For many newcomers to banjo, knowing, or at least having an expectation of how much they will have to spend (or should spend) is one of the biggest factors when choosing a banjo. Particularly if it is their first banjo. In part 1, I will be looking at what we can safely assume will be a beginner player.
The simple truth is that this is a hugely open ended question. When it comes to almost any product, you can pay as much as you want and someone will be able to create something for you. It all depends on your expectations.
Banjos are no exception. And if you are completely new to banjo, please take a look at our Beginners Guide, which is designed to provide a foundation as you begin your banjo journey.
Firstly, let's take a look at what we call the entry level offerings. Typically, entry level instruments fall into a price point under $1000. Believe it or not, the beloved Goodtime banjo - the banjo that for over 20 years has redefined what an entry level banjo should be and, that is most recommended by teachers - edges towards the high end of the entry level banjos. "Beginner" banjos can be found for around $299 fairly easily, while a new Goodtime in the US will cost just $489. It's a little more of a stretch, but it is really important to understand why they are more and where that money goes.
So here goes. Three things that really should be kept in perspective when answering the question "how much does a banjo cost?"
For me, the main part is where they are made and who they are made by. If I were a betting man, I would be confident putting money on the fact that every single banjo on the market today under $500 is not only made in China, but is made by either a brand who specialize in other instruments, like guitars, or is a brand that you have never heard of. I would also not be at all surprised if they were all made in the same factories that also make a number of other non musical items. Garden furniture makers seem to share the same factory space as a lot of import banjo makers.
So...at this point, your choices are a banjo made by people, the names of whom you will never know, outside of the US by a company that normally makes guitars. Or garden tables. Or for a little bit more, you can have a banjo that is made by a crew of banjo experts, right here in the US. Chances are, I could probably get any number of our crew on the phone to say hi, if you wanted.
See where this is heading? Let's move on.
This is important. What I mean by this, is that it is really easy to browse through the seemingly stunning banjo's on offer in any given store and be easily fooled by the bling and the sparkle of cheaper instruments. Many of them look great. Perhaps even more expensive than they really are. But if you want to take banjo seriously and progress, you need more than just good looks.
As a beginner, you need good playability, you need quality parts that don't fail and you need good tone. I'm not necessarily suggesting that every single model made outside of the US is lacking in these qualities (although a significant portion of them do). What I am saying, is that it is very important to pick them up. Play them. Feel them. When you do, take note of the following:
Playability: Are the strings sitting really high off the fingerboard? Does it go out of tune or buzz as you play up the neck? Is the gloss finish on the back of the neck sticky in your fretting hand? If you answered yes to any of these, don't panic. Just very slowly put it back and move on to the next option. No sudden movements. :-)
Quality Parts: Inspect the plating. After playing for a while, do the tuners stay in tune? Or do they slip? Is the 5th string geared or is it a "friction" peg? (I was shocked to see a model from another brand recently that still uses friction tuners on the 5th string). Is the rim made of anything other than three ply maple?
Great tone: Does it sound good? Does it sound balanced across the strings or are some strings louder than others? Does it sound nasally and thin or does it project with a solid, usable tone? If you play in a band, or with anyone else, have them bring their instrument and jam with you in the store to see what they think.
These things all have to be considered and the only way to get the full picture is to try them out. Try them against not only a Goodtime, but a few other higher priced banjos too. You will quickly see where that extra money goes.
A lot of banjos are purchased each year as gifts. Often times by parents who, through no fault of their own, do not know too much about our favorite instrument. Here is a typical example of how that commonly goes:
Parent 1: "Our son Earl, want's a banjo. What do you recommend?"
Store clerk: "Well, you could try this one by Guitar Brand X"
Parent 1: "Oh yes! And it kinda looks like the one that guy on TV was playing the other night?"
Parent 2: "Yes and it's made by Guitar Brand X. I used to play their electric guitars. I don't think they would put their name on something that wasn't going to be as quality as anything else they put out".
Seems legit, right? Wrong.
As a former long time employee of one of the largest Guitar Brand X companies, beginning in customer service and later in sales, and as someone who still uses many of their instruments, I will tell you first hand, they really have no business making banjos.
So to recap. Do you pay the $299 for a banjo, made overseas by a faceless cooperation who do not specialize in banjos, use inferior quality parts and with a playability that will only hinder your progress? Or do you stretch a little further and buy one made in the US, using quality parts, for a wonderful playing experience, made by a team of banjo specialists (as you read this, your banjo will be created by Dylan, Gary, Ariel, Jack, Dakota, Tony, Daniel and Marco, before being inspected and shipped out by Cory and Harley).
I live by the adage "buy cheap, buy twice" so I make a conscious effort to spend more the first time, in order to get the best possible product that fits my needs. And in a time where so many of the material things that we buy are designed to be discarded at the end of a predetermined lifespan, I believe this to be more important than ever.
Put simply, if I decided to take up piano tomorrow, I want to buy a piano that I will replace because I outgrew it. Not because it broke, or wouldn't stay in tune, or because it wasn't up to the task in the first place.
You see, answering the question "how much does a banjo cost" is far more complex than you might think. For sure, the physical price is one element. Can you afford it? Would you have to sell something else to get it? These are perfectly normal questions to ask yourself when you are looking to buy just about anything.
However, the cost of a banjo is not simply what is on the price tag. There is arguably a far greater intangible cost in buying something that will hold you back, versus buying something that will bring you years of happiness for years to come.
Please check back soon for part 2 of this article, as we start to look at the upperline grade banjos!