Buying Your First Banjo with David from Deering

Here at Reverb, we get asked for advice on best bets for beginning instruments all the time. And for a crop of burgeoning players influenced by the likes of Mumford & Sons or Sufjan Stevens, the banjo has taken a proud place as one of the more popular instruments to take up.

For us, the Deering Goodtime series has always been an easy recommendation when it comes to first-time banjo options. To get some more info on the Goodtime and what players should keep in mind when choosing an entry-level banjo, we posed some questions to David Bandrowski of Deering.

I want to start playing banjo. Where do I start?

The easiest place to begin is with a 5-string banjo, not only because you'll find more instructional materials available (online and otherwise), but because it has the most versatility in types of musical genres that it can play. You should give thought to what type of music you want to play, if weight is an issue and what type of instruction works best for you (books, DVDs, online, etc.). Deering Banjo Company makes an excellent introductory line of banjos called the Goodtime Series. They are ideal for beginners in that they are lightweight and come in both openback and resonator versions with 4, 5 or 6 strings.

When it comes to beginner banjos, what are the advantages of wood vs metal for the rim?

The rim is part of the “voice” or sound of a banjo. Its natural tone is a major contributor when referring to the overall sound of the banjo. Quite simply, the rim of the banjo is the heart and soul of the instrument. The choice of material used to make it has a profound effect on the sound of the banjo itself.

Many banjos, particularly at the lower price points, will feature inexpensive aluminum rims. These are cheap to produce, but aluminum is not a metal commonly associated with tonal quality. Others feature any number of varieties of wood including maple and mahogany. But not all wood is alike. Not all maple is alike, and not all metal is alike.

At Deering Banjo Company, we use three plys of violin-grade maple to create all of our wood rims. While this lends a rich and naturally bright sound, it also allows all the other pieces attached to it to vibrate more freely. This opens up the overall sound of the banjo to a rich, clear and vibrant tone. If you have the chance, go to a dealer and play a cheaper aluminum-based banjo. Then pick up a Goodtime banjo and you'll see what we mean.

The only exception in our line-up that features a metal rim is the steel rim of the Deering Boston banjos. Think of the sound of a triangle in a symphony orchestra - bright, sparkling, melodic. It is a different kind of tone compared to maple, but equally beautiful.

What are some other design features or components I should look out for when comparing options?

When looking for your first banjo, you should be sure that the tuners are geared so they maintain their tuning longer. While every banjo needs to be tuned before playing, a friction tuner will not hold the tuning of the strings well. You want to be sure that there is adjustability in your banjo. Action is the distance between the top of the fret and the bottom of the string. Be sure your banjo has the ability to adjust the action so that your hand does not work harder than it should to bring the strings and frets into contact.

Your tailpiece should also be adjustable. As time goes on, you may want to change the tone of the banjo, and your tailpiece can help with this. It should have a warranty. Manufacturers who make a sound product will provide support for their customers. All of these features are part of the Deering line of banjos from the Goodtime Series through to the professional level banjos.

The Deering Banjo Company Goodtime Six Banjo Guitar |

Is there any type of banjo that's better suited for clawhammer vs bluegrass playing?

When talking about 5-string banjos, there are two basic types of banjos. One is called an openback the other is called a resonator banjo. The openback banjo is traditionally played in the style called clawhammer. The resonator banjo is actually an openback banjo with a back on it to enclose the sound chamber. That back is what we call a resonator. If you are a fan of bluegrass music, you have seen this resonator banjo played on stage by musicians. Because the function of the resonator is to make the banjo louder, it is more able to compete with all the other instruments of a bluegrass band in volume when it is played. If you know you want to play bluegrass music, a resonator banjo is a good choice.

Do new players need a banjo with a resonator?

No, you do not need a resonator as a beginner. A resonator will make the banjo louder and brighter. Certain genres of music such as bluegrass and jazz call for a louder and brighter banjo when playing with a band. This is so that when you step out to take a solo, you will cut through the rest of the band.

Is there any instance when a beginner should consider a tenor or another less common format of banjo?

Yes, there are several factors to consider in this case. If you want to learn to play Irish/Celtic music or traditional jazz, you may want to start with a tenor banjo. A tenor banjo is tuned in fifths the same way the classical string family is (violin, viola, cello). If you play any of these string instruments or its mandolin family cousin (mandolin, mandola, mandocello) you would be able to instantly pick up a tenor banjo and start to play. Deering makes tenor banjos in both 17-fret and 19-fret variations. Deering also makes plectrum and 6-string banjos in both the Goodtime and professional level lines.

Imagine the plectrum banjo as 5 string banjo without the 5th string. It is commonly used for traditional jazz and folk music. Many guitar players like to play the plectrum banjo and tune it to Chicago tuning which is the same as the top four strings of a guitar (D, G, B, E).

The 6-string has been a long time favorite of guitar players as it is played just like a guitar only you have a banjo sound.

Once I have my banjo, what are some things I should do to keep it in great shape?

The most obvious thing to consider first is the strings. Strings should be changed at least every couple of months if you play infrequently butn more often if you play 4-6 hours a day. The strings get dirty and can feel rough on the underside when worn and overtime, the banjo will lose its inherent brightness. Because string sets are modestly priced, they are a very quick and inexpensive way to breath new life into a dull sounding instrument.

Banjos will need to have their banjo heads tightened periodically to keep their nice bright sound. The head is synthetic so over time, it will stretch. By tightening the hex nuts at the base of the hooks, the tension hoop around the banjo head will be pulled down to tighten up the pressure on the head and bring back the bright sound. Deering carries all three sizes of t-wrench online and also provides a free maintenance manual download in the support section of the site.

The hardware on banjos is often nickel plated. Nickel plating is susceptible to the moisture/oils in our hands and the moisture of the environment. Wiping down your banjo after each course of playing will keep it clean and help premature tarnishing of the hardware. Deering has a set of care cloths that you can use for both wood and metal parts of the banjo.

Deering Goodtime Banjo Demo with Rob Scallon

What's the most important thing first time banjo players overlook when choosing their instrument?

Many beginner players use price and aesthetics as their main guideline for a banjo. While price is definitely an issue when choosing any musical instrument, you should also look not only at the reliability and longevity of the product but the playability of the instrument as well. As a beginner, you want to be able to enjoy it as much as possible. If it is unplayable, the enjoyment will quickly go away.

Consider the reputation of the company building it. What kind of warranty does it have? What kind of support do you get after you buy? The Internet is a valuable resource to new buyers. Find out what the general consensus is from the end-users who have purchased banjos from the manufacturer. You will find that Deering banjo owners, whether they own a Goodtime Series banjo or a professional level banjo, are supportive of their banjo and the after market support they get from both the company and their dealers.

Want more banjo basics? Check out this beginner banjo guide from Deering.

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