Primary Blog/Buying Guides/Banjo: Buying Guide

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Banjo: Buying Guide

The banjo is a distinctive musical instrument with a multitude of variations designed for diverse playing styles. After reading this post, you will understand the kind of banjo that is best suited to your musical style, the necessity of a resonator, and reputable banjo brands.

String Count

Classically, banjos come with either four or five strings. Five-string banjos are more prevalent and perfectly suited for Bluegrass and Folk music. The tuning of most string instruments graduates from low to high as you traverse the neck. A five-string banjo includes a drone string that originates mid-neck and is tuned to a higher pitch than the other strings.

The four-string banjo, also known as a Plectrum Banjo, shares similarities with the five-string version but lacks a drone string. The four-string banjo is typically played with a guitar pick (plectrum) and is frequently found in Dixieland bands due to its crisp tone that stands out in an ensemble.

Six-string banjos also exist, but their classification as banjos is often debated. A six-string banjo mirrors the tuning and playing style of a guitar, but produces a banjo-like sound thanks to its membrane drumhead that serves as a soundboard.

​In recent times, six-string banjos have started to replace four-string ones in Dixieland bands due to the convenience for jazz guitarists and the additional depth the extra strings add. However, most techniques that produce the characteristic “folk banjo” sound are dependent on the unique tuning system of the five-string instrument and cannot be achieved with a six-string banjo.

Resonator OR Not​

If your aspiration is to play bluegrass banjo, a resonator is essential. The resonator is a convex wooden piece attached to the rear of the banjo body. It functions by reflecting sound off its interior surface and projecting that sound from the front of the instrument, leading to amplified volume and a brighter tone.

Bluegrass musicians favor a resonator since their style mostly involves picking individual strings one by one, and the increased volume aids in being heard over the ensemble during solos.

Open-back banjos cause the instrument’s sound to reflect off the player’s body, resulting in a softer volume and more mellow tone. Open-back banjos are the preferred choice for claw-hammer style players and numerous singer-songwriters.

Additional Components​

The Pot​

The pot refers to the hoop-shaped body of the instrument. When the strings are struck, they cause the bridge to vibrate, which in turn vibrates the banjo’s head and then the body, generating the sound that we perceive. The rim is the wooden hoop where all the pot’s parts are fixed and is the most resonant section of the body.

The rim should be made of hardwood. The highest quality banjos feature rims crafted from multiple layers of maple, plied together. Cheaper rims may be composed of softer woods or lightweight metals, resulting in diminished sound quality. Top-tier banjo brands also construct the neck from maple.

The Head​

Much like a drum, a banjo has a head stretched over the pot that acts as a soundboard. Initially, banjo heads were made from animal skin. Nowadays, heads are made from mylar, which offers a brighter tone, is less impacted by humidity, and isn’t derived from an animal.

The Bridge

Banjos have a floating bridge, meaning it isn’t affixed to the head and is maintained in place by the string tension. Bridges, like the rim, are made from hardwood.

When purchasing a used instrument, bear in mind that strings, the head, and the bridge can all be replaced. Therefore, it’s acceptable if these parts are in poor condition, provided the body is undamaged and the neck isn’t warped.

5th String

While vintage instruments were constructed with tuning pegs that held the strings in place purely through wood friction, contemporary instruments usually incorporate tuners with gears that prevent the strings from drastically detuning. The 5th string is often an exception. Some brands manufacture geared 5th string tuners, while others don’t. However, having a geared 5th string is always a better option.

Purchasing New

New banjos can be bought from $200 upwards. Trustworthy brands include Ibanez, Epiphone, Fender, and Deering.

If you’re prepared to invest in the instrument and are genuinely committed to mastering the banjo, we suggest the Deering Goodtime Two. It’s priced around $700 when new, but a used instrument in good condition could potentially be found for less than $500.

For a slightly lower price but maintaining high quality, the Ibanez B50 is priced around $300 new and makes a superb instrument for beginners.

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