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By Valerie Farabee
The twangy notes of some good ol’ Earl Scruggs type bluegrass are echoing through your country-fried mind, and more than anything you are yearning to play those dulcet mountain music tones - but you’ve got to have a banjo, first!
A banjo is a stringed instrument with a piece of animal skin or plastic stretched over a circular frame. They come in 4-, 5-, or 6-stringed sets.
Banjos are pretty straightforward as far as price goes - you get what you pay for! A new banjo’s price accurately reflects its quality. Don’t lose heart just yet, this doesn’t mean that you have to break the bank to find a quality instrument; these days affordable instruments are both well-made and playable, and the beginner has quite a range to choose from. The first step in choosing a banjo is know what type of music you like to play.
Tenor & 4-Stringed Banjos: These banjos have four strings and a shorter neck than the more common 5-stringed banjo. While the 5-stringed banjo is best used for bluegrass, the 4-string is heavily associated with Dixieland Jazz, Big Band, and Irish Folk.
5-Strings: A 5-string banjo has a longer neck and five strings, one of which is called the drone string. If you’re into Flatt & Scruggs type bluegrass, Pete Seeger folk, and the twangy sounds of the Appalachian mountain music, this is the banjo for you. You can find these in either open-backed or resonator type classes. The resonator type banjo provides better volume than the open-backed banjo, and thus is better for performance reasons. Open-backed banjos tend to be less expensive than resonator types.
6-strings: The 6-string, guitar tuned banjo is a specialized, hybrid instrument. This is handy for guitar players who want that banjo sound but don’t want to go to the trouble of learning a whole new instrument.
Like guitars, banjos use wood to augment the type of sound they produce. Top quality banjos will have rims made of tonewoods like mahogany, maple, or birch. Banjos also make use of metal in their construction, and ideally you’d like an instrument using a high quality bell-brass, or steel, or bronze, as opposed to a metal that is less resonant and less musical, like a soft aluminum. Pay for the highest quality hardware that you can afford when buying your first banjo, and it will pay for itself by sounding incredible, even to your as yet untutored ears, and by holding its resale value over the years.
The biggest concerns when buying a banjo are: is it made well, and does it play? Even for the beginning player, assessing the quality of a banjo is pretty easy. Better instruments will have better hardware: rims made of tonewoods, rings made out of tone-metals, and tuners that consistently keep high-tensioned strings in tune. Some other things to look for when assessing a banjo for quality are:
Do the strings push down easily? Test the action on both ends of the neck to make sure the strings aren’t too hard to push down and don’t feel like they will cut your fingers.
Test the sound. When plucking a string lightly, you should hear a clear, consistent note.
Make sure the neck isn’t twisted or bowed. While this problem can be fixed later, it will significantly impact the tone now. Be sure you are aware of this problem when starting!
Even as a neophyte you should test the instrument and play some notes - you may not be a session musician just yet, but you are definitely still able to tell if the note is clear or not!
As with beginning any venture, you need a few extras to make a good start. In the case of buying a banjo, you will need a few things regardless of whether you intend to perform for an audience from the get-go or just to serenade your shower walls. Strings, straps, cases, tuners, pickups, capos and more are accessories you will need when starting with a banjo, but hey - if all you have is a banjo, your ears, and your pickin’ fingers, you’ve got a good start!
As with all instruments, I highly recommend buying the best you can afford. It will pay off in terms of quality and resale value.
On average, a banjo is going to cost anywhere between $50 - $3,000. For those just starting out, a beginner’s kit with a lower end model should cost between $150 - $300, definitely a good buy if you aren’t sure you’ll stick with it or not. A very solid mid-range banjo can be found for between $300 - $425. If you can afford it, I especially recommend dropping between $700 - $950 on a quality banjo, like the Deering Goodtime Banjo. It will be quality made, sound superb, and last a lifetime whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional musician. For professionals only - you can custom build a banjo for between $2,000 - $3,000. This option is reserved for the most serious musicians, and unless you are a musician regularly touring, performing, and recording, a custom built banjo is probably not for you.
Happy pickin’, folks!