Finding a beginners banjo is very hard to do if you don’t know what to look for. This is true of many things; here’s a real life story that illustrates my point. I remember getting my sons some sleeping bags when they were in the Boy Scouts. I actually bought 8 sleeping bags over time for them. Why? Because I didn’t know a thing about a good sleeping bag and the poor things froze to death. Finally my husband intervened and bought them 2 mummy bags. Voila! No more useless purchases! So to prevent you from buying a banjo that will not support your heart’s desire to make music, let’s see if I can give you just a few pointers to make it easier.
1. Don’t buy with your “eyes.”
Many of the banjos made focus on glossy finish, fancy inlays, shiny hardware. Why? Because those distract the beginner from the features that are most important. But being a beginner, you are not sure what is most important. Think about the following:
- What it sounds like because you want to make beautiful music with it.
- What does it feels like when you play…is it hard for you to put your fingers around the neck and reach over the fingerboard? Is it hard to press the strings to get them to touch the frets?
- Do they have contact info for questions? Is there any kind of manual?
- Do they have a website with information?
2. Be critical of information on beginners banjos
The more information you can get on what each component is, the better you can understand the sound of your banjo. If it just says “tone wood”, you will not know from that brief description what the sound of the banjo will be. Here is what I mean:
- Wood is a critical component of an acoustic instrument. Both the wood in the neck and the rim are very important in the sound of a banjo. Maple wood has a natural brightness, mahogany will give you a sweeter, warmer tone, and walnut will fall somewhere in between…have the power of maple but not as bright a tone.
The wood of the neck may be different from the wood of the rim. Check to see if you even have a wooden rim and tone ring or if your banjo has an aluminum rim. Aluminum is not a tone metal and will not give you the brightness of steel or bronze. See if you get those kind of details on the website or in the literature about the banjo.
- Tone ring: The tone ring of a banjo sits above and down the rim. Not all banjos have a tone ring. Many have a wooden rim and have a sweet, natural, woody tone if made of the right kind of tone wood like maple. If your banjo does have a separate tone ring made of a tonal metal like steel, brass, or bronze, then the natural brightness of these tonal metals will be added to the warmth of that wooden rim.
- Tuners: Make sure they are geared tuners, not friction tuners. The geared tuners will give you more stable tuning. There is a lot of tension on the tuner shaft from a vibrating string and you need that gear to stabilize the hold. Good guitar tuners can have a 14:1 gear ratio and are easy to use. Planetary tuners stick out the back of the peghead and are very traditional. They will function nicely geared, not so well if not geared.
- Frets: all fret wire is alike? NOPE! Did you know there are different “heights” of fret wire? YEP! And this is important because your hand has to press on the strings to bring them into contact with the fret wire to get those notes clean and crisp. Many banjo manufacturers use frets that are narrow and do not sit high above the fingerboard. This makes it less comfortable to play and more work to get the strings into contact with the frets. At Deering we use guitar height fret wire which is taller than the average banjo manufacturer uses. What does that mean? Your hand does not have to press “as hard” to get the strings to come into contact. It’s all part of what we call “ease of play”.
3. Beginners Banjo Should Be Easy To Play
This is something a beginner would not know. Many banjos have thick, clubby necks which are hard to reach around. A D-shaped, slender neck makes it easy for the beginner to reach around and fret. This is all important…put your hand around that neck and see how much the stretch is to get your fingers over the fingerboard.
4. The Beginners Banjo Should Come With A Warranty
Does it have one? And how easy is it to get service on your banjo from the manufacturer? Are there email addresses, numbers to call, contact names? Or are you left “on your own” once you walk out the door? This is even more important for a beginner because we have questions that cannot be answered from our “experiences” because we don’t have any yet!! Good follow up after your purchase is a key element to smooth development of your banjo knowledge.
5. Banjo Testimonials
Go on to the internet and make a search for the reviews on beginner banjos. Let the experiences of your fellow musical travelers lead you along the way. Customers, for the most part, will give you their honest opinion about their experience with the instrument and the maker.
When in doubt, trust your instincts: By and large, most of us know when we are being treated well and honestly. Use an authorized outlet for your banjo. Good dealers are worth their weight in gold. They know the product, give good service, give you a place to come back to if you need help, and can send you to the manufacturer for further help.
Enjoy the journey: Last, but certainly not least, enjoy the journey. Try out as many banjos as you can. Ask lots of questions and note who has the answers! Those are the folks you want to help you into the wonderful world of making music!