Buying a Banjo: What Questions Should I Ask?

by Barry Hunn

The old saying “you have to know something before you can ask an intelligent question” aptly applies to you when you are buying a banjo. If you have no background knowledge about banjos, what questions do you ask about what to buy? How can you know what to ask?

This situation is the same when you are thinking about buying cars, tv's, cookies, or puppy food.

What should I be asking about?

Some folks talk to friends. Some go to forums online. Some buy magazines. But when consulting these various sources, how do you know what you’re reading is accurate?

If you are new to any subject, you can’t know what is accurate. You also can’t know what is “comfortable.” You can’t really know what “good” tone is, without some musical background.

Here are some questions and thoughts about their answers. These can help you gain information when talking to an individual selling a used banjo or a salesperson when you are looking at a new banjo.

How is the banjo rim made and of what material?

The best banjos are made with three-ply maple rims. This process requires skill and dedicated tooling. It is un-questionably used on all the world’s best made banjos, regardless of brand. A quick search of the top banjos made in the world will reveal this. Sometimes the wood in the rim is not maple, but the rims that are three-plys of hardwood, are considered by most players and builders to be the best. Maple is chosen by the vast majority of professional players and builders.
Some banjo makers use a “block laminated” rim. This is blocks of wood, glued together and then the rim is cut out of the blocks of wood. From an engineering perspective, block laminating is not as strong as the three-ply rim, but the block laminated rim is still a viable system for banjo, if correctly executed.

Rims of aluminum, nebulous “hard wood” that is not specified, or plastic rims are used on the lowest quality banjos. The aluminum is not like high grade aircraft aluminum. It is soft, quick to manufacture but not very musical. We’ve seen rims advertised as “maple” but they were merely veneered with maple, and a very soft, spongy wood is used beneath the veneer. Plastic rims, once used on the lowest priced, mail order banjos, cannot ring because plastic is, with few exceptions, acoustically dead.

Generally, banjos built with rims like these should be avoided if excellent tone is desired.
Is the intonation accurate? (Does it play in tune?)

The precision with which the frets are installed makes a tremendous difference in good banjo sound. If the frets are not in exactly the right place, the banjo will never play in tune at worst, and at best, the tone will never be clear because the pitch of the fretted notes will not be accurate, making clear tone impossible.

Deering banjos are precisely and meticulously fretted to play beautifully in tune.
Is the Neck comfortably shaped?

Most inexpensive banjos do not have much attention to manufacturing details. The banjos are designed to “sell” but not necessarily to “play.” There is more to playing comfort than just a skinny piece of wood. We refer to our own necks as slender and comfortable, but a neck that is thin and shaped wrong, will be just as un-comfortable and difficult to play as an overly thick neck that is shaped wrong.

It is true that neck comfort is very subjective, but Deering necks are world-famous for their comfort by players of virtually every hand size.

Most of the inexpensive banjos have necks that are not slim, but also not shaped for easy reach of the strings and frets. When the curve of the neck is too steep on the sides or too straight on the sides, the hand has to either reach too hard or there is no support for the hand to fret comfortably.
Details like these clearly are lost on banjos made in huge factories that make “luxury products” in countries like China, Vietnam, etc. Since they are not musical instrument specialists, they can’t be expected to “understand what musician’s need.”

How High Should The Strings Be Above the Frets?

Deering banjos are factory set with the first four strings about 1/8 or 3/16 of an inch above the 22nd fret. While a few professionals actually choose the strings to be as high as ¼ inch, they are rare BUT, they CHOOSE that string height as opposed to a banjo that can’t play any better than that. The vast majority of professionals and advanced hobbyist banjo players prefer the string height or “action” around 1/8 to 3/16 inch above the 22nd fret.

Are all the tuners geared?

The tuning machines, or tuning pegs, can make a banjo a joy to play, or a real pain. Many inexpensive banjos have fifth string pegs that are called “friction” pegs. These pegs have no gears and turning them under string tension is difficult at best.

The best tuning “machines” are made with gears, that give the tuning fingers great increase in mechanical advantage, which means turning the string tension takes very little effort. If the machines are well made, they also turn very smoothly which makes tuning more easily accurate; reducing the frustration of learning to tune strings precisely.

All professional banjos have geared tuning machines.

What is the Head Size?

All Deering banjos and most other higher quality banjos use 11 inch diameter heads with either a high or medium crown height depending on the design of the banjo. This is handy when it is time to replace a banjo head.

Many imported banjos have distinctly odd head sizes like 11 1/16 inch or some other size that is often difficult to find for replacement.

Always look for the 11 inch head diameter so you will have many choices of heads so YOU decide what kind of sound you want out of the head….instead of, desperately finding “anything” that will “merely work” on your banjo because it is hard to find the odd size head.

The Fit of the Neck

As I write this today, a nice customer came in with a major brand, low-priced banjo with the classic aluminum rim asking for help tuning it. The fit of the heel was not precisely cut to the rim, so the neck could not be solidly stable. The neck would constantly move and made the banjo impossible to tune.

This is not something that a beginner can see.

This “invisible” problem has deterred more beginners from staying with banjo playing than any other. Beginners who are trying to learn how to tune their banjo, which takes time and patience, become so frustrated by the inability to tune these banjos, and being beginners, they blame themselves and give up thinking, “I’ve got no musical talent.”

Deering goes through excruciating pains to ensure the heel cut of the Goodtime banjos and all of our banjos is cut precisely for the correct neck angle and so that it sits solidly against the rim. Of the thousands of Goodtime banjos we’ve built, in the 16 years I’ve been with Deering, we’ve never had an unstable heel cut problem….ever.

Deering banjos are wonderfully easy to tune.

New Instrument Warranty

Goodtime banjos come with a 6 year warranty covering defects in materials and workmanship. All other Deering banjos have a lifetime warranty.

Because Deering are such ultra-high quality banjos, it is relatively easy for us to offer these impressive warranties. Virtually 99.9% of all Deering banjo problems are “set up” or “adjustment” related, and not warranty related. For example, last year, we built and shipped around 5500 Goodtime banjos and had only 12 returned to us with warranty issues. That is about .002%. That is a one of the lowest return rates I’ve ever heard of.

That’s one strong reason so many banjo teachers highly recommend the Goodtime banjos for their students. Students focus on music, not fixing their banjo!

Teacher Recommended

Banjo teachers around the world recommend Deering banjos. Some of the reasons are listed here, but the main reason is “the overall superior quality” of Deering banjos.

Beginners generally do not have enough knowledge to know what to look for in a banjo. Beginners can’t play well enough to understand what a banjo should play like. Beginners need a banjo that makes playing easier, not harder. Beginners don’t always have a cultivated ear and experience to know when a problem they have is because of their technique or the banjo. Many banjo teachers have websites and they answer questions about your first banjo. The Goodtime banjo will usually be one of the answers.

Made in America

You can feel good about buying a truly American made banjo from Deering.
If you have any questions about adjusting your banjo or what strings to buy etc, you can call the Deering factory (1-800-845-7791) or email info@deeringbanjos.com and talk to one of us, in person. Our website offers many ideas about playing, set-up and general banjo information.
The banjos from overseas are brought here by distributors, then sold to stores from factories that make other items. For the distributors, these are mostly numbers, or “product”. If you speak the language of the country that makes the imported products, you might be able to call for advice. Let us know how that goes.

Deering makes banjos exclusively……period!

We have a shop full of tools that we have built that are only for building banjos.

When you call Deering with a banjo question, you are talking to banjo specialists. This is all we do.

Start with these questions.If you talk to your dealer and get these questions answered, it will give you at least some information to help you know what quality of banjo you are looking at.

If you have any other banjo related questions, feel free to contact us.

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