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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regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

Short answer: I have never heard, heard of, or seen a classic banjo player do this except when practicing at 3AM and wishing to not disturb sleeping family members and/or the neighbors.  A clothespin on the bridge mutes the banjo even further. But apart from that, no.

Long answer:

Stuffing banjos seems to me to be mostly a case of herd mentality and reflexive imitation.  Poorly set up good five-string banjos, some cheap imports,  and many mandolin-banjos have out-of-control wild reverberations that really do need taming by muting with foam cubes, diapers,  teddy bears, blackboard erasers, and all the other things I've seen used.   But the fad in revival old-time circles to stuff the banjo seems to have its origins in the insecurity of violinists-turned-fiddlers who are threatened by perceived or imagined banjo-dominance in ensemble playing. The sonic effect is to make all banjos sound alike. This sound is monochromatic and limited in dynamic range as well  I have met and heard many American southern old-time banjo players who were born in the 19th century or the early 20th century, Not one of them took measures to suppress the sound of the banjo and many of these people played resonator banjos. I first encountered banjo-stuffing in the early 1960s.  It was an exploration of the range of sonic possibilities that a banjo might produce.  It was not intended as a suppressive device.  Now it has become something like nose piercing. It is alleged, but not universally agreed upon, that a woman's pierced nose, if done a particular spot, induces submissiveness in the woman. A nose ring on a wife was like a nose ring on a domestic animal. It allowed the human master to lead the beast by the nose. I see banjo stuffing in a similar light. I think the original intention is to make the banjo submissive. This stance cannot be found in players of classic banjo.


Milwaukee Matzen said:

I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

I am not obsessing. I am just curious as to what others think/do. I have seen what I would call “dampening attachments” in vintage advertisements.

I would be playing my banjo, but I am still waiting on strings to arrive!

nick stephens said:

regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

A short word of caution advised here Milwaukee, If anybody and, I mean anybody attempts to give you a definitive answer regarding banjo stuffing ignore them ! you will find just like every other walk of life that people are individuals and will do just what they like with their own banjos. if fitting a wooden "tone bar " (I think that is what they call them ) inside your banjo a'la Van Eps or wedging a wine bottle cork under your banjo head does not qualify as some kind of stuffing or muting or any other name you like to give it then I guess I am talking nonsense, Watch Aaron Jonah Lewis videos on youtube and you will catch the occasional glimpse of foam stuffed inside his banjo, I play classic banjo in front of paying audiences and when using a PA or any recording device it is a fine way to eliminate ringy overtones but ! heres the thing, it is an individual choice and one you must experiment with to find what suits you, under no circumstances believe that nobody ever does it, when the person or people stating that as a fact have inspected the inside of every classic or fingerstyle banjo players instrument in the world to verify such statements I may begin to take their pronouncements a bit more seriously, for my own part, I shall do just as I please to obtain the sound I like and I suggest you do the same. There are no hard and fast rules !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not obsessing. I am just curious as to what others think/do. I have seen what I would call “dampening attachments” in vintage advertisements.

I would be playing my banjo, but I am still waiting on strings to arrive!

nick stephens said:

regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

The dampening attachments were for the purpose of creating "special effects". It wasn't for everyday playing. It'd be something like the "whammy bar" on a Stratocaster guitar. You use it sparingly when the occasion arises. 

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not obsessing. I am just curious as to what others think/do. I have seen what I would call “dampening attachments” in vintage advertisements.

I would be playing my banjo, but I am still waiting on strings to arrive!

nick stephens said:

regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

According to who Jody ? banjoists do as they please with their instruments, who knows what is inside another mans banjo until he is invited to look ? and are you saying that those wooden things inside peoples banjos are designed to be removed during a performance ? rather cumbersome are they not ? The trem on a strat is installed at the factory in a body designed and routed to accept it, how it is used is up to the player, Jeff Beck certainly does not use his sparingly and I would be very reluctant to criticise his playing .

Jody Stecher said: to accept itThe dampening attachments were for the purpose of creating "special effects". It wasn't for everyday playing. It'd be something like the "whammy bar" on a Stratocaster guitar. You use it sparingly when the occasion arises. 


Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not obsessing. I am just curious as to what others think/do. I have seen what I would call “dampening attachments” in vintage advertisements.

I would be playing my banjo, but I am still waiting on strings to arrive!

nick stephens said:

regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

The dampeners that I was speaking of seemed to be more like permanent fixtures. That being said, I have seen others that looked like they could be switched off and on. 

Jody Stecher said:

The dampening attachments were for the purpose of creating "special effects". It wasn't for everyday playing. It'd be something like the "whammy bar" on a Stratocaster guitar. You use it sparingly when the occasion arises. 

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not obsessing. I am just curious as to what others think/do. I have seen what I would call “dampening attachments” in vintage advertisements.

I would be playing my banjo, but I am still waiting on strings to arrive!

nick stephens said:

regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

I agree with you. Like I have stated elsewhere on this forum, I have never been much of a banjo player. But, in order to get a sound that I liked, I did stuff many (but not all) of my banjos. Nothing too major. Just enough to tame some overtones (I think that is the right term). I suppose I enjoy a more focused sound.

Based on the vintage ads that I’ve seen, I guess that I was just curious if classic players were more apt to “stuff” their banjos.

nick stephens said:

A short word of caution advised here Milwaukee, If anybody and, I mean anybody attempts to give you a definitive answer regarding banjo stuffing ignore them ! you will find just like every other walk of life that people are individuals and will do just what they like with their own banjos. if fitting a wooden "tone bar " (I think that is what they call them ) inside your banjo a'la Van Eps or wedging a wine bottle cork under your banjo head does not qualify as some kind of stuffing or muting or any other name you like to give it then I guess I am talking nonsense, Watch Aaron Jonah Lewis videos on youtube and you will catch the occasional glimpse of foam stuffed inside his banjo, I play classic banjo in front of paying audiences and when using a PA or any recording device it is a fine way to eliminate ringy overtones but ! heres the thing, it is an individual choice and one you must experiment with to find what suits you, under no circumstances believe that nobody ever does it, when the person or people stating that as a fact have inspected the inside of every classic or fingerstyle banjo players instrument in the world to verify such statements I may begin to take their pronouncements a bit more seriously, for my own part, I shall do just as I please to obtain the sound I like and I suggest you do the same. There are no hard and fast rules !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not obsessing. I am just curious as to what others think/do. I have seen what I would call “dampening attachments” in vintage advertisements.

I would be playing my banjo, but I am still waiting on strings to arrive!

nick stephens said:

regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

Hey MM such devices you describe pretty generally are always removable, I know of no manufacturers who fit damping devices that were permanent fixtures, the loose general answer is that stuffing or damping is most commonly seen on open back clawhammer banjos (I have two and, play both with and without stuffing) I have not personally inspected 1000s of banjos, however my feeling is that among fingerstyle players it is fairly uncommon because most banjos favoured by those players have nylon strings and no tone ring thus many if not most require no stuffing but, if you find you are getting any overtones you dislike stuff away to your hearts content, you may like it or not.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

The dampeners that I was speaking of seemed to be more like permanent fixtures. That being said, I have seen others that looked like they could be switched off and on. 

Jody Stecher said:

The dampening attachments were for the purpose of creating "special effects". It wasn't for everyday playing. It'd be something like the "whammy bar" on a Stratocaster guitar. You use it sparingly when the occasion arises. 

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not obsessing. I am just curious as to what others think/do. I have seen what I would call “dampening attachments” in vintage advertisements.

I would be playing my banjo, but I am still waiting on strings to arrive!

nick stephens said:

regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?

Sorry. I should have said something more along the lines of semi-permanent fixtures. Ones that could be removed easily enough, but not just switched on and off with the flip of a switch or push of a lever. Hope this makes sense.

nick stephens said:

Hey MM such devices you describe pretty generally are always removable, I know of no manufacturers who fit damping devices that were permanent fixtures, the loose general answer is that stuffing or damping is most commonly seen on open back clawhammer banjos (I have two and, play both with and without stuffing) I have not personally inspected 1000s of banjos, however my feeling is that among fingerstyle players it is fairly uncommon because most banjos favoured by those players have nylon strings and no tone ring thus many if not most require no stuffing but, if you find you are getting any overtones you dislike stuff away to your hearts content, you may like it or not.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

The dampeners that I was speaking of seemed to be more like permanent fixtures. That being said, I have seen others that looked like they could be switched off and on. 

Jody Stecher said:

The dampening attachments were for the purpose of creating "special effects". It wasn't for everyday playing. It'd be something like the "whammy bar" on a Stratocaster guitar. You use it sparingly when the occasion arises. 

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not obsessing. I am just curious as to what others think/do. I have seen what I would call “dampening attachments” in vintage advertisements.

I would be playing my banjo, but I am still waiting on strings to arrive!

nick stephens said:

regarding stuffing, the answer is the same for all players regardless of style, just play the banjo and listen, experiment away it is free ! and when you like what you hear play it and play it some more. stop obsessing about equipment, you have a very fine banjo, play it !

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I am not looking to purchase a banjo right now. I will wait until I’ve been playing a while (and have more funds) before I do that. I am perfectly fine learning to play on the Goodtime Artisan. I find it to be substantially nicer than the “Gumby” headstock Goodtime that I had borrowed from a friend years ago.


I have another question about banjos... do classic players often stuff their banjos like many old time players do?



nick stephens said:

According to who Jody ?

According to history. collective memory,  according to period adverts, and according to me as well.

(...)

and are you saying that those wooden things inside peoples banjos are designed to be removed during a performance ?

I think you know that I am not.

History, (who's?) collective memory and period adverts are only to be heeded for historical reenactors ! experimentation is to be encouraged if the aim is to achieve a sound that pleases the player, Your opinion is just that, one persons opinion ! I am sure there are many classic players who "stuff "when they wish to without consulting some arcane periodical published a hundred years ago. I told the OP that it is a matter of personal preference and, it is ! Never having had the opportunity to play and examine his banjo I certainly would not discourage him from trying different ways to achieve his desired sound, its all good and "stuffing" or not is a quick and cheap way to alter the sound of your banjo as I am sure players have been finding for over one hundred years .

Jody Stecher said:



nick stephens said:

According to who Jody ?

According to history. collective memory,  according to period adverts, and according to me as well.

(...)

and are you saying that those wooden things inside peoples banjos are designed to be removed during a performance ?

I think you know that I am not.

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