'s comments, maple is brighter than mahogany.
Watch those sound/YouTube selections. If you're watching a group session, realize that you're not hearing the complete banjo sound. Even solo, the sound can be affected by the room it's in and the recording equipment.
If you're going to check them out in person, you may wish to bring, if you know one, someone who can play, so you can hear it "out front".
You might get a start with Donald Zepp's banjo demo videos, here: https://www.banjohangout.org/myhangout/videos.asp?memberID=1319
Piecomics, in your first selection, Nora is playing finger style. In your second, Adam is clawhammering. Both players are tone monsters. Both styles create different tones.
I agree wit Paul R. Check out Zepp's files.
piecomics it would probably be helpful also for you to tell us where you are located that way members might be able to direct you to someone in your area that builds banjos
also keep in mind once you have decided what brand or builder you want once you purchase one it still may not have the voice you want you may have to do some tweaking like a head change, bridge change and string change just to get the voice you want, you would not believe until you experience it for your self just how much different bridges can affect the voice a banjo has or changing from a fiber head to a natural goat or calfskin every change you make will affect the voice a banjo has and each banjo has its own voice.
I think I sent you a PM about this, but I don’t see it in my feed, so maybe I forgot to hit send. I have a three banjos you can put your hands on, all with different tone qualities.
Let me know.