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Beginner Banjo Player's Buyers Guide

By Bennett Sullivan on Mar 5, 2020

music

So, you have an itch to learn how to play bluegrass banjo? We’re excited for you and we know that you probably have a ton of questions about what instrument to get. In this post, we hope to answer all of them so you know exactly what instrument you should buy. We'll even share some useful accessories to purchase as well!

If you’re here, you probably already know that you want to learn how to play bluegrass. Maybe you heard Flatt & Scruggs on the radio or one of Earl Scruggs’s contemporaries like Kristin Scott Benson (The Grascals), Ron Block (Alison Krauss and Union Station), or Bela Fleck. Or maybe you’re a fan of bluegrass inspired bands like Mumford & Sons or Old Crow Medicine Show. It doesn’t matter how you got bit by the bug and we’re glad that you’re here and interested in learning how to play music.

There are four different types of banjo that you’ve probably come across in your banjo research.

  1. 5-string resonator
  2. 5-string open back
  3. 4-string tenor banjo
  4. 6-string guitar banjo

For bluegrass, the type of banjo you ultimately want to buy is a 5-string resonator banjo. This is the type of banjo all bluegrass musicians play because it has a resonator for projection and volume. It’s the driving force of the bluegrass band and it’s rolling, syncopated sound makes bluegrass what it is. Take a listen to Earl Scruggs:

And here’s Noam Pikelny:

If you’re just starting out and price is a factor, you’ll still be able to learn and play on an open back. Open backs sound great but aren’t traditionally used for bluegrass, so if you want to stick with learning Scruggs style then you’ll want to upgrade to a resonator eventually.

If you’re looking to play clawhammer or frailing style, then you’ll want to take a look at some 5-string open back banjos. These banjos have a quieter and plunkier sound than bluegrass banjos. Take a listen to Lukas Poole:

While we could go more in depth on open backs, tenor, and guitar banjos, we want to give you the good stuff on which bluegrass banjo to buy. If you’re interested in buying a tenor banjo or guitjo, then this isn’t the post for you.

Top 3 quality beginner banjos under $500

Here are some 5-string open back and resonator banjos that will be inspiring to pick up and practice every day:

  1. Recording King RK-R20 Songster Resonator Banjo - this banjo comes in right at the $500 mark but it’s one that you could play for years without needing to upgrade.
  2. Deering Goodtime - This is an open back model which saves you a couple hundred dollars on price vs the resonator model. This is an American made banjo and it’s got a great tone. Deerings are consistent and you will be guaranteed a good axe.
  3. Gold Tone CC-100R - This is a Chinese made banjo that will surely get you started with your banjo studies. We’d recommend upgrading when you start to go to jams or get serious about playing. It’s a good banjo to have for 1-2 years.

Top 3 quality banjos under $1500

If you have more of a budget to work with then take a look at some of these 5-string resonator banjos.

  1. Artisan Special Goodtime Banjo - This is a step up from the open back Goodtime banjo and will be a good fit if you are looking to jam or play in a band.
  2. Gold Star - These are incredible banjos for the price and if you can find a Gold Star banjo from the 1980s, you may be set for life. Here are a few examples of Gold Star banjos.
  3. Recording King RK-ELITE - A solid instrument with a great bluegrass tone.

Lifer banjos ($1700+)

With the number of quality banjo builders growing each year, it is truly a golden era for banjo buyers. Here’s a list of great builders that you should look at if you’re looking for a lifer banjo:

Accessories

Here are some accessories that you should consider buying with your banjo purchase:

  1. Electric Tuner - A clip on tuner is a useful tool to help keep your banjo in tune. It’s designed to stay on your instrument so you don’t need to worry about losing or forgetting it. Check out the Snark tuner.
  2. Strap - Having a strap is not only essential for standing up with your banjo but is also helpful to have for correct posture when sitting down. If you can set up the strap so it comes underneath the neck, then you’ll have additional support and you won’t need to hold it up with your fretting hand. See this video for more details on that - https://www.tunefox.com/lessons/bluegrass-banjo-from-the-beginning/right-hand-position/
  3. Picks - For bluegrass you’ll need to get a plastic thumb pick and two metal fingerpicks. These Dunlops are a good starting point for thumb picks - https://www.jimdunlop.com/dunlop-shell-medium-thumbpicks/ and check out these fingerpicks - https://www.amazon.com/Dunlop-33P-018-Nickel-Thumbpicks-Players/dp/B000GEAR08. You should consider visiting a music store to try on some different thumb picks as you cannot shape them to your fingers like the metal fingerpicks.
  4. Gig bag - Having a gig bag is not essential but it makes transporting your banjo easier. Here’s a cheap gig bag option - https://www.amazon.com/Crossrock-CRSG106BJBG-Padded-Resonator-Backpack/dp/B0779Z4T76 and a more expensive one - https://reunionblues.com/products/rb-continental-banjo-case-voyager-series. The reunion blues will protect your banjo close to the point that a hard case will. It’s a quality gig bag.

Regardless of what banjo you choose, daily quality practice will make all the difference in developing your technique, tone, and timing. We hope that you’ve found this post helpful in choosing your next bluegrass banjo and please let us know if you have any questions at support@tunefox.com or leave a comment below.

Also, be sure to check out our free beginner banjo lessons, which will get you started from the very beginning to playing your first song - Cripple Creek.

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