Buying a Banjo
 
A banjo player is composed of two elements: A player and a banjo. The partnership is as critical as the relationship between a key and a lock. There is no one best banjo out there. But there is a best banjo for you.

I bought my first banjo in the mid 60's after hearing Douglas Dillard play on the Andy Griffith show. I was a kid, had virtually no money, lived in the middle of rural Illinois (not exactly a hotbed of bluegrass music at the time), and no idea how to buy a banjo. My parents were Chicago kids whose idea of music tended to lean towards Brook Benton, Johnny Mathis, and Tchaikovsky. I may as well have announced to them that I wanted to buy a steam calliope. I mustered about 50 dollars somehow and found a Harmony banjo in a pawn shop that the owner was eager to get rid of. It weighed almost nothing - no metal tone ring, or tone ring of any kind, really - was painted black in order to cover the fact that it was probably made of pine, the neck was warped like a ski, and the resonator was made out of bakelite, that stuff that they use to make bowling alley ash trays out of. I probably got about as much banjo as I could have for 50 bucks, but had I had 500, I wouldn't have had any idea what to buy with it, or where to go.

The internet is a wonderful place to buy things of a known quality. By this, I mean that if you know exactly what you are buying, the internet's great. An iPod, for example. It's either going to work or it's not, and you have a warranty with a return policy. If you are unsure of what you are buying, or if what you are buying is something of lesser known quality, stay away from it. It may be the greatest way to find the lowest price on a banjo, but if you don't know what that banjo sounds like, leave it alone. Banjos are made of such disparate materials of varying quality, and able to be assembled and setup in so many different ways that the variation from one to the next, even the same model and make of banjo, can be quite significant.

I've talked about price plateaus on other pages here, but a general rule of thumb bears repeating. As simply stated as possible, if you want to play bluegrass, you want to buy something with a tone ring, preferably a bronze ring. The lower end threshold of these is about $1,000 by the time you've paid taxes, added a strap, picks, a case. Sounds like a lot of money, right? Consider these factors;

A 150 dollar banjo costs more to ship than it's worth in resale. It is almost a disposable commodity, and you will not be able to make it sound like bluegrass. It will be "adding visual texture" to the decor of your lake house in two months.

There is no such thing as a bad investment in a high quality instrument. Banjos especially above a certain threshold will even appreciate in value over time.

You definitely get what you pay for if you spend wisely. My every day player banjo is kind of a motley combination of woods based around a 1984 Gibson Granada arch top ring and flange. It is one of the best arch top banjos I've ever heard or played. Typically a student will show up for a first lesson armed with their 200 dollar Galveston banjo from the hills of Southeast China, do a couple of rolls, then listen to me play the same rolls while their face drops and they look down at their new banjo as if it might serve as firewood later in the day.

If you approach your purchase with this mindset: "I don't want to spend much because I don't know if I will really get into the banjo or not", save your money. Frankly, your statement belies a lack of interest/depth of commitment in the first place, and when added to a cheap banjo, you are almost certain to fail. Wait until you are certain you want to learn this instrument, spend some serious money on an investment quality instrument, and you will be far better off. Then, if by chance you do lose interest, you will at least be able to recoup your investment.

If you are truly interested in learning this instrument, a grand is chicken feed. How much did you spend on movies last year? How about sporting events? A thousand adds up in a hurry. I call what follows the "Starbucks factor": I worked with a guy who bought a grande carmel macchiato on the way to work every day. In one year's time, he spent a thousand dollar banjo on his first cup of coffee of the day. Remember that you are taking up a musical instrument. This is not like a sport that you will have to give up when you get old. It's never going to wear out or need replacing. In fact, most of the really valuable instruments are 60 to 80 years old. This is a lifetime investment. You can play a banjo until you're so old you won't remember how much you paid for it.

Believe it or not, you may soon contract "BAS" (Banjo Acquisition Syndrome) and find that your thousand dollar banjo is woefully lacking. This will, of course, not be true, but as you get farther into this music, you are going to find yourself in the presence of some really nice (and pricey) banjos. Don't be surprised if the siren song of a Stelling Crusader starts haunting your dreams. 4,500 will bring one home for you. This may sound extreme, but if you spend, say, 2,500 dollars on a mid-range Gibson Mastertone, play it for 10 years every day, it will be a cost of about 70 cents a day, not even enough for a coffee from 7-11 every day. AND, at the end of those ten years, you will have an investment banjo worth probably 30% more than what you paid for it.

My personal recommendation for a beginner of modest means:
For about 1,000 dollars, you can get one of the following:
bullet Gold Star GF-85
bullet Gold Tone OB-250
bullet Recording King Pro R80 

All three are Asian, all three are tone ring banjos, although it's not clear whether they are brass or bronze. My experience with the Gold Star and Gold Tone is that if they are brass, it is a high quality brass that plays well for the money.

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