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What's the REAL difference in a $100 and a $1,000 banjo w/ same features?

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Jun 24, 2024 - 9:31:36 AM
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3 posts since 6/24/2024

So I have a Sonata 5-string resonator I bought out of some trailer park for $100. It has many of the same basic features as a $1,000 Recording King RK-R35. I did a full setup on the old Sonata and it seems solid, doesn't go out of tune, resonates consistently among strings etc.. I'm new to banjo but have 35 years in lead guitar & guitar building. So I don't KNOW how a really good banjo is supposed to feel. So I'm turning to this community for some thought out answers. The question is - if I were blindfolded and picked up both mentioned banjos, would I notice that the $1,000 is really worth $900 more than the $100 banjo? Is there REALLY a difference? If so, is it subjective because it makes me feel good or are there truly objective reasons why the $1,000 banjo is noticeably different? Thanks in advance. -Spencer

Jun 24, 2024 - 9:44:02 AM
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staceyz

Canada

191 posts since 5/30/2010

What did Leo Fender say the difference between an American built Strat and a Mexican built Strat.... ?

about 400 miles...

Jun 24, 2024 - 10:09:56 AM

3642 posts since 12/31/2005

Sonata is a brand name of banjos made by different companies, including Samick (a Korean company that is no more). They range from very basic to nice.  So visually, some of their models may resemble a Recording King.  But Recording King uses much better quality components than most prior imports.  An analogy would be a Gibson Strat and a lower quality import Strat.  They will look the same, but the electronics, tuners, and hardware will really vary and that affects sound.

Two other big variables would be setup and subjective taste.  Many of us can hear nuanced differences in tone and timbre having listened to thousands of banjos.  Others will perceive less difference.  (Those are the people who use the term "twangy" to define banjo tone :-) ).  

If you bought either of the following types for $100, you scored big time:

https://www.banjobuyer.com/banjo/55947

https://guitars.com/inventory/ja6474-sonata-sammick-banjo

Jun 24, 2024 - 10:11:09 AM
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719 posts since 6/6/2007

There are comments like that every day here, Spencer. I’ve never understood the compulsion of some here to treat others—especially newer members—that way.

Jun 24, 2024 - 10:17:58 AM
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127 posts since 9/1/2020

There's a much bigger difference between the Sonata and a $3000 banjo, If you're after the real quality to price scale.
It all comes down to function and budget.
Any starter banjo is better than no banjo. So that Sonata is perfectly fine as long as it sounds and feels good to you.
But, You'd really benefit from visiting a store or vendor who has some actual high-end banjos, get a feel for the difference, then reassess how long your Sonata will sever your developing skills.

Edited by - Bruce Berry Banjos on 06/24/2024 10:19:08

Jun 24, 2024 - 10:18:39 AM
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16153 posts since 12/2/2005

Without seeing pictures of the instrument, it's nearly impossible to tell. From the late Paul Hawthorne's site, it appears that Sonata was produced in the mid 1990s, probably in Korea. Hawthorne described it as similar to Washburn banjos of the same era.

Just as today, there were wide variations in overall quality between various Asian makes. They started in Japan, and at one point the Goldstar brand of instruments was seen by many to be superior to what Gibson was cranking out at the time. Of course, Japan was also producing some real dreck.

Manufacturing switched to Korea, and then China. What's important to understand is that many instruments were made for different distributors, and other than brand name/logo and maybe some dress, they were pretty much the same within their price ranges. So your Sonata could essentially be the same banjo as one with a different brand name.

Because these instruments were made for different distributors, they were generally made to a price point - and the price point would ultimately dictate the original sale price here in the US. And manufacturers had various ways of controlling their costs - for example, using inferior metals in tone rings and other hardware; cheaper tuning devices, lower-quality fit and finish, etc.

Your Sonata could in fact be a pretty decent banjo, and if that's the case and you got it for a hundred bucks, you did well indeed. As noted above, some pictures of it - top, back, peghead, neck, side view, interior with the resonator removed - would at least give us a guess at things (though we wouldn't be able to guess about the hardware). And it would be nice to hear them side by side, though setup is hugely important.

So you know, Recording King is a comparatively recent resurrection of that name. Recording King instruments were initially made here in the US for sale by the defunct Montgomery Ward chain. Many of the banjos sold under that name were in fact made by Gibson, using pretty much the same parts as in Gibson-branded instruments (though they tended to be slightly less overbuilt). The brand today is American owned, and lead designer upon launch was Greg Rich, who is legendary in the banjo community for bringing high quality standards back to Gibson banjos in the late '80s and '90s. They are well designed, well-built, and have good quality components. And they sound good. The RK 35 and 36 models in particular have good enough playability and sound that some pros use them while touring, rather than risking their expensive vintage instruments on the road.

Jun 24, 2024 - 10:27:37 AM
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KCJones

USA

3115 posts since 8/30/2012

What Brian said, mostly. Hard to say without specifically knowing how your banjo is made. It's entirely possibly that you got a good deal on a banjo that isn't significantly different than an RK-R35. It's also possible that you didn't. If you give more info, and photos, we'd be able to tell you exactly. 

But if you want to know, generally, see below for a list of typical specs you'll see on each option.

$100 "Amazon Special" banjo

  • Low quality wood on the softer side of the species spectrum. Possibly unseasoned green wood. Rim made of soft plywood that has very high glue:wood ratio.
  • Low quality metals all around. Thin plating, and probably chrome. 
  • Probably a hook-shoe banjo, rather than a 1-piece flange banjo. Probably flat hooks rather than round, probably a grooved tension hoop rather than notched. Probably small resonator brackets attached to the hooks, rather than a proper 1-piece flange. 
  • 1 coordinator rod
  • Poor geometry, probably not fully designed. Bad fit/finish. Bad QC. Bad intonation.
  • Super thick, glossy, polyurethane finish
  • Uncomfortable "baseball bat" neck
  • Plastic nut
  • Low quality tuners
  • Zero support from manufacturer or retailer

$1000 "Good banjo"

  • Select quality wood. Hard rock maple neck and 3-ply (or block) rim. Seasoned and dried properly.
  • High quality metals. Thick nickel plating.
  • Mastertone-style 1 piece flange, no holes drilled into rim for hook-shoes. Strong round hooks, notched tension hoop. 
  • 2 coordinator rods
  • Proper geometry designed by actual banjo luthiers with actual banjo skills and expertise. Better fit/finish. Manufacturing QC process that actually exists. 
  • Thinner finish, options for matte. Depending on banjo, at the higher end, a thin matte layer of nitrocellulose finish. 
  • Thin comfortable neck with properly designed profile geometry.
  • Bone nut
  • High quality planetary tuners
  • Extensive support from the manufacturer and most retailers
Jun 24, 2024 - 10:35:45 AM
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2486 posts since 2/9/2007

If that Sonata is a decent 1970's-80's Asian "Masterclone", it isn't a "$100 banjo". You just got an exceptionally good deal. If it's been set up well and is in good shape, I don't think you'd have any trouble selling it for $500. The RK-R35's construction and materials make it legitimately worth twice that, but your particular Sonata might well be able to hold its own in a blindfold test against a randomly-chosen RK. I'm sure you've seen a few ~40-50 year old Yamaha, Alvarez, etc. flattops sold for similar money which you'd take over a new ~$1K Mexico-built Martin.

Jun 24, 2024 - 10:54:05 AM

BobbyE

USA

3528 posts since 11/29/2007

It's not always how they compare when they are brand new. I also want to know what it will play and sound like 10 years down the road.

Bobby

Jun 24, 2024 - 11:07:12 AM
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Players Union Member

Texasbanjo (Moderator)

USA

30336 posts since 8/3/2003

I have hidden a couple of flaming posts and those that quoted them.

Let's be civil and polite, please.

Jun 24, 2024 - 12:03:17 PM
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3 posts since 6/24/2024

All - your comments are highly valued. I read every one of them and will ruminate on these facts & opinions you all gave me. If anyone thought it would be valuable, I will report back after I visit a music store and play with higher end banjos as was advised. PS, "money" isn't the object, it's more the objectivity of the purchase / the value. So thanks for pushing me off on this quest and if you want, I'll come back and share. -Spencer

Jun 24, 2024 - 12:21:43 PM
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1696 posts since 1/9/2012

People have spent millions of dollars on Stradivari's, even though double blind listening tests repeatedly showed preference of discerning musicians and listeners for instruments made by living luthiers.

Here's a suggestion to help you decide for yourself. Dig out of the Deering Web site or just look for the YouTubes with a search engine for demos of Goodtime banjos played by professionals. Alison Krauss and Jens Kruger come to mind. They might demo some high-end Deerings, too, and they certainly choose to play more expensive instruments in person and for recording.

Audiences almost certainly couldn't tell the difference. Players get hooked on other's performances that they simply loved. So, they want to sound like their heroes. Getting the same or similar instrument might help in that, but it actually falls way short of that goal.

Banjos do sound different -- if you listen carefully. I think that the idea of an objective "better" is silly.

Jun 24, 2024 - 12:28:05 PM
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15440 posts since 6/2/2008

quote:
Originally posted by spencerwilson

So I have a Sonata 5-string resonator I bought out of some trailer park for $100. It has many of the same basic features as a $1,000 Recording King RK-R35.

. . . The question is - if I were blindfolded and picked up both mentioned banjos, would I notice that the $1,000 is really worth $900 more than the $100 banjo? Is there REALLY a difference?


Yes, there really is a difference between banjos that are truly worth $1000 and $100 in a well-operating market.

If you're lucky enough to buy a banjo worth $1000 new or used for $100 because the seller is highly motivated, doesn't know the banjo's true value, isn't the legal owner or some other reason, then the example instrument is not valid for the comparison you're asking about.

But for banjos that typically sell for around $1000 new or used (such as the $1100 Recording King RK-35) or for around $100 (the banjo-shaped objects on Amazon and eBay) there is a world of difference.  You would feel the difference the moment you lifted the instrument. You would hear the difference in every note. You would experience the difference in the range of tones and expressiveness that can be coaxed form the $1000 banjo vs the sonic limitations of the $100 intrument.

KC Jones gave a good run-down of how the components will vary, and how a banjo truly worth only $100 is not going to be made of "the same basic features." I'd add to his list that the cheap banjo is likely to have a half-inch rim of multiple plies of some mystery wood or may 1/8-inch aluminum. The RK-35 will have a 3/4-inch 3-ply rim of steam-bent maple. The head on the cheap banjo will bear directly on the wood or aluminum rim. The head on the RK-35 bears on a 3-pound sand cast bronze alloy tone ring in the design of pre-war Gibson banjos.

If your $100 used banjo really does have features comparable to banjos costing ten times as much, then you got a great deal.  But your $100 banjo being as good as a $1000 banjo means nothing for $100 banjos in general. They are the lowest priced banjos in the world for a reason.

Jun 24, 2024 - 4:18:10 PM
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mrbook

USA

2125 posts since 2/22/2006

If you are experienced playing and building guitars you no doubt know the difference between most $100 guitars and a decent $1,000 guitar. Banjos are not much different, except that you usually have to pay a little more for a decent banjo - there are so many more guitars being made today that the quality of inexpensive guitars is far higher than when I started 60 years ago. Yours may be a bargain, not a typical $100 banjo. It might not be easy to put the difference in words, but I would suggest trying a more expensive banjo with a good setup in a shop to see if you can tell the difference. It might be dramatic, or you might find that the one you have is just fine.

I happily played my Harmony Roy Smeck banjo for 25 years, but when I became my band's banjo player I knew I needed something better. I ordered a good used banjo from Elderly, and playing it for 5 minutes after unpacking showed a difference between night and day. It sounded better, was easier to play, and just felt more substantial in my hands. I've owned and played a few others (not many) since then, and you can tell a good one when you play it.

Jun 24, 2024 - 5:42:33 PM
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3090 posts since 2/4/2013

Although we don't know what features the Sonata has the main difference might be that the Recording King costs $1000 new and you got a bargain of a used banjo that cost a lot more new. My guess is that the main difference will be the rim and cheaper metal tone ring. I think these older made in Asia masterclones, especially the ones with unknown names on the peghead, are a great good priced choice for a decent sounding almost fully fledged banjo.

Jun 25, 2024 - 3:11:36 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

17588 posts since 8/30/2006

spencerwilson First, welcome to the hangout. Guitar players and road warriors are my personal favorite because they have their own ears.
People may well use the term "Banjo Luthier" but some think Luthiery as defined by the Guilds still operating in Mark Neu Kirchen to this day was either the territory and bailiwick of Cabinetmakers or Violinmakers so C.F. Martin just packed up and hit the bannisters of tenement houses like SS Stewart used the already cured Cherry for his necks.
In my view: "Stay in your own lane" just causes real Luthiers to overlook the ease with which Banjos can be set up and brought into a dialed-in "feeling." Less tonnage for the banjo strings, so they look high and compress easier. Banjos are not necessarily easier to "choke," with dreadful pressure on the now wearing frets. Touch lightly and get more music is hard to learn. I personally use the dynamics of banjo and acoustic music in general to get a better emotional response from my first instrument = voice, and my 2nds like 6-string, 12-string in open G with Drop C @.056 and 2 .010's on the 3rd strings to guarantee a musical path with the slide in G.
The well kept secret is open G on a 12-string IS banjo chords, all of them

I also play a Dobro in D, and a shortneck 22 fret Bamboo banjo made from flooring, and two Longnecks, one Chestnut @ 150 yrs. with a Cherry neck with Jatoba stripe and the other the first Black Walnut I built still using the Gold Tone 2005 Longneck in Maple.
I also own a Flatiron made in Montana before Gibson bought them for mandolin greatness.
And THREE other acoustics, one 80's bench master SILVERTONE still sold by Sears at that time. Then I somehow (literally) own a NEW Epiphone Advanced Jumbo with the backwards bridge and Gold Grovers. I also have the '58 Epiphone Texan. Guitar Center sent me one of two bass cases I ordered and then sent me a new Epiphone guitar and put me on hold, so I'm still waiting for their answer. We wrote each other off.
All banjos have great Gotohs with Amber knobs. I also use the Terminator tailpieces for years before seeing them re-spec'd with the new Gold Tone AC-12 Longneck, just crackin' new Plastic formula, had one in my shop.

So try 1. Adjust the head, then
2. set the bridge, then
3. adjust the tailpiece.
4. capo at the 1st fret, press down at the 22nd fret and see what the action is at the 7th fret, then adjust the truss rod if necessary to set the height at the neck rim border.
5. Adjust the bottom rim rod if necessary AFTER loosening the top rod back nut so you don't pull a stud. Keep the top rod tight against the front of the banjo.

There are nuances that will now surface, after I broke the ice.
The older Japanese Gold Tones play many banjo notes, they were in the 2005 Elderly catalog when others were not.
Now Recording King is no longer the new kid on the block, watch the value meter and compare features with competing Gold Tone and Recording King as part of Music Link go at it with international partnerships and on shore American jobs.

Also ran: low feature Deering Goodtime who have given a 3-ply Maple rim and headstock re-branding where both are Better quality


GrahamHawker I concur. Note how it takes 3 weeks to make a super glue guitar, then after that, the market for different glues and forest sourcing just crams them on the shipping containers from the East. I have actually seen ONE Japanese bluegrass artist guitar player who put the local pros to task and that's the way we like a pick up to play, just flames , very little ash. He has since caught the WESTBOUND, I'll try to get his name back unless someone here knows.

Otherwise ask away. I am 78 this year, way too young for these idle thoughts just to go unshared.
I hope this helps,

As always no wagers, politics, nor religion. I like to stay connected to nature by catching raptors like these and other creatures who also know how to speak with one another in their own tongues. I know they can speak because we do. My dog can play banjo, guitar not as well. All dogs are Wagatarians.
Now as for inlays being sold as bling, well Tony Pass (recently surviving upstairs.) and I both agreed that some banjo builders were selling big thick heavy rims and big clunky necks, but with delicious inlays which were hard to resist.
My customer was smart enough to buy another headstock Rose and install it at the 7th fret because it is smaller, yet irresistable. Small bling interferes with the ego less.  I'm a Hermit, I only come out once in a while, too much information, leave the milk and cheese and crackers, come sit on my tailgater  :)

Be encouraged, this is a place where disagreements occur; there are those who neither weave, nor spin. , but excellence is always in good taste.


Edited by - Helix on 06/25/2024 03:20:15

Jun 25, 2024 - 5:07:45 AM
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3405 posts since 5/2/2012

A few years after I started playing banjo, I wandered into the climate controlled room (for guitars) at a Guitar Center and found a resonator banjo. Surprise! No price tag, but obviously an inexpensive instrument, looking a lot like the $200 banjos you can find on Amazon. It was lightweight, looked and felt cheap....like a toy. Didn't play it because the strings were coated with something and it was way out of tune. Sometime in the same general time frame I got a Fender B54 off of Ebay, for $200 used. Much more substantial, but with a really narrow neck and rather shrill sound, probably typical for a "bottlecap" banjo. Sold that one off at the first opportunity. Fast forward a few years and I got my hands on a Gold Tone OB250. Now that was a real banjo. Quality build and components, with an amazing tone, and a pleasure to play. That, my friend, is what I think of when I question the difference between a $100 and $1000 banjo.

Jun 25, 2024 - 7:18:22 AM
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175 posts since 8/22/2023

quote:
Originally posted by Brian Murphy

Sonata is a brand name of banjos made by different companies, including Samick (a Korean company that is no more). They range from very basic to nice.  So visually, some of their models may resemble a Recording King.  But Recording King uses much better quality components than most prior imports.  An analogy would be a Gibson Strat and a lower quality import Strat.  They will look the same, but the electronics, tuners, and hardware will really vary and that affects sound.

Two other big variables would be setup and subjective taste.  Many of us can hear nuanced differences in tone and timbre having listened to thousands of banjos.  Others will perceive less difference.  (Those are the people who use the term "twangy" to define banjo tone :-) ).  

If you bought either of the following types for $100, you scored big time:

https://www.banjobuyer.com/banjo/55947

https://guitars.com/inventory/ja6474-sonata-sammick-banjo


Excuse my ignorance but what is a Gibson Strat?

Jun 26, 2024 - 6:29:53 AM

16651 posts since 6/30/2020

quote:
Originally posted by spencerwilson

I'm new to banjo but have 35 years in lead guitar & guitar building. So I don't KNOW how a really good banjo is supposed to feel. So I'm turning to this community for some thought out answers. The question is - if I were blindfolded and picked up both mentioned banjos, would I notice that the $1,000 is really worth $900 more than the $100 banjo? Is there REALLY a difference? If so, is it subjective because it makes me feel good or are there truly objective reasons why the $1,000 banjo is noticeably different? Thanks in advance. -Spencer


Welcome to BHO Spencer,

Lots of good input from BHO members posted here so far.
As you posted above you are a seasoned guitar player, and as a guitar enthusiast myself of many decades I will make the comparison of an inexpensive pawnshop guitar such as a $100 Johnson with all plywood construction, high action, thick glossy poly finish, plastic saddle and nut, terrible intonation, sharp fret wire ends and tuning machines that don't hold a tune, to a $3k - $4 Martin guitar. You can tell the difference just by holding them. And of course the sound characteristics are also superior with a higher end instrument. So it goes with other stringed instruments as well, including banjos. One of the above posts explores the comparative differences for you. 
Shop around and play a few high end banjos of different brands and you can get a better feel of neck architecture, nut width, string spacing at the nut and bridge, how different neck and resonator woods affect sound. Do you like the standard banjo flat neck or do you prefer a radius fretboard?
The old saying "You get what you pay for" truly does apply. 
 

Edited by - Pick-A-Lick on 06/26/2024 06:44:58

Jun 27, 2024 - 4:20:36 PM
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41 posts since 3/15/2012

Most important is playability.

Next most important is: what kind of music do you want to play. For folk music , blues, clawhammer, etc., a rim with a simple brass tone hoop is fine. I'm not a fan of the one piece aluminum "bottle cap" rim/hoop combo because I don't think it has nice sustain, but that's me.

If you want to play bluegrass in a group, you would need a relatively heavy tone ring and you won't find that in an inexpensive banjo.

Whether it has quality tuners or simple "guitar-type" tuners is another question, since the simple tuners (often) can't hold the strings in tune. Changing the bridge and even tail piece is usually not a problem if you want to.

For a hundred bucks, I would definitely say KEEP IT. If you find something else later that you like, hand onto the Sonata. And generally, it's better to buy used/pre-owned where you can often get about half off list price. And you can determine it is has been set up properly.

Jun 27, 2024 - 4:42:59 PM

3642 posts since 12/31/2005

quote:

Excuse my ignorance but what is a Gibson Strat?


Well, you know, if you have to ask, I don't know that I can help you :-)  That's funny.  I was actually thinking of Les Paul, but you could use a Fender Strat example.  

Jun 27, 2024 - 5:30:50 PM

1096 posts since 10/23/2003

A 100 dollar Sonata was sold to you by someone who did not know what banjos cost and what she or he had, or someone who was just trying to get rid of the banjo.   Recording King banjos can go from what a professional might use to a real starter instrument.  
In banjos so much of the difference is in the setup.  about 25 years ago George R. Gibson, a famous Kentucky banjoist came to Miami to speak and play at my retirement party.  He visited our home, and I had several banjos out in the living room.  He could not keep his hands off of them, and reset the bridge on my Enoch Tradesman,  my Goldtone, and my WL-250 GoldTone.   I had a bottom of the Goodtime RB that my wife had bought before we were married when we broke up--she was going to learn the banjo instead she found out no Bach was involved, LOL--.  George reset the bridge on all of those banjos, and they sounded like gold and I played each one afraid to reset the bridge.
Enjoy your luck, and figure  out setup.
Jun 27, 2024 - 5:34:47 PM

1096 posts since 10/23/2003

quote: why do people have to act so hurt when banjos are so wonderful.
Thank you
Originally posted by Texasbanjo

I have hidden a couple of flaming posts and those that quoted them.

Let's be civil and polite, please.


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