How to Buy Your First Banjo - Part 1: The Basics
Of all the questions we receive about banjos, this has to be one of the most common. We will keep this explanation very short but if you have any further questions, send them to us and we’ll answer all of your questions.
So, by popular demand, here is our answer.
To buy something wisely, you must have knowledge of what you are buying. Three important DESIGN aspects of a banjo are:
1.) The rim
2.) The neck
3.) The hardware
The rim of the banjo is the heart and soul of the banjo’s sound. The rim MUST be made of a vibrant, resonant material to create a “musical” tone. The best violins in the world have sides and carved backs made of maple. You cannot make a violin with sides or back of lead, stone, soft aluminum or mushy plastic and create a beautiful musical tone. Banjos are exactly the same.
The vibrating banjo strings transfer their sound to the bridge, which vibrates the banjo head and this starts the maple rim vibrating. The rim keeps the sound vibrating, because of the rim’s mass, which is greater than the head or the bridge. The vibrating qualities inherent in “tone” wood (like maple, mahogany, rosewood, ebony, etc) or “tone metal” (like bronze, brass or some steel) create a more pure, focused tone. Mushy wood, particle board (material made from compressing saw dust and glue together) and soft aluminum create a distorted, diffused, and indistinct sound.
The reason Deering makes every Goodtime banjo rim with three layers of “violin maple” is to capture the same musical brilliance heard in the world’s best violins.
The reason import banjos make rims of soft aluminum or soft, porous wood is cheapness of manufacturing.
You cannot make a beautiful resonant bell out of soft aluminum. You can’t make a rich, musical, marimba out of particle board. So, you also can’t make a good sounding banjo out of either material…. So why are off shore banjos made out of both? Cheapness of manufacture.
Deering is the only banjo maker in the world, building a three-ply rim using violin maple, in a low priced banjo. (Actually, at this writing, Deering is the only banjo maker using real, super quality, violin maple for any banjo…but that’s another story)
The shape of a banjo neck is ergonomically crucial. Whether a neck is thin or thick is certainly important, but the contour or shape is what separates a poor banjo from a great banjo.
Most Deering banjos have a neck shape that is a “D” profile. The “D” refers to the cross-sectional shape of the banjo which is the shape of a capital letter “D”. But that’s not the end of it. The “D” shape only works, when the right attention to detail in the graceful, subtle shaping of the neck is correctly applied by the craftsman who makes the neck. At Deering, this shaping process is the result of over 35 years of defining, refining, skill and mastery.
We use the same, slender, comfortable neck profile on our Goodtime banjo that you will find on a Sierra or GDL. The difference in size of the Deering and Goodtime banjo necks might differ from each other by a few thousandths of an inch, but the profile is the same ergonomically correct shape, designed to create a comfortable and easy reach for the fretting fingers to any string and any fret. Poorly shaped necks, whether slender or thicker, make the player “reach” or “strain to reach” the frets during playing. It’s not just a matter of slender neck versus thicker neck, it’s a matter of correctly shaped neck versus poorly shaped neck.
Cheap, import banjos cannot attain this level of comfort. The skill and musically technical awareness of the workers in the huge factories in China, Indonesia or Taiwan cannot be high enough to attain the superb feel of any Goodtime banjo. Their workforce is usually made up of un-skilled labor that also makes tables, chairs, guitars, cabinets and banjos, in huge factory environments where quality standards are set by a “how much it LOOKS like” a more expensive banjo when hanging in a music store. They make instruments to resemble more expensive instruments when they are hanging on a wall in a music store or in a newsprint catalog photo where detail is conveniently blurred. They are built to sell to customers who don’t have experience with instruments and buy more with their eyes than with their ears and hands.
Every Goodtime banjo neck begins being shaped by a computer controlled milling machine to thousandths of an inch precision, but then, the skilled hands of Deering craftsmen add a second level of precision finesse by hand sanding the final finish and shape to the already precision machined neck. The same skilled hands, that routinely sand and sculpt $6,000 banjo necks, bring the same insight, skill, experience and “magic” to sculpt every Goodtime banjo neck that leaves the Deering factory.
The fine grained, properly seasoned maple neck of the Goodtime banjo, is very hard and stable. This hard wood contributes to the brightness, clarity and longevity of a Goodtime banjo. The fret slots are cut into the neck using computer controlled precision and the frets themselves are deftly pressed into each slot, one at a time by the skilled hands of Deering craftsmen.
The most impossible problem a new banjo student faces, is a banjo with poorly placed frets. When the frets are not precisely placed AND installed, the banjo will never play in tune. Most of the cheap banjos from the early turn of the 20th century and the current offshore banjos, have inaccurately placed frets and can never play in tune. Why? Precision takes time, skill and dedication. Many older banjos were made with more primitive tools and sold cheaply in their day. Import banjos today are made to “look like more expensive banjos” but the actual hands on quality can never equal the work of dedicated banjo craftsmen from any period.
Precision fret work and graceful, ergonomically correct neck shape is vital for learning to play the banjo and just as important for a lifetime of continued playing.
On a good banjo, there is a musically scientific reason for every part and every detail of the banjo. The tailpiece of the Goodtime banjo is made of a metal alloy that is “quiet”. “Quiet” means, the metal does not vibrate with a tone of its own. Some banjo companies brag about having a brass or bronze tailpiece. The fact is, if the tailpiece is made of a resonant metal like brass or bronze, it vibrates with a definite pitch and a sound of its own, which adds an un-controllable sound that cannot blend with the vibrating rim. Violins eliminate this “un-wanted sound” possibility by tying their tailpieces on the violin with gut cord, which is like holding the tailpiece on the instrument with a rubber band…the vibration absorbing elasticity of the cord absorbs vibrations so the violin body can vibrate, without the interference that a vibrating tailpiece would cause.
Deering has accomplished this same, time tested, acoustic technique by using a metal in the tailpiece that does not have any tone of its own. We use the same kind of “quiet” metal in the armrest and the coordinator rod inside the banjo’s pot (body). The metal we use is very strong, but musically silent, so all you hear is the beautiful tone produced by the violin maple rim and the bright tone enhancement from the maple neck.
“Quiet” metal, does not conflict with the tone producing parts of the banjo.
On the mechanical side, the cheap import banjos are plagued by breaking j-bolts (also called brackets), breaking tailpieces, non-functioning coordinator rods and truss rods and brittle tension hoops that crack. Parts for these banjos are virtually un-attainable as the distributors of these instruments usually replace the whole banjo if a part breaks. After the customer owns the banjo for a short time, the importers just tell the customer “you’re on your own.” (I know this happens from working for over thirty years in the music business and seeing this first hand.)
Uniquely designed by Greg Deering, the tough, durable steel J-hook used on the Goodtime banjo, is round all the way up to the top where the hook is formed. The hook then flattens out and gets wider to increase the surface area of its grip on the tension hoop. The gripping surface of this design is about triple the gripping surface of the j-hooks on the import banjos. This prevents twisting of the hook and therefore holds the bracket straight when tightening the head.
New vs Used
If you are a knowledgeable car mechanic, and you look at a used car, the odds are better that you might spot problem areas in the car compared to someone who doesn’t have any experience in automotive mechanics. The same is true of banjos. If you are experienced with banjos, then you will “see” things on a banjo that an inexperienced person will not notice.
I taught a class years ago called, “How to Shop for a Banjo”. One of the attendees who wrote many notes and asked many questions, came back to me three weeks later with a banjo she bought in a pawn shop. Though we covered everything in class, she brought in an offshore banjo, with four frets missing, the resonator missing, the fingerboard cracked, the rim was made of toneless, dead aluminum, the neck shape was neither large nor small and so poorly shaped as to not be comfortable for anyone to play, and it had no bridge. She asked me how she did. I gently informed her of the problems, reminded her when I spoke of these things in class, but that “$50.00 price tag” seduced her into a useless remnant, not a playing instrument.
Her in-experience overpowered the instructions she had received.
Since that time, I have generally recommended, for most beginners to stick to new banjos. If you know a knowledgeable banjo dealer, whom you trust, or you have a knowledgeable friend whom you trust, then your odds will improve if you choose to look for a used banjo.
What Should I Buy?
When we are learning to play the banjo, it is virtually impossible for us to know what issues are caused by our technique and what is caused by the banjo. We just don’t have enough experience. If we are fortunate enough to have a good teacher, she or he can try our banjo and tell us whether a sound problem or playing difficulty is a fault of our skill and technique or a problem inherent in the banjo or a combination of both.
Some will read this and feel I am merely making a sales pitch for Deering and the Goodtime banjos. But, it must be understood that like all great instrument makers, Deering does every seemingly small detail for very real and provable, musical reasons. We could make a banjo just as cheap and just as poor quality as the junky imports…. But why should we? We want our banjos to encourage people to learn, love and stay with their banjos.
I wish every new banjo enthusiast would buy a Goodtime banjo, because I know that they would have the best chance to succeed if they did. So please… think carefully before parting with your hard earned money. Try not to be swayed by lots of plastic inlays and useless brick-a-brack. Try to listen with your excellent tone meters…. Your ears.
Your fingers will thank you… and so will your music friends.