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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The lights! Oh my goodness. When I was about 15 years old my dad and I found a gold plated Ludwig tenor banjo at a yard sale in Beloit, Wisconsin. The price was so low we didn't haggle or make a counter-offer. It had about 8 electric lights inside for keeping the vellum dry and tight. These were multi-colored.  They were arranged in a series so that some turned on as others turned off and a few went on and off every few seconds or maybe even quicker. This was for the audience to enjoy a light show emanating from the banjo. But that's not all. The heat generated was not entirely from the bulbs. The  insulation on the electric wires was frayed and occasionally caught on fire. That was after they generated both smoke and a smell that signified trouble. I had so much fun with that banjo.  The pot was entirely metal which was unlikely to catch fire although I suppose the perch pole (dowel stick) was probably wood. I don't remember. I know I unplugged it from the wall whenever this happened but not before a half a minute or so of bizarre fun.

Joel Hooks said:

Plastic heads have made the lights obsolete.

I remember seeing a FVE being listed for sale for somewhere around $25,000. Would that have been one of the Gariepy banjos?

Joel Hooks said:

There were 24 “flush frets” made by FVE.  Included in that number are two necks that he made to fit on Bill Bowen’s Stewart banjos.

I know of two Van Eps model flush fret banjos that were made by Gariepy (you can search BHO for “Gariepy Van Eps Flush Fret” to read that story).  It is possible that he made more but I only ever heard of two actually being shipped.  Gariepy did stiff at least one ABF member that paid for one but never got it.  He advertised them for nearly a decade but they were very expensive with a nonexistent market.

I also know of a kinda rough prototype flush fret neck fitted to a recording banjo rim, likely made by Gariepy.

As far as his production banjos, those were production so there is a number of them floating around.  Lots of variants including the “hole in the head” resonator version.

Be advised, they are big banjos.  28.5” scale with a 12” rim.



Milwaukee Matzen said:

Does anyone know how many Van EPS banjos are out there? I seem to remember seeing them pop up for sale every now again years ago. Not so much these days.

No. 

People can ask whatever they want for something, it does not always mean they will get it.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I remember seeing a FVE being listed for sale for somewhere around $25,000. Would that have been one of the Gariepy banjos?

Joel Hooks said:

There were 24 “flush frets” made by FVE.  Included in that number are two necks that he made to fit on Bill Bowen’s Stewart banjos.

I know of two Van Eps model flush fret banjos that were made by Gariepy (you can search BHO for “Gariepy Van Eps Flush Fret” to read that story).  It is possible that he made more but I only ever heard of two actually being shipped.  Gariepy did stiff at least one ABF member that paid for one but never got it.  He advertised them for nearly a decade but they were very expensive with a nonexistent market.

I also know of a kinda rough prototype flush fret neck fitted to a recording banjo rim, likely made by Gariepy.

As far as his production banjos, those were production so there is a number of them floating around.  Lots of variants including the “hole in the head” resonator version.

Be advised, they are big banjos.  28.5” scale with a 12” rim.



Milwaukee Matzen said:

Does anyone know how many Van EPS banjos are out there? I seem to remember seeing them pop up for sale every now again years ago. Not so much these days.

I definitely realize that. I have been trying to track down some classic banjo CD’s. I have found a couple that I was looking for listed for sale for just under $1000! 

Most of the FVE banjos that I’ve seen posted for sale were listed for around $1000. I just remember seeing one with an asking price for around $25,000. It seemed pretty insane to me.

Joel Hooks said:

No. 

People can ask whatever they want for something, it does not always mean they will get it.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I remember seeing a FVE being listed for sale for somewhere around $25,000. Would that have been one of the Gariepy banjos?

Joel Hooks said:

There were 24 “flush frets” made by FVE.  Included in that number are two necks that he made to fit on Bill Bowen’s Stewart banjos.

I know of two Van Eps model flush fret banjos that were made by Gariepy (you can search BHO for “Gariepy Van Eps Flush Fret” to read that story).  It is possible that he made more but I only ever heard of two actually being shipped.  Gariepy did stiff at least one ABF member that paid for one but never got it.  He advertised them for nearly a decade but they were very expensive with a nonexistent market.

I also know of a kinda rough prototype flush fret neck fitted to a recording banjo rim, likely made by Gariepy.

As far as his production banjos, those were production so there is a number of them floating around.  Lots of variants including the “hole in the head” resonator version.

Be advised, they are big banjos.  28.5” scale with a 12” rim.



Milwaukee Matzen said:

Does anyone know how many Van EPS banjos are out there? I seem to remember seeing them pop up for sale every now again years ago. Not so much these days.

MM I would hold on to your cash if I were you, if you wish to just listen as you would with a CD there is a load of stuff online for free, Youtube is always good and, totally free.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I definitely realize that. I have been trying to track down some classic banjo CD’s. I have found a couple that I was looking for listed for sale for just under $1000! 

Most of the FVE banjos that I’ve seen posted for sale were listed for around $1000. I just remember seeing one with an asking price for around $25,000. It seemed pretty insane to me.

Joel Hooks said:

No. 

People can ask whatever they want for something, it does not always mean they will get it.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I remember seeing a FVE being listed for sale for somewhere around $25,000. Would that have been one of the Gariepy banjos?

Joel Hooks said:

There were 24 “flush frets” made by FVE.  Included in that number are two necks that he made to fit on Bill Bowen’s Stewart banjos.

I know of two Van Eps model flush fret banjos that were made by Gariepy (you can search BHO for “Gariepy Van Eps Flush Fret” to read that story).  It is possible that he made more but I only ever heard of two actually being shipped.  Gariepy did stiff at least one ABF member that paid for one but never got it.  He advertised them for nearly a decade but they were very expensive with a nonexistent market.

I also know of a kinda rough prototype flush fret neck fitted to a recording banjo rim, likely made by Gariepy.

As far as his production banjos, those were production so there is a number of them floating around.  Lots of variants including the “hole in the head” resonator version.

Be advised, they are big banjos.  28.5” scale with a 12” rim.



Milwaukee Matzen said:

Does anyone know how many Van EPS banjos are out there? I seem to remember seeing them pop up for sale every now again years ago. Not so much these days.

I have not seen any 5 string FVE banjos (presuming you are talking about "recording banjos") publicly listed for $1k, though $1 to $2K is about right depending on condition and style.  

The problem with FVE banjos is that they are the opposite of what "old time" people want.  They are very bright and crisp with a huge scale-- not "old time" at all.  They are too big for most people with average hands. 

But people who have recording banjos think they are worth a fortune.

I have seen tenor banjos for about that price, which is too high.  

Private sales happen sometimes, but those are private.

"Flush Fret" banjos rarely change hands.  I've been trying to keep track of where they are, some of them are "lost".

I’ve already got everything I was looking for except an album called “The Banjo Goes Highbrow” and a CD of Tarrant Bailey Jr. tunes. I contacted many artists directly to see if they had any CD’s laying around. And, I also contacted Elderly who happened to have some.


nick stephens said:

MM I would hold on to your cash if I were you, if you wish to just listen as you would with a CD there is a load of stuff online for free, Youtube is always good and, totally free.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I definitely realize that. I have been trying to track down some classic banjo CD’s. I have found a couple that I was looking for listed for sale for just under $1000! 

Most of the FVE banjos that I’ve seen posted for sale were listed for around $1000. I just remember seeing one with an asking price for around $25,000. It seemed pretty insane to me.

Joel Hooks said:

No. 

People can ask whatever they want for something, it does not always mean they will get it.

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I remember seeing a FVE being listed for sale for somewhere around $25,000. Would that have been one of the Gariepy banjos?

Joel Hooks said:

There were 24 “flush frets” made by FVE.  Included in that number are two necks that he made to fit on Bill Bowen’s Stewart banjos.

I know of two Van Eps model flush fret banjos that were made by Gariepy (you can search BHO for “Gariepy Van Eps Flush Fret” to read that story).  It is possible that he made more but I only ever heard of two actually being shipped.  Gariepy did stiff at least one ABF member that paid for one but never got it.  He advertised them for nearly a decade but they were very expensive with a nonexistent market.

I also know of a kinda rough prototype flush fret neck fitted to a recording banjo rim, likely made by Gariepy.

As far as his production banjos, those were production so there is a number of them floating around.  Lots of variants including the “hole in the head” resonator version.

Be advised, they are big banjos.  28.5” scale with a 12” rim.



Milwaukee Matzen said:

Does anyone know how many Van EPS banjos are out there? I seem to remember seeing them pop up for sale every now again years ago. Not so much these days.

Doug Back (The Banjo Goes Highbrow) used to peek in here occasionally. Nice guy, concert quality classical guitarist turned banjoist. AFAIK, he is still teaching down in Montgomery, AL I haven't heard from him in a long time.

I hope you found some William Ball CDs!

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I’ve already got everything I was looking for except an album called “The Banjo Goes Highbrow” and a CD of Tarrant Bailey Jr. tunes. I contacted many artists directly to see if they had any CD’s laying around. And, I also contacted Elderly who happened to have some.

well you certainly have a lot of resources MM, time to get playing !

Trapdoor2 said:

Doug Back (The Banjo Goes Highbrow) used to peek in here occasionally. Nice guy, concert quality classical guitarist turned banjoist. AFAIK, he is still teaching down in Montgomery, AL I haven't heard from him in a long time.

I hope you found some William Ball CDs!

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I’ve already got everything I was looking for except an album called “The Banjo Goes Highbrow” and a CD of Tarrant Bailey Jr. tunes. I contacted many artists directly to see if they had any CD’s laying around. And, I also contacted Elderly who happened to have some.

I emailed Doug, but never heard back.

I forgot about the William Ball CD’s! I am am still looking for those as well.

Trapdoor2 said:

Doug Back (The Banjo Goes Highbrow) used to peek in here occasionally. Nice guy, concert quality classical guitarist turned banjoist. AFAIK, he is still teaching down in Montgomery, AL I haven't heard from him in a long time.

I hope you found some William Ball CDs!

Milwaukee Matzen said:

I’ve already got everything I was looking for except an album called “The Banjo Goes Highbrow” and a CD of Tarrant Bailey Jr. tunes. I contacted many artists directly to see if they had any CD’s laying around. And, I also contacted Elderly who happened to have some.

Congratulations for taking up the challenge of reading music!  Persevere!  It is a language worth learning. As a retired band teacher in Oregon, I once had a student who told me she had dyslexia (and had suffered early on form people who did not understand) but she seemed to be able to read music and was a great student (clarinet). I regret I never did get to talk more with her about whether or not she had to do any accommodating to be able to read music, so I can't make any helpful suggestions, but it always seemed to me that the logic in music notation might be a help. 

Anyway, good luck in your endeavors! enjoy classic banjo!

Milwaukee Matzen said:

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. 

I have an old Ome Grubstake open back banjo that I setup for classic style, a few years ago. I put some of the nylgut strings on it, but had a problem with the action being way too high. So, I contacted Tanya at Ome banjos and sent it to them to set it up for those strings. They had to make some adjustments with the nut and bridge to accommodate the new strings, but I am very happy with their work and it is a very happy banjo. 

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