Banjo is a whole different world…
Buying a banjo ain’t like buyin’ a guitar. Guitars have either electric or acoustic, Fender or Gibson, steel-string or classical, and many subcategories from there. You’d think buying a guitar has many choices and it does, but they’re all tuned basically the same way.
Banjo is a whole different world. When a guitar player thinks about adding an electric guitar to his steel-string acoustic, he’s not thinking about relearning the fundamentals of his instrument or maybe totally changing the way he plays.
What kind of banjo…?
You might like the banjo you hear in old westerns. In that case you’d want a plectrum or a tenor banjo. Or maybe you like the Kingston Trio and all the other folk groups of that era. Then you’d want a 5- string long neck or a plectrum, maybe, or it could be an “ordinary” 5-string of which there are two basic types.
Then there’s Irish/Celtic. You know they will glom onto a good thing when they hear it. So you’d most likely want an Irish tenor tuned one of several different ways. Earl Scruggs? Definitely a bell-bronze flathead tone ring. Dixieland? Several choices there. Ragtime? Riverboat? Classical? Flapper?
See? The choice is not that easy. But you might have a pretty clear idea of what you want to play on the banjo, and a basic 5-string will do, if its bluegrass or old-timey.
The music store blues…
The basic problem you run into is the common music store might have only one or two basic beginner- type banjos and maybe some have a little better banjo. But what’s worse is there may be no banjo player at the store, so you get, at best, somebody who wants a commission off the sale. If I had my choice, I’d pick the player every time.
Beginners, banjos, and music styles…
Ok. So I’m assuming you’re a beginner and I’m assuming you’ve got no mentor. I’m assuming that you like the sound of the banjo but haven’t pinned down exactly what banjo sound you like. At this stage, you need to sit down and listen to what you like. If you like different kinds of music, try to visualize what you can see yourself playing. The kind of banjo is not important right now. However, the kind of music you like most is important.
Now I’m going to get gritty for a moment. If you already play banjo, you might think this is all an unnecessary exercise. Remember, if you’ve made your choice already, that’s fine. This is for people that “like the sound of a banjo” but don’t have any musical references.
Buying from a real player…
When looking for help in a music store, I did say I’d prefer a player as opposed to a non-player. But there are several pitfalls even to this.
He/she might be a player of one style and be basically ignorant of the others. Or they might be aware of other styles, but a snob when it comes to their own style. The former can’t help you beyond his experience, and the latter may be pushy about his way of playing. In an ideal world, the player you would deal with would at least be familiar with three or more styles of banjo. But, sadly, this may not be the case. So more self-education is in order.
Finding the right teacher…
How about a teacher? Well, let’s do some weeding out first. Make sure he/she really plays – that the banjo is a main instrument for them and not just an extra income source while they show you some very basic skills. And, here again, make sure they’re not a snob convinced there’s only one way to go.
I am a teacher of the banjo, 2 years shy of 40 years as a player and 35 years as a teacher. I teach all styles of banjo, except advanced plectrum and tenor in Dixieland styles. Many times I’ve seen all extremes of the above mentioned teachers.
You need to interview the teacher. Have the teacher show you what he or she can do. Ask if they know about other styles. I’ve had many students who’ve come to me after spending a lot of time learning something other than what they wanted.
If you’re serious about lessons, give me a call. I’m located in North Texas, in the university town of Denton.
Finding the right banjo…
I’ve been a Deering Banjo dealer for about 20 years, specializing in Deering, Vega, and Goodtime banjos, all of which are hand built in Deering’s California facility.
I also regularly come across good used banjos. You never know what I might have in stock, so email or call and ask.
A short introduction…
This is a short introduction for our new website that is under construction. We’re working on getting the blog up quickly, and finishing an e-book on How to Buy a Banjo.
Much more to come…