5 Best Banjos: How To Choose A Banjo
By Mason Hoberg
The banjo has quite of a bit of complicated mechanics at play in the instrument. From tone rings to rims, and resonators to flanges, choosing the right banjo for your needs can be a bit overwhelming.
Thankfully, with the information in this article, you should have all the tools that you need to make an informed decision.
- Banjo Terminology
- Types of Banjos
- Banjo Tunings
- Which Type of Banjo Right For Me? And How Much Should I Spend?
- Top 5 Banjos
Resonator: On a banjo, a resonator is the bowl-like piece of wood on the back. Its function is to direct the volume of the banjo outward, instead of letting it bleed out the back.
Flange: On more expensive banjos, you notice how there’s a piece of metal with holes in it circling the outer edge of the banjo? Well, that’s called a flange. The flange has two purposes in modern banjo construction. The first is to attach the banjo to the resonator. The second is a bit more complicated, with some saying that it acts like a sound hole on an acoustic guitar and helps tune the frequency response, and others saying that it simply isolates the other components from being negatively affected by the resonator.
Head: The head is the part of the banjo that the bridge sets on, and is generally made of either mylar or hide.
Rim: On a banjo, the rim is the circular piece of wood underneath the tone ring.
Tone Ring: Arguably the deciding factor as to the tone of your banjo, the tone ring is a piece of metal (generally brass or pot metal) that wraps around the banjo rim.
Pot: The “pot” of a banjo is the head, rim, tone ring, and flange assembled together.
Open Back Banjo: This simply means that the banjo lacks a resonator.
Types of Banjos
As a banjo player, you’re most likely going to end up choosing between either a clawhammer banjo, or a resonator banjo. However, there are also a few interesting version of the instrument which I’m going to mention in the third section.
Clawhammer banjo playing is a style that uses a percussive strike from either the index or middle finger to sound the strings, as opposed to using finger picks. Generally, clawhammer players use a banjo without a flange or a resonator.
Generally, clawhammer banjo playing is a bit softer and “plunkier” than Scruggs (the playing used in Bluegrass). It’s not that you can’t use a resonator banjo for clawhammer, it just won’t sound like a typical clawhammer tone.
When a banjo describes itself as being a “resonator banjo”, it simply means that it has a resonator. This type of banjo is typically used for bluegrass, and sports that signature “twang” that you generally hear in the genre.
Novelties and Oddities
You know what mandolins, ukuleles, and bass guitars all have in common? Well quite a bit actually! But aside from that, they all have banjo equivalents! That’s right, you can purchase banjos that are tuned like a mandolin or ukulele. You can also purchase large scale banjos that you can play like a bass guitar.
There’s also tenor and plectrum banjos, both of which are pretty unique instruments in their own right as well. A tenor banjo, like a mandolin, is generally tuned in fifths. Also, the tenor banjo is generally used for Celtic music.
A plectrum banjo on the other hand, is a four string banjo that’s played with a pick. Before the fall of big band music sometime during (or after depending on who you ask) WWII, the plectrum banjo was actually a staple instrument in swing and jazz bands.
You know what the difference between tuning a banjo and a nightmare is? A nightmare ends! All kidding aside, banjo tuning is a bit more complicated than you’d think. There’s dozens of tunings, all of which have their unique pros and cons.
Scruggs Style Tuning
So when most of you think of the banjo, odds are you’re picturing Scruggs style playing. Scruggs playing is generally used as an accompaniment to Bluegrass music.
Nine times out of ten, a Scruggs style player is going to be using standard open G banjo tuning. Generally this tuning is written out as: gDGBD. The lowercase g is the fifth string (the shortest string, located at the top of the fretboard when the banjo is in playing position), the first D is the fourth string, and so on.
I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve never had to use a different tuning to play any Bluegrass standard. If you need to play a song in the key of A or D, you can simply capo the banjo on the second fret. This holds true for B or E, or any other major key.
However, minor keys can be a bit trickier. I have a pretty large repotoire of banjo tunes under my belt, and almost everything in a major key is an open G banjo tuning. Songs like Cheyenne (which switches between Bb and G minor) can be played in an open G tuning as well by capoing your banjo on the third fret and playing in the E minor position (which puts you in the key of G minor, as well as giving you easy access to lick in Bb), while some will require you to switch to another tuning.
Thankfully, these instances are pretty rare. If you’re a beginner Scruggs player, you’re not going to have to worry about anything besides open G for your first couple of years as a banjo player.
If you’re a clawhammer player on the other hand, tuning your banjo is going to be a bit more complicated. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the style, clawhammer is a type of banjo playing that uses percussive striking of a string with either the index or middle finger. This style is also commonly referred to as frailing.
Also, banjo tunings are treated a bit differently in the old time music world. Both clawhammer and old time (or two finger style as it’s sometimes known) musicians can easily employ several different tunings throughout a show.
The reason for this is that Scruggs style is only around 70-80 years old, and the majority of songs in the tuning use open G. However, clawhammer and other old time styles date back to ancient Africa. The instrument followed slaves when they were brought to America, and became the folk instrument of choice for several decades.
And considering that it was a folk instrument, there really wasn’t really much consistency in how it was tuned or played until it was adopted by minstrel musicians in the 1830’s. The original tuning to see widespread use was actually an open D variant with the strings tuned to: dGDF#A.
Rather than list every tuning used for clawhammer, I’m just going to list the three most commonly used ones. The majority of clawhammer tunes can be played in one of these three tunings.
Open G- gDGBD
Though it’s also used for Scruggs style, there’s a pretty large catalog of clawhammer banjo tunes available in open G. Generally, these songs are going to be in a major key. Also, most beginner clawhammer banjo songs will be in this tuning.
Double C- gCGCD
Double C banjo tuning is generally used for fiddle tunes, like Angelina Baker (or Angeline The Baker, depending on who you ask) and Whiskey Before Breakfast. What’s great about this tuning is that you can capo on the second fret and have easy access to all of the chords in the key of D major.
The downside to this tuning is that it’s generally not a very versatile tuning when played in the clawhammer style. With open G you can play in the key of C and G, as well as having access to some great modal and minor tonalities. With double C tuning you’re a bit more limited.
G Modal- gDGCD
G modal tuning is generally used for older Appalachian songs, like Shady Grove or Little Sadie. When used in reference to a banjo tuning, modal simply means that the strings won’t produce either a major or minor chord without being fretted.
Personally, I like this tuning a lot. Modal tunings have that great eerie tonality that you just don’t hear on most records, and they can make your song sound pretty haunting if used they’re used correctly.
Old Time Tunings
As a genre, old time banjo playing is a bit hard to describe. The reason for this is that there were several styles of banjo playing that are neither clawhammer nor Scruggs, and they all get lumped together. The genre includes everything from the highly rhythmic playing of Dock Boggs, to more melodic styles that share a lot of common ground with ragtime acoustic guitar finger picking.
Generally, old time banjo players tuned the banjo to fit their vocal register as well as the song they were playing, which led to hundreds of different tunings being widely used. A good example of this type of playing would be the song Country Blues, which was written by Dock Boggs and covered by everyone from Doc Watson to the Avett Brothers. Because there’s so many different old time banjo tunings, I’m only going to list the three most commonly used examples.
Double C- gCGCD
Just like clawhammer playing, Double C is used primarily for fiddle tunes when you’re playing in the old time style. However, because styles that utilize finger picking (like old time and Scruggs) offer you a lot more options in regards to how you can approach the melody, this tuning has a lot more utility in this style.
G Modal- gDGCD
Because of how varied banjo tunings were in the pre-Scruggsian era, a lot of modern recreations of old time banjo tunes are transcribed into G modal. The reason for this is that you not only have easy access to both major and minor tonalities, but the more Appalachian-esque modal intervals as well.
Misc. Tuning: f#DGAD
Among the staggering amount of tunings that Dock Boggs used, f#DGAD seems to be one of the most recorded examples. This tuning is a bit like modal D, but with the fifth string tuned to f# it can have a pretty haunting tonality. A good example of this tuning would be Dock Boggs’s version of Pretty Polly.
Which Type of Banjo Right For Me? And How Much Should I Spend?
So assuming you want to play a five string banjo and not one of the novelty instruments from above, the decision between a clawhammer banjo or a resonator banjo is pretty simple. Look up examples of both clawhammer and Bluegrass banjo playing, and decide which one you like best.
However, if you can’t decide one way or the other, get a resonator banjo. Why? Well, you can play clawhammer on a resonator banjo if you want to and you’ll sound fine (case in point, Steve Martin), but playing Scruggs style banjo on an open back banjo won’t work as well. For one, you’re not going to be loud enough to play with other people should you decide to do that. And for two, odds are you’re not going to get a very usable tone.
As for how much you should spend, well that’s a bit trickier. You see, I started on an old Aria banjo from the 70s that was made out of aluminum, and I had a wonderful time learning. However, once I got a real banjo I was blown away by just how much better I sounded.
A good banjo is an incredible piece of workmanship. And unfortunately, the price of most banjos reflects that.
As a general rule of thumb, I would honestly say that you don’t start getting into gig worthy resonator banjos until around the $600- $700 range. That’s not to say that sub-$600 banjos will sound awful, but they won’t be up to the level they need to be in order to be a solid gigging instrument. Generally, if you plan on gigging you’ll want an instrument with a good brass tone ring, a flange, a maple or mahogany rim, and a maple or mahogany resonator.
However, as a beginner banjo player you’re going to sound awful anyway, whether you’re learning on a $10000 vintage Gibson Mastertone or a $150 Asian import. So I can’t say I would recommend dropping a lot of cash on a banjo until you’re sure you want to pursue the instrument.
And as far as clawhammer banjos go, $500 to $600 is a pretty good range for a decent gigging instrument. Clawhammer banjos are a bit cheaper because they don’t need a resonator or a flange, so you don’t need to spend quite as much for a decent instrument.
Top 5 Banjos
Jameson 5-String Banjo 24 Bracket
Banjos are arguably the hardest instruments for guitarists to wrap their head around, because mechanically they are fundamentally different from the guitar. They have more moving parts, they produce sound in a different way, and they require a completely different technique to what you’d commonly use with a guitar. With that being said, guitarists who are looking to introduce banjo playing to their repertoire can do so relatively cheaply. There are a variety of manufacturers producing cheap banjos, so you have plenty of different options available.
This banjo is that it’s a bracket design. Bracket banjos don’t have a flange, which helps to lessen costs. A notable feature of the banjo is that it utilizes a 24-bracket design. These brackets are meant to ensure a consistent tension across the head of a banjo, which is an incredibly important part of producing a good sound. The banjo also uses a maple bridge, which many companies overlook even though it’s a relatively cheap addition.
The resonator is also reasonably well made for the price point, even if it’s not going to blow anyone away. It performs its function as well as can be expected in this price range, so it’s not going to hold you back from learning the instrument.
A feature that helps to set this banjo apart is its geared fifth tuner. A lot of cheaper banjos use a friction peg on the fifth tuner (the tuner for the thinnest string). A friction tuner holds in place with friction, which means that as the tuner ages it loses its ability to hold a string in tune, and in all honesty it probably won’t do that good of a job in the first place. This was more common on department store banjos produced in the 50s-70s, but there are still a few banjos that utilize the design. It’s easily one of the most limiting factors to beginning players, so by using a geared tuner the banjo offers a pretty great value to burgeoning banjo players.
It can also be set up to play well, so the true purpose of this instrument is to give musicians a cheap avenue to experiment with the banjo. It’s great for those of you who are curious about the instrument and just want to find out whether or not you’re going to enjoy playing it in the first place. It’s not a good fit for those of you who are looking to record or play live, and you’re also going to have a hard time cutting through a band in an ensemble setting if you go with this banjo.
As far as quality is concerned, for the price you really can’t go wrong with this banjo. It’s one of the cheapest options available for a banjo that has the potential to play well. It’s most likely going to require a set-up from someone experienced in setting up banjos in order to play very well, but once that’s out of the way there’s no reason to believe that this banjo won’t hold up to consistent play and practice.
The Jameson 5-String Banjo 24 Bracket with Closed Solid Back offers a great value to any musician looking for a cheap entry-level banjo. However, it’s not a good choice for those of you looking for an instrument well suited to playing with others and/or live performance.
Deering Goodtime Banjo
The first thing to note about this banjo is that it’s an open-back. Open-back banjos are meant to be played in an old-time style, of which there are three or four variants. If you’re looking to play Bluegrass, you’ll be better suited to a resonator instrument. Open-back instruments sound a bit sweeter and warmer, but they don’t have the volume of a resonator banjo. So while you physically can play Bluegrass on an open-back banjo you won’t be heard in an ensemble setting.
Something else to consider with this banjo is that it’s very light. This is huge if you’re looking for a travel banjo, because most banjos have a tendency to be a bit on the heavy side.
One thing about this banjo that tends to bug musicians who primarily play the banjo is that it has guitar tuners instead of the more standard planetary tuners you’d find on traditional instruments. However, this doesn’t really make that much of a difference in the long run. It will still stay in tune just as well as any other banjo, it just looks different.
The Goodtime has a satin finished neck, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your preference. The neck itself is intended for smaller hands, as it features a slimmer neck profile. Banjos already have a slim neck profile, so thinning that out more can result in an instrument that may feel a bit insubstantial to musicians with larger hands. Though of course your experience with this is going to depend on a lot of different factors, so it may or may not end up impacting you.
The main complaint with the Goodtime is that it sounds a bit thin compared to other banjos on the market. However, this is really going to depend on a variety of different things. The good thing about a banjo is that its arguably the most customizable acoustic instrument in the world, because between string gauges, head tension, bridge height, tailpiece tension, and the head you can transform the tone of just about any banjo. So with a proper set-up you can easily make this banjo sound extraordinary if you’re willing to put in the time.
The only commonly cited con of the banjo is that it doesn’t come with a case or gig bag, which while not uncommon for banjos at this price point is definitely an inconvenience. The Deering Goodtime gig bag is reported to be pretty pricey, however if you measure your banjo you should be able to find a pretty cheap gig bag if you spend some time shopping around.
The Deering Goodtime is inarguably one of the best entry-level open-back banjos on the market. It may not have the deepest sound, but as far as quality control is concerned just about any manufacturer would have a hard time beating Deering.
Though Epiphone doesn’t have as rich of a history of manufacturing banjos as it does with its other instruments, the company does benefit from having access to the design pioneered by Gibson. A perfect example of which is the Epiphone MB200, an entry-level banjo that manages to pack in a lot of features for a very reasonable price.
The key thing to note about this banjo is that unlike a lot of instruments in this price range it actually does have a flange. It’s a not as well made as the flange you’d find on a more expensive instrument, but it does help to push the banjo closer to the sound you’d expect from a banjo.
The banjo also comes with a Remo head, which while that’s pretty standard for this level of banjo is a great inclusion nonetheless. It features a mahogany rim and neck, which helps to give this banjo a warmth uncommon to banjos in this price range.
It’s also one of the cheaper banjos to use proper banjo tuners. The planetary tuners used in this banjo are more in line with a traditional banjo design, which is nice for those of you who want an instrument closer to what your influences played. The planetary style tuners aren’t necessarily better than the guitar style tuners utilized in similarly priced banjos, but they do give the banjo a look that traditionalists will surely appreciate. The fifth string tuner is also geared, which helps to ensure tuning stability.
This banjo is also pretty light, due to its lack of a tone ring. This makes it great for beginning musicians or those who are looking for an easily transportable banjo, even if the lack of this feature does impact elements of the tone.
This is one of the cheapest banjos to actually sound like a banjo. It has the metallic twang exclusive to the instrument, but it also has the volume necessary to play in an ensemble. Because of the volume, you can also mic the instrument in order to play live fairly easily.
This banjo is a great instrument for the price, as well as being very durable. The only commonly cited flaw is that it’s generally in pretty bad need of a set-up, but to be fair that’s pretty common to every instrument in this price range. Banjos are also a bit more temperamental in regards to set-up than other instruments, so really just about any mass market banjo you buy is going to need a set-up in order to get the most out of it. So while an instrument shipping in need of a set-up is unfortunate, it is pretty understandable considering the price and the nature of the instrument, and still a great way to get a terrific value out of a banjo purchase.
The Epiphone MB200 is one of the cheapest instruments on the market that’s capable of proving a characteristic banjo tone in this price range. It’s an excellent fit for beginning musicians as well as those of you on the hunt for a solid traveling/campfire banjo.
A subsidiary of Saga Musical Instruments, Rover is a line of instruments focused on providing affordable bluegrass and old-time instruments at a previously unheard of quality. Saga is arguably one of the largest manufacturers of instruments in the country, and they have a variety of brands that serve niches in the musical instrument market that other companies won’t touch. In fact, odds are that most bluegrass players who’ve gotten their start within the last decade or so probably started on an instrument line that’s a subset of Saga instruments.
A perfect example of Saga’s commitment to providing an affordable option where none previously existed is the Rover RB-20 Open Back 5 String Banjo. This instrument is a great option for anyone looking for an affordable open back banjo, and has a host of great features for its price range.
The most notable thing about this banjo is the rim, which is made from a composite material. This rim isn’t going to give this banjo the most traditional sound around (more on this later), but it does make it worth serious consideration for either beginner banjo players or those looking for a travel instrument. This is a great inclusion in some situations because the material used is very durable, even more so than laminate wood.
The head also uses a 24-hook configuration. A lot of banjos in this price range do include this, but it’s something that the majority of you are going to want to make sure is included in your banjo. It makes it easier to ensure an even tension across the whole head. Uneven tension around a banjos head can cause the head itself to gradually come off and cause tonal dead spots which result in a lessening of fundamental frequencies, overtones, and volume.
One possible con about this banjo is that it only has a single coordinating rod. This rod controls the angle of the neck and its tightness to the rim, with a dual rod configuration allowing for more control over these factors. This isn’t going to be a huge issue for the majority of you as there are ways to compensate for this.
Lastly, the banjo does come with a geared fifth tuner. A geared tuner is what you’d find on a guitar, with the gear helping to secure the tuning peg helping to prevent slippage. Some cheaper banjos go with a friction peg on the fifth tuner, which has a tendency to slip out of tune if its bumped.
This banjo doesn’t really have the honky mid-range response or “pluck” of a higher end banjo, but it does have a warmth that some banjos in this price range lack. It does a great job of approximating a more vintage rounded tone, even if it does sound a bit metallic compared to original examples.
As far as volume is concerned, the Rover RB-20 is just as loud as any other banjo in this price range. It’s not going to be quite loud enough to easily cut through in an ensemble setting (unless you play very hard) but it will work in conjunction with a guitar and/or mandolin.
The overall consensus is that for the price the banjo has excellent tuning stability.
There aren’t any commonly reported quality issues with the banjo, though unfortunately it does not appear to come with a case or a gig bag. Thankfully, because of the materials utilized this instrument should be durable enough to not immediately necessitate a purchase of a case/gig bag.
In summary, the Rover RB-20 is a great value for a banjo in this price range. The most notable thing about this instrument is its durability, which is head and shoulders above the competition.
Recording King RK-R35 Madison
Recording King has really been knocking it out of the park lately. They’re one of the few companies producing affordable vintage inspired instruments that offer up both a superior traditional tone as well as a level of quality superior to that of what you’d receive by buying one of the instruments that inspired a particular product from their lineup.
A little-known fact about Recording King is that they actually started as a house brand for Montgomery Ward in the 1930s. A lot of these instruments were actually made by Gibson, though not with the same level of quality control or the same grade of materials.
The Recording King Label was revived by Johnson Guitars in 2007, and since its revitalization the company has been producing instruments that are unsurpassed in their niche and price point. A perfect example of which is the Recording King RK-R35 Madison banjo, which is heavily inspired by one of the most famous banjo designs ever.
The first thing to note about this banjo is that it’s based off the Gibson Mastertone, which is arguably the banjo. It was used by Earl Scruggs during his time with Bill Monroe, which is undoubtedly the mold almost every other bluegrass band follows.
The specs are based pretty faithfully on a Mastertone, with a Bell Brass cast tone ring, a one-piece banjo flange, and dual coordinator rods. While the benefits of this design is only part of the equation to getting a great banjo tone, it is a great start. These materials all offer a great platform for further modification, and with the benefit of a proper set-up this banjo has the potential to sound like a much more expensive instrument.
Another great feature of this banjo is that it has a 24 hook brass tension hoop. The extra hooks give players a lot more control over the tension of their banjo, and it makes it significantly easier to get a consistent tension across the entire head. This is going to be a lifesaver over the life of the instrument, because if you’re not able to ensure equal tension you can end up wrecking your banjo head.
The aesthetic of the banjo is also impressive for the price point. While we recognize that it may not be everyone’s ideal look, the technique and materials involved are all great for a banjo in this price range. The mother of pearl inly on the peghead is well done, and the hand-rubbed brown satin finish is definitely well suited to the instrument. The banjo does not come with a case from many online retailers unfortunately, so it’s likely that you’ll have to purchase one separately.
The Recording King RK-35 R35 banjo has all the trademark tone of a banjo. It’s got the twang and short sustain prized by banjo players, and due to its maple resonator it has plenty of high-end cut. It also does a very good job of managing to avoid becoming flabby when it’s played lower down the neck, which many banjos in this price range tend to struggle with.
As far as quality is concerned, this banjo is a bit divisive. Some reviewers love it, while some find that the marketing is misleading. The problem is that while the Recording King is capable of producing a professional level tone, it does take a great set-up to get the most out of this banjo. Setting up a banjo is a pretty in-depth process, so if you don’t know how to set up a banjo it is possible you may end up being disappointed with this instrument. However, there are no commonly cited quality control issues found with this banjo. Like other Asian banjos, it doesn’t come set up well from the factory and buyers’ impressions of it suffer as a result. So should you choose to purchase this banjo, be sure to invest in a set-up before you make a final decision on it. The difference in tone and playability between a pre and post set-up banjo is dramatically higher than with a guitar, so the end result is probably going to surprise you.
Like many other Asian banjos, the Recording King RK-R35 suffers from a poor set-up at the factory, which can give some musicians a false impression of the instrument. However, with the proper set up this banjo can rival those costing many times more.