Are you interested in learning to play a musical instrument? The banjo has been around for an extensive duration, with its earliest roots dating back to the 17th century. During the 19th century, the instrument became enormously popular for its utilization in minstrel shows. Eventually, the banjo arrived in America and took the country by storm.
At first, it was primarily known as a staple for African American music, but was quickly incorporated into other musical genres, including jazz, country, and bluegrass. Today, it is common to find banjos popping up in various musical genres. Therefore, it is no coincidence that the musical instrument has remained so popular over the years.
Of course, buying the best banjo is much different from purchasing a guitar. There are numerous styles of banjos, including the 4 string banjo. How do you know which one is the best banjo for your individualistic skill level and style? You’ll be able to find out by reading the comprehensive beginners banjo buying guide below.
Beginners Banjo – Different Types Of Banjos
Those that are unfamiliar with these instruments will be taken aback by the sheer number of banjos available. The guitar is available in an electric variation and the traditional acoustic style. With the banjo, the possibilities are enormous. Banjos are available with different string counts. And then, there are various classifications. For your consideration, the most common will be explored in greater depth below.
The Standard 5 String Banjo
The standard 5-string banjo will generally measure in at approximately 26 inches and it will include 22 frets. While others might be more suitable for specific styles, this particular banjo will deliver maximum versatility. In general, 5 string ones tend to be the best beginners banjo. This is the case, because there is an abundance of teaching materials and tutorials for this specific variation. Finding someone, who is skilled in this specific model, shouldn’t be overly difficult. At the same time, this banjo can be utilized for various musical genres, including gospel, rock, classic, bluegrass, and country.
In most cases, it will be tuned to open G and will perfectly complement other instruments. And of course, this specific strain of banjo tends to be the most common. Therefore, they’re readily available and the prices tend to be more favorable to the consumer.
Clawhammer Style 5 String Banjo
For music enthusiasts that are fond of “Old Time” banjo music, your best option will be the clawhammer style 5-string banjo. This type of banjo facilitates easier fingering, allowing the player to pick out fiddle tunes. It is also more suitable for players that facilitate a singer, because the sounds will not overpower the singer’s vocals. Believe it or not, the old timers do not use a pick, when strumming on a clawhammer style 5-string banjo. However, some players will use picks such as Perfect Touch Clawhammer or Fred Kelly Freedom. Of course, the decision of whether or not to use a pick will depend solely the individual player.
This type of banjo produces a mellow and gentle sound, but with design modifications, the player can customize a more desired requirement. The “frailing scoop” is found on some of these brand name banjos such as the OME Juniper and Vega Old Tyme Wonder models. The scoop facilitates the thumb on the clawhammer hand as it rests on the 5th string, while the thumb is also picking the fifth string. The frailing or clawhammer rhythm requires a bit of practice, but it is extremely easy to master, which is why it is perfect for all beginners.
The Parlor Banjo
There is a possibility that the 5-string banjo will be too long and bulky for a small child, as well as those with a smaller frame. If you’re purchasing a banjo for this type of individual, you should consider looking for a parlor banjo. While they also contain 5 strings, they’re slightly shorter and will include only 19 frets. Typically, these specific instruments will only weigh around 4 or 5 pounds and this makes them suitable for people of all statures. The parlor varieties are just as versatile as the standards and they’re normally tuned to open G, but some artists will use them with an A tuning.
The 4 String Banjo
While the 4-string banjo is a little rarer, it is very popular for those that want a lively performance. It is very common to find this specific instrument associated with Dixieland and Irish music. While they’re more common with these genres, they’re surprisingly versatile and can use for almost any type of application. These banjos are available in various lengths and they may or may not come with a resonator. There are various types of tunings, which are suitable for these varieties of banjos. They include the Plectrum banjo tuning, tenor tuning and Chicago tuning.
Those are available in two varieties, 17-fret and 19-fret. The 17-fret model tends to be most common for Irish music, while the 19-fret varieties are suitable for Dixieland and Irish music. These specific models make it much easier for the musician to pull off the barre chords. Due to the lack of a 5th string and thanks to the tuning, these banjos were very influential in jazz music. Therefore, this specific type of banjo will prove to be idealistic for many people, but not for everyone.
6 String Banjo
Many beginners will be under the impression that they can jump straight from the 4-string or 5-string to the 6-string banjo. This is a huge misconception that can potentially lead to failure, because 6-string banjos are very difficult to master. This type of banjo is very unique in its own way, with its own capabilities and limitations, as well. Most modern 6-string banjos have a guitar neck, which doesn’t always ensure the sound the player wants to achieve. Old timers were capable of achieving success, with a lot of experimenting and different tunings. One of the major components that must be considered when shopping for a 6-string banjo is the neck.
These banjos are tuned in the same manner as a conventional guitar, which is why many guitarists will choose to use the 6-string banjo as a crossover instrument. The banjo’s bells and whistles will definitely help determine the sound quality. Many beginners will think that it is okay to skimp on quality, but they find out early on, especially if they stick it out with the instrument that quality is everything. Upgrading from a 5-string to a 6-string banjo will increase your skills, but you must be willing to adjust and learn a new playing style.
Consider The Setup
Trying to find the best banjo will prove to be more difficult than you could ever imagine. Each banjo will feature an abundance of unique features and components. Therefore, you will need to thoroughly familiarize yourself with as many of these components as possible. This will help to ensure you’re able to get the most idealistic banjo as possible. Below, you will learn more about banjo setups and their notable elements.
Open Back Or Closed Back
Banjos are a great musical instrument for anyone wanting to learn how to play a specific type of music. They are called closed back and open back, with the open back being a much quieter and gentle banjo. The closed back banjo, also known as resonator fitted produces a louder and more vibrant sound, because the sounds are pushed forward. The open back banjo is quieter, because a large portion of sounds are absorbed in the player’s clothing. Every player will have an idea of what type of music they want to create, but it will take a bit of experience and knowledge to decide which type of banjo best suits their needs and preferences.
It is important to note that both the open back and closed banjos are most often equipped with the same neck. They are also tuned in the same manner, making them both suitable for a variety of music genres. However, most Bluegrass players prefer banjos with resonators fitted, because it is capable of producing a powerful sound, which is great for performing at outdoor concerts. Clawhammer and frailing players choose the open back for its gentle sound production.
When attempting to find the best banjo, you will need to research the various components. One of the most beneficial can be the tone rings. These are brass circles, which look very similar to the edge of a bowl. They’re positioned between the drum head and the body. The tone rings are capable of providing additional volume and sustain to the sound produced by the banjo. Unfortunately, attempting to determine whether or not the banjo in question is fitted with tone rings can be very difficult. This is true, because of the positioning of the rings.
Consumers will need to ask the manufacturer directly whether or not tone rings have been added. And then, it will be a guessing game. Some manufacturers have been accused of lying, so it is essential to be very cautious. If you want the tone rings, choose a reliable manufacturer and make sure they’re added. Alternatively, you may be able to see the rings if the banjo features a transparent head.
Considering The Pegs
The pegs associated with banjos are very similar to those utilized for guitars. They work in an identical fashion and will look very similar. Nonetheless, there are some differentials. And of course, you should remember that the pegs will vary from one manufacturer to the next. In some cases, the pegs will emerge from the side of the base. This is what you would expect with a guitar. On the other hand, the pegs may be positioned on the back. A lot of manufacturers will create lower-end banjos with the side-style, while designating the back setup for their higher-end models.
The tuners themselves can actually be very subjective. While planetary-style tuners are often utilized for higher-end banjos, they’re not always best. In fact, some instruments with these specific tuners will be much more difficult to keep in tune. Just remember that most reputable manufacturers only use these specific tuners for their most expensive banjos.
Banjo Neck Considerations
When buying the best banjo, it is crucial to pay close attention to the neck. Of course, it is nearly impossible to just look at the neck and determine the difference between a playable and world-class neck. However, a quality straight neck requires serious control and craftsmanship. It is important to note fancier models will most likely be extremely heavy on the “pot’ end, putting more strain on the neck. Just because it looks fancy does not necessarily mean that it is a high-quality instrument.
- Radiused or Flat Fingerboard – Most 6 string banjos are equipped with a flat of radiused neck. However, there are a few of the notable brands that do not, Deering Goodtime Solana and Gretsch Dixie 6. The neck has a slight curvature, providing a more natural hand position during play, while making it is easier to master bar chords.
Most banjo necks are constructed out of maple, consisting of a metal truss rod that allows the player to make quick and easy adjustments. Higher-quality models will have a neck that is constructed out of one solid piece of wood. You will notice that cheaper models have a neck constructed out of multiple pieces of wood, sealed together with glue, which will not offer the same durability or longevity as the premium brand.
Finding The Best Banjo.
Once you’ve learned more about banjos in general, you will want to begin considering your own unique preferences and desires. In all likelihood, you have found inspiration in the form of a skilled player. Therefore, you will likely want to replicate this individual and play the same genre of music that they have mastered. Below, you will learn about the personal preferences you should consider, when looking for the best banjo.
First and foremost, you will need to consider your budget. The mass majority of consumers will be greatly restricted by their finances. While it is usually true that spending more will provide you with a better instrument, this isn’t always the case. In fact, there are many excellent instruments, which will not break the bank. At the same time, you should realize that someone new to the hobby should not spend lavishly on their first banjo anyway. Consider your current situation and your budget. Set a reasonable limitation and then move forward.
Your Skill Level
As mentioned earlier, the 5 string banjo tends to be a beginners banjo. The 6-string models are often designated for skilled veterans of the instrument. With this in mind, you will want to carefully consider your current skill level. Are you just getting started or have you been playing banjo for a long duration? Beginners to the hobby will want to make the learning process as simple and easy as possible. Therefore, they should opt for a 5-string banjo. Professional musicians will have more freedom to pick and choose.
Your Musical Genre Of Choice
Another thing to remember is that different banjos are better for specific genres and vice versa. With this in mind, you will want to consider the specific genre of music that you wish to play. Choosing an instrument, which is perfectly designed for bluegrass, would not be idealistic if you want to play rock and roll. Just remember that some banjos are more versatile than others. Therefore, if you wish to play a variety of different genres, you will want to opt for a more versatile model. In general, tenor and plectrum banjos are best for jazz and rock.
Experimentation Is Recommended
While you’re at it, you will want to make sure that you experiment as much as possible before making a decision. Since banjos are enormously diverse, it can be very tricky to find a specific model that works best for you. Visit your local music store and take the time to experiment with the banjos they have in stock.
If you’re unable to play at this point in time, ask one of the staff members to do so. This will allow you get a feel for the specific type of sound quality the instrument will be able to deliver. At the same time, you will want to pay close attention to the resistance of the strings.
Beginners will always want to opt for a banjo with strings that are easier to push down. This will ensure that you’re able to apply less pressure to perform the specific type of chord you wish to play.
Your Size And Stature
While you’re at it, you will want to consider your size and stature. The length and weight of the banjo will help to determine how suitable it is for you. If you’re a smaller individual with small hands, you will want to opt for a smaller and shorter instrument. As mentioned above, the parlor banjo tends to be best for young children and those of small stature. You should also carefully examine the space between the frets. Opt for a smaller distance, if you have small hands. These minor tweaks will help to ensure you obtain a banjo that is easy and fun to play!
Strap And Case
Eventually, you will want to consider the specific accessories that you need. In some cases, the user may decide that they want to travel with their instrument. In this type of situation, a protective case will prove to be very helpful. Alternatively, it is generally a good idea to add a strap to your banjo. The strap will make it much easier and safer to carry your banjo around, without exerting too much energy. If you’re unable to find a strap that is specifically designed for banjos, you can simply solve this problem by choosing a cheap guitar strap. It will work just as well.
Just remember that these accessories are not essential in the beginning. Therefore, you can save your money, until you’re ready to spend a little more.
When it comes down to it, all consumers will want to make sure they get the most out of their money. With this in mind, it is absolutely pertinent to pay close attention to warranty provided with the instrument in question. While the warranty may not enhance the sound quality or make the instrument any easier to play, it will greatly protect your investment. A longer warranty will ensure your instrument will withstand the test of time for a much longer duration. Banjo manufacturers offer a wide array of different warranties ranging from 1 year to 6. And some even offer warranties with no time limits.
Pay close attention to this to ensure you spend your money as wisely as possible.
Be Cautious Of Used Banjos
The mass majority of consumers have purchased a used automobile at some point or another. While this undeniably helped them save money, it was also a risky situation. If the consumer was unfamiliar with automobiles, there is a possibility that the individual bought a vehicle, which was riddled with flaws and problems. This is very similar to purchasing a used banjo. Buying a pre-owned instrument can be very beneficial, but it can also be risky. It is generally best not to take the risk, unless you’re very knowledgeable in the field.
If you’re capable of identifying problems, you should definitely delve into the used market. However, if you’re new to the hobby and have limited knowledge, you should stick with a new instrument.
At the end of the day, purchasing a brand-new banjo will prove to be a difficult process. The market is oversaturated with options and each consumer is different. Therefore, there is no uniform solution for all specific situations. Instead, each consumer will need to carefully analyze their precise desires and requirements first. Then, they’ll need to learn more about banjos in general. By following this procedure and utilizing the information provided above, you will eventually be able to find a banjo that proves to be satisfactory for you!