What banjo brands and models are considered great for classic banjo playing?

Hi everyone,

I have recently been bitten by the classic banjo bug.

I currently have a Deering Artisan Americana banjo with a 12” pot.

I ordered some LaBella strings, a bridge from Joel Hooks, and the Frank Bradley book. Hopefully, this will be adequate for me to get started.

Since I do not know much about classic banjo, I was wondering what brands and models of banjos are considered to be great for this style? What would be considered a great banjo to own and play (vintage or contemporary) by a competent player of this style?

Thanks,

Milwaukee Matzen

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Welcome Milwaukee 

You've come to the right place.  In terms of vintage banjos, Clifford Essex are popular amongst classic-style banjo players.  Clifford Essex were a British make and their range of banjos are all quite different from each other but my personal player is a C.E. Special.  It has an 11-inch nickel-silver hoop which is 3 inches deep lined with oak and is loud.

Hopefully John Cohen will offer his thoughts as he has bought and sold a lot of banjos over the years and has more extensive knowledge than me.

In terms of modern, the Eastman EBJ-WL1 would be a good choice but it depends what tone you like - with a smaller head and whyte ladie tone-ring, it will sound brighter than other banjos. 

Thanks for the reply Carrie.

I am familiar with the Eastman. They seem to be of decent quality, but If I end up spending that kind of money, I would prefer spending a little more on an American or British made instrument.

Based on your suggestion of the Eastman, can I assume that Vega Whyte Ladies are considered decent banjos for classic banjo playing?

How about a Fairbanks Electric?

Can you recommend a shop that regularly has Clifford Essex banjos?

Thanks for your help!

I'm guessing by your name that you live in the US?  You will have a good range of vintage banjos to choose from by American makers like SS Stewart, Orpheum, Bacon and Day, Fairbanks/Vega...  I think Bernunzio Uptown Music and Smakula have a good reputation.   Over here we have John Alvey Turner and Brown Dog Banjos.  Probably the best bet is to make connections with classic banjo players who might have a banjo for sale.  Usually, I would say attend a classic-banjo rally but who knows when we will be able to meet again!

You will find that there is no real 'standard' banjo for classic-style but a preference for fully fretted (as you will be using the full range of the fretboard) and nylon or gut strung so your Deering Americana should be fine.  I do love the Deering necks, very comfortable!  In terms of vintage, there are banjos like my CE Special that have metal clad rims and no tone-ring or a very simple hoop ring or there are ones with different tone-rings (e.g. Bacon and Day with their famous 'silverbell' tonering).  Unfortunately, an original A.C Fairbank no2 will cost a fortune (hence the popularity of the Eastman replica).  Good luck on your venture!

All better makes of regular 5 string banjos built after +/-1870 and before WW2 are technically "classic" banjos with the exception of Gibson plectrum banjos with a short 5th string. 

Any banjo in that timeframe will work fine.  Banjos changed in form with the music played as well as the tone desired,  which got brighter and sharper as time went on.  So what you want is up to you.

The biggest challenge is finding a banjo that has not been messed with.  "Restorations" are almost always not historically informed and will make a great banjo useless for classic banjo.

When looking for a classic era banjo, the very first thing to check is that nothing funny has been done to the heel/ dowel.  Look for a second hole drilled in the rim at the end pin-- a hack repair.  Ask if the neck has been "reset for modern playing".  Look for large shims (or shims at all) between the fingerboard and stretcher hoop.  People will also add blocks to the dowel or hardware store metal angles to try and put back angle to the neck.  Avoid banjos that have been corrupted with these "repairs". 

Until pick playing and wire strings came in, banjo necks were set flat with no back angle-- the fingerboard is level and flat with the head.  This, with a 1/2" tall bridge, provides the necessary high action for the nylon strings to vibrate freely without buzzes.

Second, check for refrets.  It is common for guitar repair guys, when refretting banjos, to use thick and tall guitar fret wire.  This is no good.  The original frets are usually thin and fairly short (again, for string clearance).  If you buy a banjo that needs fret work, make sure you insist on matching the original fret wire as close as possible. 

Not a deal breaker, but I am not a huge fan of replacing friction pegs with gears.  I don't hate geared pegs, esp. the 1 to 2 grover pegs, but I would rather have friction pegs on banjos built with such.  I have found that American clad rim banjos that have had geared pegs installed become unbalanced and neck heavy.  They tend to be lightweight and it does not take much to tip them.

Banjos built before 1895 or so will have 17 to 20 frets.  Starting in 1893 and becoming more and more common, banjos of the 11" size got 22 frets.  Chances are you will never need 22 frets but it can be nice.  I am able to hit the high C by stopping the string on the head on my banjos with less than 22 frets.

Most American banjos (except Stewart) will have the 9th position marked.  Stewart banjos often do not have a mark at the 9th or 10th but when marked will be the 10th.  British banjos went with the proper 10th.  After 1910 or so, the US builders adopted the Guild guidelines of the 10th and moved the 14th to the 15th. Prior to this banjos could be marked at either the 14th or 15th, more commonly the 14th.

My point is that fret markings can be screwy and there are exceptions to the "rule".  Just something to be aware of.

Other then that, it is a buyers market.  My best banjos have come through networking and private sales.  When things get back to normal, get to know the handful of classic banjoists.  If in England go to the two banjo rallies.  If in the US go to the two American Banjo Fraternity rallies. If people learn that you are serious and not just a blow in, they will offer you high end banjos for great deals. 

Hi Milwaukee, you really do have some great choices for buying used and new instruments these days particularly, In my opinion being in the US. As Carrie states, a lot of folks here favour the old British made Clifford Essex instruments for this style. These do often come up for sale at quite reasonable prices even I believe in the US. I personally like and play old Vega banjos, my two current favourites being an old Whyte Laydie and an even older Fairbanks Vega #2 special with just a steel hoop, these instruments certainly pop up for sale regularly especially on the Banjo Hangout, many folks make quite a business of converting older tenor banjos to five stringers, Vega, B&D, being two that come to mind, whichever you choose you already have a great setup with your Deering/strings/bridge, my advise would be take your time and just enjoy what you have right now, plenty of time to see how you like it before spending loads on a banjo, good luck .

Hi everyone,

Thanks for all of the great information! This will be very helpful to me. In fact, I am going to copy this and make myself a PDF of it for later reference.

I am familiar with Bernunzio Uptown Music and Smakula. 

I don’t plan on purchasing a higher end banjo right away, but I always have my eyes open and wanted to know what to be on the look out for. This way, I’ll be better informed when the time comes to make that purchase. 

I would agree that it is a buyers market right now (which is good for me)!

Thanks again!

And don't forget Elderly in Michigan and Intermountain Guitar & Banjo in Salt Lake City.  These are reliable and fairly priced outlets that often have nice vintage banjos as well as new ones.

Welcome to the wonderfull world of classic banjo!

Since you already have a banjo, will (or have already done so) put on nylon strings, a new bridge and have the Bradbury book (or is there a book by someone called Bradley?), you are in for a treat!

Aaron Jonah Lewis just started a series of video lessons on playing classic banjo, using Bradburys book. I would suggest you look in to that. Here's a link to the first video in the series. I'm sure you will be able to find the other ones easily:

AJL classic banjo lessons

Good luck and please keep us posted on how it goes!

Hey Jody,

I’ve dealt with Elderly for years. So, I am aware of them. I’ll have to check Intermountain Guitar & Banjo though! On a side note, I’ve been enjoying your YouTube videos!

Hey Par,

I did mean the Bradbury book

I came across AJL’s lesson on YouTube yesterday. They look to be a good resource.

I am really excited to try my hand at this music. Because I have dyslexia, I am a little nervous about learning to read music. I tried when I was younger and had a very hard time. But, I plan to take my time and work hard at it. I’d love to be able to take advantage of all the great music that it available. 

Thanks MM. By the way I agree with Par. Why not use the banjo you have? You can even begin with the strings you have on there. 

I am going to use the banjo that I have. I am just waiting on a bridge and strings to arrive. (I actually do not have any banjo strings at the moment).

I am guessing that at some point I will want to upgrade. So, I just wanted to know what I should be looking for. This way, I can look around every so often to get an idea for what I might like to have in the future, and what the banjos are selling for.

Your Deering has no strings on it?

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