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How To Buy A Banjo

The logical way to buy a banjo!

How to buy a banjo

When you decide that it's time to buy a banjo, the first thing you have to do is decide what kind of music you want to play on it.

If you're interested in playing clawhammer style, then a good choice might be an open back banjo, such as a Vega Whyte Laydie or Tu-Ba-Phone instrument. Bart Reiter and Mike Ramsey also make very nice banjos for this playing style, and Wildwood has some good clawhammer banjos as well.

If you're interested in bluegrass and related styles, then a more appropriate choice would be a resonator banjo such as a Gibson Mastertone, Rich and Taylor, Deering, Osborne-Neat Chief, Vestal Stealth or a Stelling.

There are lots of banjos that are simply variations on the Gibson Mastertone construction. All those resonator instruments mentioned above (other than the Stelling) fall into this category. There are also many Asian instruments that are variations on the Mastertone construction. Bluegrass banjo players mostly prefer the Mastertone style banjo.

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

When you go to buy a banjo, try to 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 a better idea of the power and other characteristics of the instrument.

And be sure to take along another banjo player of reasonable ability to play the instruments 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 because it is very important). Next, play a variety of tunes in different styles on it. If possible, use the entire range of the instrument.

Try playing near the bridge, then picking near the end of the fingerboard so you can get an idea of the tonal range of the instrument. Next, have your friend play the instrument for you. This will give you a comprehensive test of the banjo. Do A-B tests with all the banjos you're interested in.

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

When you have tested all the banjos, 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 a particular instrument that you like, don't buy one! A quality banjo is a major purchase, so don't feel obligated to buy one if none of them feel, sound and look good to you!

Things to avoid

Here are a few things to avoid when buying a banjo:

  • Banjos with cast aluminum pots (they tend to sound very tinny)
  • A banjo that is a good "fixer-upper" (unless you're willing to take on a restoration project)
  • A banjo you simply don't like 
The Stelling Instruments

At this time, my first preference in a banjo is not for Stelling banjos. This doesn't mean they are bad instruments. Far from it. They are well-made, high quality instruments.

Some people find them loud, brassy and strident, but if you find a Stelling you like, buy it. I've played several of them, and out of all of them, only one wasn't a good banjo.

The disadvantages to Stelling banjos are two-fold:
  1. You have a limited choice of tone rings. You must either use the tone ring that comes with it or have Steve Huber 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 certainly stands behind his banjos, but I can do more to modify the sound of a Mastertone style instrument than I can a Stelling. The Stelling aficionado will say that the Stelling sound is perfect and therefore needs no modification, but I find that a bit presumptuous.

On the plus side, they can be powerful banjos. They are very 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's saying a lot.

The Stelling-Mastertone controversy is in some ways similar to the Ford-Chevy controversy, and I certainly don't intend to settle it on these pages!


The most important thing is to buy a banjo with your ears, your eyes, your fingers and your brain, not with your heart!

About the author:

Bill Palmer is known as "The Banjo Wizard". Quite simply, Bill loves banjos. He enjoys testing and reviewing them, and then passing that information onto others.

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