The Delta Snake Review

The Delta Snake Review


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The True Path For Beginner Banjo Players

I'm not going to claim that this is a concise guide, or even a coherent one. This is simply advice from a person who's played banjo for over 30 years and has probably made every mistake a beginner could ever make on buying the instrument.

I did quite a few banjo reviews on before it went under, and generally concentrated on the low end and mid-priced banjos. The main reason was because I found myself often disagreeing with a lot of the advice I read on the Internet on various banjo sites and forums.

For one thing, there's opinions that were written years ago and don't reflect the market today. Particularly with prices on vintage banjos, that sort of information goes out of date within a year.

Also, the market has become very competitive. Companies have gotten into every price level, so the amount of choice can start getting confusing to a beginner. Which is good, you can shop by budget now, not by what you need to spend to get a decent, playable banjo.

I'm going to do this particular blog entry from the top down. I'm going to give you advice first, then ramble on about the various reasons after.

Rule number one, the sacred first step:

Never simply buy the best banjo you can afford. 

That's one of the most common statements you'll see from "experts" and other cork sniffing types, particularly in America where money and brand seems to be the apparent true mark of quality.

If all you can afford is a $600 banjo, then the assumption that you'll play that banjo, sell it, and then upgrade to a expensive type simply isn't going to happen for the overwhelming majority of banjo players.

In actual fact, the first banjo you buy, if it's in the mid-range price bracket, is the one you'll probably end up with, or that's the price bracket your next banjo will be or only slightly higher.

If you're somebody who can afford a premium banjo, which tends to be over $1000, and the last thing you should do if undecided on whether you really will like playing is to buy a high-end one.

The main reason is it's not entirely certain you're going to get your money back if you decide to sell it. It's not like a guitar, where there's millions of guitar players. There's less banjo players, and there's even less banjo players who will pay a premium price for a used one, and many of the ones that do will mainly go for vintage ones.

So whether you're rich or poor, and in my eyes both are equal in terms of banjo playing, that is to say, both deserve to enjoy the pleasure of playing one, the first step is the most important.

Which is to buy a banjo that's inexpensive enough that you can get most of your money back (an inexpensive banjo is like a pickup truck, you can always find a buyer), and that it fits the style of music you want to play.

Rule number two, don't just go buy a banjo, no matter how much advice you got first:

The first thing you should do is think about what kind of music you want to play. If you don't know, then go on Spotify or YOUTUBE and listen to all the banjo music you can. You'll find it there's a variety of banjo styles, the most popular being Bluegrass, and folk/old time/claw hammer being the second.

You can ignore this advice if you already are a fan of a particular genre of banjo playing, but anyone else should not only listen to the various types of banjo music, but listen to a lot of it over a period of time. What sounds good at first can start to sound a little boring if you've heard 100 more of the same type of song.

The reason is simple. If you want to become a Bluegrass player, then your first banjo should be of a Bluegrass type, which in this era can be bought at every price level.

Buying what everyone tells you is the best beginner banjo can possibly stick you with the wrong kind with the wrong sound.

Rule number 3, buy the correct type banjo for the music you want to play at the best value (cheap as possible) that feels easy to play:

I'll use Bluegrass or resonator style banjos as my example.

The first priority is to get a banjo that feels comfortable, and feels easy to play (mainly the strings not being too high). By comfort I mean get one that's as light as possible so it's easy to hold and play.

That's why rule number one is so important. A first class professional bluegrass banjo will feel as heavy as a bowling ball due to it's construction. There's reasons for that, but listing those out isn't important at this time.

Buying a used one at this stage may not always be the best thing to do. For one thing, the seller may be getting rid of the banjo because it was poorly set up and hard to play. 

It can be an excellent way to get a better quality banjo if you know what you're doing, or have a friend who can help you on this who has experience with banjos.

Unfortunately a lot of the big music stores don't carry a large selection of banjos, but this can work in your favor. Most will carry a small selection of beginner and intermediate banjos, which is what you're looking for anyway, and unlike buying online you can actually hold and play the instrument.

Rule number 4: never buy a banjo that needs a "set up."

You'll often hear this advice on the Internet, to buy a particular banjo and then go have it set up by a professional. 

That's extra cost. 

If you're like me, you basically want to pay one price for the instrument.

If the banjo you're trying out in the store feels hard to play, the strings are too high, the head is adjusted incorrectly so it sounds lousy, then resist the temptation to buy it and have it fixed. Just walk away and try another, or go to another store that cares enough to sell instruments that are ready to play.

If you're talking about guitars this advice is easy, with banjos I know that's not so easy. 

In fact, your only option may be the Internet. In which case don't simply buy from the biggest sellers, which I won't name, but check out the various websites and you'll find that there's more than a few companies that sell banjos online and make it a point to specify that the instrument you're getting has been set up correctly first.

It doesn't matter what the price is, the product should always be a playable instrument.

You'll hear advice on the Internet that banjos need to be at a certain price range to be playable, but that's not true. I've played $150 Epiphone beginner banjos that from a playing standpoint were better than some of the thousand dollar ones I've tried.

Even with the so-called superior US-made instruments, the quality and playability of each can vary from instrument to instrument.

There's also an important point to cover for those who want to start off with a bluegrass banjo. Most of the very inexpensive Bluegrass banjos will have the 70s Japanese style aluminum rims.

That type of banjo in the 70s had a very bad reputation, though most books I've read on the subject say that the rim itself wasn't the problem. In fact, the aluminum rim is probably the best combination of performance at a cheap price. The problem was those banjos had terrible necks, tuning pegs, hardware, and weren't or couldn't be adjusted to sound good.

That's why if you look at banjos on the Internet, quite a few of the inexpensive bluegrass banjo still use aluminum rims. For economy models, it's still a good rim design.

That type of banjo may draw derisive remarks from the snobbier set, and you may find that you prefer to get something a little more expensive, but if you play one that feels good and you like the sound, then by all means get it. 

Like I said earlier, the cheaper banjos are easier to sell later on if you decide you don't want to play banjo anymore or upgrade.

If you're willing to start at the 250.00 point range and go upwards, you can get a bluegrass banjo that's fairly accurate in terms of its construction (wood rim, tone ring, etc), like from Fender.

Another thing to note, if you find that you're going to play claw hammer style banjo, then you'll find that just about any banjo will work even if it's a little crummy. That's because old time banjo sounds better with higher strings and most of the melodies are in tunings designed to mainly play in the first position of the banjo.

Just remember, make sure it's a banjo that feels right from the start. Nothing else is important at this stage. Later on your ears will be able to tell that it's time to get a better banjo, or maybe you'll find that it's perfectly fine for your needs.

Rule number 5: if the banjo you like is a type or brand it's heavily criticized on the Internet or forum that you participate in, choose the banjo, and change your banjo friends.

Even in the most critical forums infested with fans of a particular brand or cork sniffers, you'll find voices or even groups of voices that will always say trust your ears and will be more enthusiastic about the fact that you're starting to play banjo rather than what you're buying.

I'm lucky enough to live in an area where there's at least four good music shops and two of them are excellent at selling acoustic instruments.

What I found in those two stores, is the attitude that playing the instrument is more important than what you're playing. Both are stores where I can walk in, tell them the price range, and they'll show me what they've got with a neutral attitude. Sure, they'll answer questions and give advice if you're asking, and like anyone else I often have questions about this or that banjo. 

But I've rarely heard the advice that what I'm considering is a piece of crap, and that I should buy one that is more expensive, etc.

I use banjos from a variety of price ranges, because I find certain ones work best for this or that type of song that I'm working on.

It is good to hear all the opinions on banjo, if you're researching a particular type you want to buy, particularly if your only option is the Internet. Personally, I like to read both the negative and the good because sometimes the criticisms are valid. 

The thing to keep in mind about advice and opinions about a banjo on the Internet, is that many of the people who give expert advice may or may not in fact be expert, may only be repeating stuff they read, the info is outdated and was posted years ago, and often from players who have no experience with the banjo they're criticizing.

Even if they do have experience with the banjo in question, what does it mean? A valuable but single opinion.

When I say experience with the banjo, I don't mean having played it for a few minutes in the store with all the noise and talking going on. When I try out a banjo in a store, I actually don't even play it for the first few minutes. I spend the first few minutes checking sound by just plucking the open strings and listening, playing notes one by one up the neck to check for intonation, etc, and if I don't like the tone and feel, I don't even bother playing it.

The fact is you may have to play a banjo for a week, or even a month really know it. After I change out a banjo head, for example, it can take more than a week of adjusting to get the sound right to my ears (that's just me though, others may find it easier or harder).

At the beginner or even some intermediate price ranges, your ears will eventually adjust to the banjo and you'll probably want a different or better tone. 

That's not something you're going to know right away. So the important thing is, make sure it feels good to play and the sound it makes is pleasing at the time, and always realize at this stage that your opinion is the most important.

Rule number 6: After the proper amount of research, deciding on how much to spend, filtering through all the advice, just go find that banjo and start playing.

In the 70s, it was much more important to research banjos and make sure you're getting the right one. For the simple reason there wasn't as many choices. Now just about every major manufacturer has a range of banjos on the market and the overall quality is generally very good.

The banjo started off as a very simple instrument, and basically still is. In the classic period of the 20s and 30s, the difference between a cheap banjo and expensive banjo was often the cosmetics. The company often used the same banjo model, or one that was very close, and simply added all the ornate decoration to make it a premium banjo. 

That's why so many of the old plain banjos, if in good playing condition, are often as good as the more expensive model from that era.

In other words, once you get past a certain price, which in America's about $1000, the actual amount of quality you get for the money starts to go down and becomes a case of diminishing returns. After you get past a certain price point, which are really getting is just a prettier banjo.

I've found that quite a few of the inexpensive or moderately priced banjo models are quite good, and if you're not going to become a professional or anything, will often do just fine as your only banjo.

The fact is that how good a banjo sounds follows the same rules as any other musical instrument. It's only going to sound as good as you make it.

But that's the beauty of music, after you've gotten past the point of worrying about the price and purchase of the banjo, the enjoyment and everything else you get from the instrument is free.