Buying a new musical instrument is always an exciting moment, and purchasing your first banjo is no exception.
The banjo is known for its distinctive twang, producing bright, high-pitched notes associated with bluegrass, folk, and country music.
This is one instrument that can sound incredible as long as you know what to prioritize in terms of construction.
A poorly-constructed banjo is unlikely to lead to a standing ovation – unless you count the clapping of hands over ears.
Luckily, we’ve compiled a list of the features you should consider when buying a banjo, so if you follow our guidance, you should end up with a high-quality, great-sounding instrument.
What is a Banjo?
If you’ve clicked on this article, we’re assuming you’re at least vaguely aware of what a banjo is.
However, buying and learning the banjo is a spur-of-the-moment decision, you might not yet be familiar with the finer details of what makes a good banjo.
Understanding what a banjo is from a technical perspective will ensure that you know what to look for.
Originating from Africa and popularized in the U.S. during the 1800s, the banjo is a chordophone. ‘Chordophone’ is the technical term for a stringed instrument.
A banjo is physically characterized by its round body, which can be described as drum-like.
Modern banjos usually have 5 strings, although the original banjo only had 4, and some more recent models have 6 for a fuller sound.
What to Look For When Buying a Banjo?
The body of the banjo can also be referred to as the pot, and as we mentioned earlier, it is always round in shape. A banjo’s body is integral to its overall sound because its rim picks up vibrations from the instrument’s head.
It’s definitely tempting to choose a banjo with a lower price point, but the downside of cheaper banjos is that they’re usually made of softwood, which doesn’t produce the same quality of sound.
If you want your banjo to sound great, you’ll need to prioritize a hardwood body (especially rim) construction.
Maple wood is generally considered to be the best choice, and high-quality builds will usually comprise several layers.
Pay attention to the neck of the banjo, too, since the best quality instruments will often have maple necks as well as bodies.
Number of Strings
We’ve already briefly touched on the fact that banjos can have 4, 5, or 6 strings.
5-stringed banjos are the standard these days, but it’s also easy to find 4 and 6-stringed varieties, and these might actually be the better choice for you, depending on the sound you’re hoping to create.
The 4-stringed banjo is traditionally played with a plectrum and definitely produces the brightest sound out of all banjo varieties.
A 5-stringed banjo can be plucked with the fingers. It is set apart from the 4-stringed banjo by the extra middle string, which is tuned the highest out of all the strings.
This is not the case with its 4 and 6-stringed counterparts, which are tuned progressively higher from left to right.
Recent Folk and Bluegrass music usually features a 5-stringed banjo, so if this is the type of music you’re hoping to create, we’d recommend prioritizing 5-stringed instruments.
Finally, there’s the 6-stringed banjo, which is a little controversial in the music scene because it is played by hand and is, therefore, very similar to a guitar.
With that being said, the sound that it produces is more akin to the traditional, 4-stringed banjo.
If your goal is to recreate a fuller version of the 4-stringed banjo’s sound, a 6-stringed banjo might be the best choice for you. However, you’ll really struggle to mimic the sound of a 5-stringed banjo on a 4-stringed instrument.
Historically, banjo heads (the layer of material over the top of the body, underneath the strings) were constructed from animal skin.
If you’re in the market for an antique banjo, you’re likely to find plenty with animal-based heads.
However, if you’re looking for a modern banjo, chances are, your choices will have heads made of vegan-friendly mylar.
Mylar is a type of polyester film and it helps to brighten the overall tone of the instrument while enhancing its durability compared to skin.
If you look at the back of most 5-stringed banjos, you’ll notice that it’s slightly concave.
This protruding back piece is called the resonator, and it’s responsible for the brightness and projection of the instrument’s sound.
The alternative to a banjo with a resonator is an open-backed banjo, which might be ideal if you prefer a mellow sound quality.
However, for Bluegrass music, a good resonator is essential since it allows individual notes to come through loud and clear.
A banjo’s bridge is responsible for transferring vibrations from the instrument’s strings to its head and body. Therefore, the bridge is an essential component with an important job to do.
In order to ensure effective vibration transferral, you should prioritize the same type of construction as the body: hardwood.
However, it’s worth noting that if an otherwise well-constructed banjo has a softwood bridge, you can always replace the bridge, so this doesn’t necessarily need to be a dealbreaker.
5th String Tuner
If you’ve decided that you want a 5-stringed banjo, you’ll also need to decide whether you want this string to have its own tuner or not.
While a 5th-string tuner is not essential, it’s always more convenient to have one because it means you don’t have to rely entirely on a tuning peg.
Used or New?
Whether you should buy a used or new banjo depends on a few different factors.
While it might seem logical from a durability and quality standpoint to buy a brand new banjo, you also need to consider cost and aesthetics.
Buying a new banjo from a high-quality brand can set you back between $500 and $700.
With that being said, you can also find great banjos from reputable brands for as little as $300, and these are often more beginner-friendly.
If you don’t have room for a new banjo in your budget, though, don’t worry.
Buying a used banjo doesn’t mean you have to compromise on quality – you just need to know what to look out for and possibly be prepared to make some adjustments.
The advantages of buying a used banjo are lower price points and vintage aesthetics. You can find used banjos through local music stores as well as online retailers for under $300.
The exact price of a second-hand banjo will vary significantly depending on its condition.
If possible, try to inspect a second-hand banjo in person before buying. Ask the seller any relevant questions regarding the construction materials if you’re not sure how to identify them yourself.
With a used banjo, it’s not uncommon to have to replace the strings, bridge, or head. However, if you get a good enough deal, the initial price difference should still make this a worthwhile purchase.
When buying a banjo, whether used or new, you should always prioritize hardwood materials and avoid softwood.
You’ll also need to consider the number of strings and the presence of components such as resonators and tuners depending on your preferred sound.
If you’re on a budget, you can find high-quality banjos second-hand for discounted prices. However, you may need to make some alterations.