Buying Your First Banjo (or helping someone else buy their’s)

Your First Instrument

     Boy, that’s a subject that every one of us had to struggle with.  I was fortunate that my first instrument, a Savoy (very inexpensive 5-string banjo made in Japan) was playable.  It sounded like hammered dog sh**, but I was able to play it and learn to play it well enough that my father purchased a much nicer one only a year later before I went on the road with Larry Fuller back in the early 1980’s.  The upgrade, another Japanese banjo, was a Fender Leo Deluxe.  That banjo isn’t something I would be happy with today, but when you consider that stepping up to a mid-grade banjo with a tone ring and a multi ply wood rim and a curly maple neck and resonator from a pot metal unicast pot and mystery wood for a neck and resonator gave me much more power and tone and flexibility. I went from a 1/2” bridge to a 5/8” (Standard today) and I could finally project.

     There was an advantage to learning to play on a piece of junk… you had to work hard to pull tone and to perfect your pull-offs and chokes.  I didn’t realize what a challenge that was until the upgrade… and the “upgrade” was a far cry from the next banjo, my first pre war Gibson conversion with an old Steve Ryan tone ring in it and a super nice neck.  I don’t know that I would have it any other way, but that’s just the way it worked out for me.

     The sad truth is that most entry level, get in the game banjos are pure junk that may or may not live long enough for someone to actually learn to play.  Most of the ones that I see come across my workbench need a massive setup.  The action at the nut is awful on 95% of them and nothing is optimized.  I get this all the time: “They said it was ‘set up’ when I bought it.”  and they’d be right, but let me explain something about the definition of the term “set up.”  An instrument that has been set up has, on a rudimentary level, been strung, the bridge was in the right place when it left the manufacturer and it held tune.  That is about all you get with the Korean or Taiwanese instruments in today’s market.  Think about this for a second… they must be manufactured, strung and then shipped 8,000 miles (or thereabouts) then marked up and sold from the importing warehouse to a store somewhere in the US or other banjer-lovin’ country, then marked up again and sold to you, future banjo player.  So, if you have paid, let’s say $400.00 (US) for your first banjo (and that’s about right for entry level in 2016) then you can expect that banjo to be maintenance and set up need free for exactly 0 seconds.  That’s as honest as I can be.  That doesn’t mean that the banjo can’t be optimized for better tone and playability because it usually can… but a professional set up by a person who knows how to to that… to a banjo… and is good at it, ain’t cheap.  If you take your banjo into a chain store that starts with the word “Guitar” you will be getting Pimples the Clerk who may never have seen a banjo anywhere other than a Beverly Hillbillies rerun doing what little he or she knows about a truss rod adjustment, charging you $75.00 and you will still have a cheap banjo that sounds and plays poorly.  They just don’t know… and will never know. Period!

     That being said, I think that starting off on a banjo that is affordable isn’t a bad idea, but don’t expect to re-coop your money… unless you buy second-hand, and that can be a little tricky as well.  Try either taking someone with you who knows what he or she is looking at or let the seller know that you need to let your luthier take a look at it on the condition that you can return it if anything comes up that can’t be lived with.  The luthier consultation will run you somewhere between $0.00 to $20.00 depending on your relationship with the luthier.

     Buying new usually comes with a manufactures warrantee that covers defective parts and workmanship on the instrument.  It doesn’t cover the bad setup that most of them come with.  Some of these warranties are lifetime… that’s right kids… lifetime!  Would you like to know why?… I’ll tell ya why… because 98% of the el-cheapo instruments sold will never see anything but the inside or a closet behind the winter jackets or the sports equipment after the first 30 days of ownership until they meet their next owner after Johnney or Susie realize that a musical instrument doesn’t come equipped with a bottle of instant gratification hidden inside the gig bag (gig bag is an old Cherokee work meaning “instrument killer”, but that’s a whole other blog entry)… at any rate, these instruments are out there.  They may smell like gym bags and moth balls, but they can be had at a discounted price and you can, and should, take advantage of them.  Kind of like when you bought that tread mill that you hang your delicates on to dry… and they you have saved enough to have the banjo guru near you to perform the proper setup magic on it so that your fingers will not hurt any more than is necessary and the banjo will sound as close to a banjo as is possible under the equipment circumstances.

     If, when you do buy your first banjo, you buy as much banjo as you can afford within reason, and are able to buy used, and have it set up by a BANJO person, not pimples the clerk at Guitar World in the strip mall, then you meed to absolutely fall in love with the banjo… unless you started with that step, then all the better!  You see, if you are obsessed with the instrument then nothing will stop you from learning to play it!  Not the lack of instant gratification, not the banjo, not even your sister who thinks banjos are the least desirable instrument outside of planet Kentucky!

     What are you waiting for?  Go get a banjo, have it properly setup and then play…

Richie Dotson

Oct. 29, 2016

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