Friday, November 25, 2011

Considering a Beginning Bluegrass Banjo?

I get a lot of e-mail from folks wanting help purchasing their first banjo.  The questions run the gamut from "What's the cheapest, playable thing I can get"? to "I want it to last me a while" to "What's the best I can get under $YouNameIt dollars"?  These questions are actually kind of tricky to answer because it depends upon how much money you can spend, what kind of tone you want, what style of banjo you are going to play, and other individual factors.  I'm going to post some information that will hopefully be helpful to those of you looking to purchase your first banjo.

What style of banjo do you want to play?
This is probably the most important question to ask first because it will determine the TYPE of banjo you purchase.  Are you going to play 4-string banjo or 5-string banjo?  Tenor banjo (4-string) is used mostly for strumming with a guitar pick.  It is popular for dixieland and Irish music and can also be tuned like a ukulele.  5-string banjo is more for bluegrass and jazz. 

If you are choosing a 5-string banjo, you also need to decide if you are going to play clawhammer/frailing style (like Grandpa Jones) or 3-finger style (like Earl Scruggs).   This article will focus mainly on 5-string Scruggs style banjo.

How much money do you want to spend?
Unfortunely, banjos are not cheap -- even when they are used.  You might get lucky and find something playable for under $100, but that's just it -- you got lucky!  Also, take into consideration any repairs that will need to be made to that "bargain" before you buy it.

If you are going to play 4-string banjo, or if you are going to frail a 5-string banjo, you can get away with a less expensive instrument to start with.  You should be able to find something for under $200.  More about this later.

If you are going to play 5-string Scruggs style, you should be prepared to spend $250-$500 to get something that is decent and playable.  Again, more about this later.

Why the difference in price?
The difference in price reflects the actual parts the banjo is made from.  A good, bluegrass style banjo will be bright and loud.  Banjos have a reputation for being the loudest instrument in the jam.  They also have the reputation for always being out of tune!  You'll want to make sure that you get something that is dependable and not just one problem after another.  On the positive side, banjos are mainly bolt together instruments, so if one part is broken or doesn't work right, you can almost always replace it!

The main structural part of the banjo that makes the most difference in tone quality is the tone ring.  Amazingly enough, not all banjos even have a tone ring.  The most easily changed non-structural part of a banjo that makes or breaks the tone would be the banjo head itself.  If you don't like the way a banjo sounds, you can almost always alter the tone by tightening the head (to make it brighter) or loosening the head (to deepen the tone or even make it "thumpier").

What are some other factors that influence tone quality?
Just about every part on a banjo will affect the tone quality in one way or another.

* Tuning Pegs - Planetary pegs (the kind that stick out the back of the peghead) will make a banjo sound better than guitar-style tuners (the kind that stick out the side of the peghead like guitar tuners).

* Nut - A bone nut will sound better than a plastic nut.

* Tailpiece - In general, the heavier the tailpiece, the better the sound.  Waverly, Gold Tone, and Kirchner banjo tailpieces are just a few that are thicker.

* Bridge - Now here you've opened a can of worms!  There is every kind of bridge out there that you can imagine to enhance or minimize any kind of sound a banjo can put out.  My favorite bridge for years has been the Snuffy Smith bridge.  I need to write another article on bridges just to cover the multitude of information that a person should know about purchasing bridges.  A brand-name banjo bridge will probably cost $20-$30.

* Head - I mentioned earlier in this article that the head tension can greatly affect the tone quality.  It is also true that the brand and/or type of head can also make a huge difference in sound. 

Remo is probably the most readily available banjo head.  Remo heads are thin, plastic heads.  The plastic part is attached to the metal part of the head using glue or epoxy of some sort.  After many years, this glue will deteriorate and will cause the plastic part to separate from the metal part, which means you have to replace the head.  You also will not be able to tighten a Remo head as much as some thicker heads because Remo heads will break more easily.  Most banjos come with Remo heads, and they are certainly fine heads and should not be a factor to NOT buying a particular banjo.  I am only mentioning these things to distinguish between several types and brands of heads.

Ludwig heads come standard on Stelling banjos.  These are very thick, plastic heads, and they have a lot of frosting (paint) on them.  They can be tightened a lot before they break, and they are helpful if you want a tone quality that really cracks.

Another popular, thick banjo head is 5-Star.  This is what we use most often here at The Bluegrass Shack.  I like these heads because they are comparable in price to Remo, but have the same attributes of the Ludwig heads.  The plastic part of the banjo head is crimped to the metal part of the head, so you don't have to worry about glue deterioration over the years.

Clear or non-frosted banjo heads are made by several different companies.  5-Star and Remo both make these, as do several other companies.  A clear banjo head is usually used for show or to get a really bright sound.  I generally only recommend them for cheaper banjos that just can't "cut the mustard."  One drawback to a clear banjo head is that if there is no frosting on the top part of the head, the bridge tends to slide around more.  Due to the tuning of a 5-string banjo, there is uneven tension between the top and bottom of the bridge, so the bridge tends to slide either up towards the 5th string or down towards the 1st string.  With a frosted head, you can push the bridge back into place and it will usually stay there.

Elite banjo heads come in a number of different varieties.  They have thick, white heads, clear heads, Renaissance heads (kind of yellow in color) and heads that look like real skin but are still actually plastic.  Each of these has a particular purpose.  The Renaissance head will make the banjo heads look older, like aged skin.  It also dampens the tone slightly, but again, this will depend upon how tight the head is.  The skin-type heads produce a more muted tone quality as well.  These are great for frailers or also for banjos that need to be toned down somewhat.  I put one of these on a really bright, archtop Stelling banjo that the owner wanted to tone down, and it made the banjo sound great!

Fiberskyn heads are like the Elite banjo heads that look like real skin but are not.  Once again, they will help tone down the brightness of a banjo.

A real skin head is not practical for use on a standard rim size (11") due to humidity and temperature changes.  You will constantly be tuning it and still be playing out of tune!  I only use real skins on banjo ukes, which have very small head sizes.

* "Pot" Construction
The "pot" of a banjo is the tone production part of a banjo, and this includes the rim and tone ring.  The heavier the banjo, the better.  A heavier banjo means that the rim is thicker and the tone ring is larger.  A full size tone ring will produce a better sound than a rolled brass tone ring.  A rolled brass tone ring is WAY better than no tone ring.  A full size tone ring needs a more substantial rim to sit on; thus, the extra weight from not only the tone ring, but also the rim.

Some banjos have what is called an "integrated" tone ring.  These banjos have aluminum pots.  Some combine the rim, tone ring and flange into one piece of aluminum.  Others combine just the tone ring and rim, and have a separate flange.  This type of banjo is still far superior to a wooden rim banjo with no tone ring.

If you plan on frailing, a tone ring is not necessary.

* Resonator
The resonator of the banjo is the round part that attaches to the back of the banjo.  Its main purpose is to resonate the sound of the banjo forward.  Without a resonator, the sound comes out the back of the banjo and right into the stomach of the player.  To get the best sound out of your resonator, you can use a clear or black spray paint on the inside of the resonator to help seal the wood grain.  This will increase the volume of a banjo. 

If you are going to play clawhammer or frailing style, then a resonator is not necessary.  This style of banjo values a more muted tone quality, which is why a tone ring is not necessary either.

What are some things that influence the price of the banjo but don't really affect tone or quality?
In general, the fancier looking an instrument is, the more it will cost.  Fancy inlays, carved heels, and fancy paint jobs don't make the banjo sound any better.  If looks are important to you and money is not an object, then by all means, go for it!

Another factor would be the age of the banjo.  Older instruments almost always sound better than brand new instruments.  The vibration that comes from playing an instrument enhances the tone quality of the instrument.  This is true of all instruments.  There is even a device that folks can buy that will vibrate the instrument when you aren't playing it to make an instrument sound better, faster.  It supposedly mimics the vibration of playing, so that the instrument is being played even when it's not being played!

An ugly, old instrument that has been played a lot can be a good sign that the banjo sounds good.  It could also mean it wasn't taken care of, or that it was all someone who loved to play could afford to own.

Are there other parts that I need to be sure my banjo has?
A geared 5th string peg is important, but not a requirement.  It makes the 5th string MUCH easier to tune and it also will stay in tune better than a friction peg.

You should make sure that your banjo has a truss rod in the neck.  Without a truss rod, the neck can't be adjusted.  Don't be fooled -- there is NO banjo that doesn't need a truss rod.  The tension of the strings on the neck and the humidity and environment the banjo is in will affect the curvature of the banjo neck.  A properly set-up banjo will have a small amount of curve (called "relief") in it.  The truss rod enables this adjustment to be made and/or changed.

You should also make sure your banjo has a fingerboard.  Believe it or not, there are some banjos out there that don't have fingerboards, so the frets are inlayed right into the neck!  If you don't plan on having your banjo for a long time, then I guess this won't matter.  However, any wear from fingernails and steel strings will be made directly to the neck rather than the fingerboard if your banjo doesn't have a fingerboard.  Ebony and rosewood are typical woods for fingerboards because they are very hard woods.

To sum it up, if you are going to play 5-string Scruggs style banjo, you are going to want the best tone ring you can afford, planetary tuners, a resonator, thick tailpiece and a geared 5th string peg.  Who makes these?  I favor Gold Tone banjos because they offer great prices for what you will get.  Their CC-50-RP is probably the best deal on the market.  It comes standard with planetary tuners (including 5th string peg), thick tailpiece, and a rolled brass tone ring.  It also comes with a gigbag included in the price.  Gold Tone offers a lifetime, transferable warranty on it too!  If you want something fancier looking in the same style, Gold Tone, Recording King, Morgan Monroe and several other banjos companies make fancier-looking banjos with the same general specifications for slightly more money.  The least expensive, full tone ring banjo that I recommend is Gold Tone's MC-150-RP.  If you can afford the additional cost, it is well worth it.  There are certainly other reputable brands that out there.

If you can't afford a banjo with even a rolled brass tone ring, go for the integrated aluminum rim banjo.  Saga, Rover and many older banjos with a variety of names (Kay and "no name" included) made or still make this type of banjo.  This is probably the easiest type to find used at a good price.

Please understand that I can't cover every brand of banjo here.  Just because I didn't mention a particular brand of banjo doesn't mean that it is bad or inferior.  I have experience with the above-mentioned banjos, and I have been very pleased with company support, quality, warranty, and price of these particular banjos.

One way to increase your chances of being happy with your first banjo purchase is to make sure that you purchase it from a reputable person or business.  A store that sells banjos but doesn't have anyone working there that plays banjos is probably not going to have a good idea what a beginner needs.  They also won't have the know-how to setup a banjo for the best possible sound and playability.

Another thing that will greatly enhance your buying experience is to actually go somewhere that has a lot of banjos to choose from so that you can hear someone play the different banjos.  This way, you will understand how different the tone is from banjo to banjo, and you can pick out the tone that you like the best.  After all, YOU are the one playing it, so don't you think you should like it?

I hope this article has been helpful to you.  Good luck and happy banjo hunting!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, this was very informative, I've checked out loads of sites looking for advise on purchasing my first banjo and you've provided all the info I was looking for.
Much appreciated.