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?


Milwaukee Matzen

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Correct. I had leant the banjo out. The person that borrowed it broke two strings. I got it back last week and I don’t have any banjo strings on hand.

Breaking banjo strings is hard to do. Unless there is rough spot on the tailpiece, bridge, nut, or pegs the tension on the usual range of steel string gauges is much less than on a guitar. One would have to tune the strings very high or else turn the pegs in small violent separate motions (rather than a smooth continuous motion) to get the strings  to break. 

I agree with you. I was told that the strings broke while tuning. I don’t have the broken strings so I do not know where they broke. I am pretty sure everything is burr free as I have never had any string breaking issues with this banjo myself. Although, I haven’t played it much at all. I’ll give it a good once over before I restring it with nylon strings.

Can the majority of the classic banjo repertoire be played on a banjo with 17 frets? 

Yes. I have a 3" binder full of classic banjo pieces and only a couple range above the 17th fret. Most of my vintage CBs are 19 fret and I never feel slighted.

A lot of the early 17 fret banjos have an unfretted portion of the fingerboard between the highest fret and the rim.  One my stop strings on that unfretted part to get any notes they need.

Most raised fret banjos built between 1870 and 1900 will have 18 to 20 frets.  On my banjos that have less than three octaves I will often mark the high C on the head as a reference point, and stop the string on the head.  Of the pieces that I can think of that use that high C, it is only for a fancy coda.

For 99.99% of solos you will not need anything past the 19th. For most of those you won't need anything past 12 (particularly American solos published before the mid 1890s).

What banjo are you looking at that has 17 frets?

I was thinking about borrowing a Deering Vega Old Tyme wonder that was offered to me. It only has 17 frets (it has a fretboard scoop). Someone really wants to buy my Deering Goodtime Artisan. Since I’ve been out of work for sometime, I have been considering selling it. I am serious about trying my hand at classic banjo. So. I don’t want to end up with an instrument that won’t work for this style.

Just depends on your needs. The music doesn't care about the instrument. People use every kind of banjo to play this stuff. Yes, the default is something that replicates the era...but I feel that as long as the instrument plays well, it will be fine. Much more important to get started learning. Buy your "perfect" instrument later.

Well, I would say that there's plenty of music to play that doesn't go past the 17th fret. Probably more than you would be able to play in a lifetime. So I wouldn't worry about that.

What I'm thinking is: do you really want to be without your own banjo? Imagine you do sell your banjo and a month later the owner of the banjo you borrowed wants it back? Then what?

I imagine you will get round about $500 for your Artisan, right? Sell it and get a cheap Korean or Chinees banjo for less than $100 (eBay is a good sourche for that) and you will still have $400 left. I started out on a Korean made one that I got for $50. I still have it and still use it. I find that nylon strings are more "forgiving" to a cheaper banjo than steel strings. Especially if you also get a maple bridge. And as Marc said, you can get the banjo of your dreams later.

I would get $750 for the Goodtime. It’s basically a new Artisan 12” with the Deluxe Deering Gig bag. I would be able to hold onto the Old Tyme Wonder indefinitely with the option to purchase at a very good price. I am going to take my time to think it over.

For $750 you can get almost any excellent non-fancy banjo you want if you are patient and are knowledgeable enough to recognize one when it comes along.  But you can't know what you want until you play banjo for a while and until you have the opportunity to play a half dozen or more good banjos of different sorts. Right now doing that is also an opportunity to get Covid 19. So string up either of these banjos with some kind of nylon strings in the range of viable gauges and start playing.  At this stage the only thing you can really tell is whether you like how a particular banjo looks or feels.

I agree with Marc: the music doesn't care about the instrument. I agree with Par: nylon strings are forgiving on cheap banjos. 

I have an opinion about the Goodtime and Artisan. They do not look nice. But they sound fine. they are easy to play too.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I would get $750 for the Goodtime. It’s basically a new Artisan 12” with the Deluxe Deering Gig bag. I would be able to hold onto the Old Tyme Wonder indefinitely with the option to purchase at a very good price. I am going to take my time to think it over.

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?

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