How to Buy a 5-string Banjo

A Logical Way to Make a Major Purchase

This addition to the banjo set-up pages is the result of many e-mails asking how to buy a banjo, what kind of things to look for in a banjo, and other related topics.

When you decide that it is time to buy a banjo, first you must decide what kind of music you want to play on it. If you are interested in playing clawhammer style, then an open back banjo, such as a Vega Whyte Laydie or Tu-Ba-Phone instrument might be a good choice. Bart Reiter and Mike Ramsey also make really nice banjos for this style. Wildwood has some good clawhammer banjos. If you are interested in bluegrass and related styles, then a resonator banjo such as a Gibson Mastertone, Rich and Taylor, Deering, Osborne-Neat Chief, Vestal Stealth or a Stelling would be more appropriate. There are dozens of banjos that are essentially variations on the Gibson Mastertone construction. All those resonator instruments mentioned, other than the Stelling fall into this category. There are also many Asian instruments that are variations on the Mastertone construction. Most bluegrass banjo players prefer the Mastertone style banjo.

The basic Mastertone banjo has a bell bronze tone ring, a resonator, a resonator flange and a wooden rim. Naturally, it also has a neck which is held onto the rim by one or two coordinator rods.

When you go to buy a banjo, if possible find a place that has several banjos of a type similar to the one you want to buy, so you can try several of them. This will give you more of an idea of the power and other characteristics of the instrument. Also take along another player of reasonable ability to play the banjos for you so you can hear what they sound like from the front.

When you find an instrument that looks like it might be satisfactory, check the fit of all the parts, to make sure that it is put together correctly. Sight down the neck to make sure it doesn't have excessive warp or a back bow. Tune the instrument up to concert pitch--don't guess at this, it's important. Then play a variety of tunes on it. Use the entire range of the instrument, if possible. Try different styles. If the strings seem dead, mention this to the person selling the instrument. If it is a high priced instrument, they might change the strings, just to make the sale. Try playing near the bridge, then picking near the end of the fingerboard. This way, you will get an idea of the tonal range of the instrument. Then have your friend play the instrument for you. This will give you a comprehensive test of the instrument. Do A-B tests with the instruments.

Check out the feel of the instrument, too. Make sure the action is comfortable and that the neck feels right to you.

When you have tested all the instruments, if you find one you really like, and it sounds really good, then that is the one you should buy.

But if you don't find an instrument that you like--don't buy one! This is a major purchase, so don't feel obligated to buy something that doesn't feel, sound and look good to you.

Things to Avoid

Avoid banjos with cast aluminum pots. They sound very tinny. Don't buy a banjo that is a good "fixer-upper" unless you are willing to take on a restoration project. Don't buy a banjo you don't like.

The Stelling Instruments

I used to dislike the sound of Stelling banjos. However, certain improvements that have been made in the past few years have caused me to rethink my position. They are excellent instruments. But they do have a couple of disadvantages.

The disadvantages to them are two-fold:
(1) You have a limited choice of tone rings. You must use either the tone ring that comes with it or you can have a tone ring customizer fit one of his tone rings to the rim.
(2) You are limited to the tailpiece that comes with it, unless you have the tailpiece you want modified to fit the banjo, or have a special mount made for the tailpiece you desire.

Geoff Stelling has an original design that works very well for him, and he stands behind his banjos. I can do more to modify the sound of a Mastertone style instrument than I can a Stelling. The Stelling aficionado will maintain that the Stelling sound is perfect and needs no modification, but I find that a bit presumptuous.

On the plus side, they can be powerful banjos, and with the new Tony Pass rims, which are standard on all their new instruments, they have a really fine tone. They are well built and Geoff Stelling stands behind each one as if it were his own child. He personally sets each instrument up before it is shipped, and that is saying a lot. The Stelling-Mastertone controversy is in some ways like the Ford-Chevy controversy. And I certainly do not intend to settle it on these pages.

The main thing is to buy the banjo with your ears, your eyes,
your fingers and your brain --
not with your heart!

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©2006 Bill Palmer. All rights reserved. For permission to republish contact Bill Palmer. The opinions expressed on this page are strictly Bill Palmer's. Mastertone, Stelling and the other brand and model names are the property of the manufacturers and other people who own them.