The plain 5-step guide to choosing your first banjo

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Simon Middleton, founder and CEO of Banjos Direct , the UK’s leading specialist banjo retailer, explains the absolute basics of how to choose your first banjo in this straightforward 5-step guide. Many people drawn to the banjo, says Middleton, are put off by too much complex information, or by talking to sales people who don't know enough.

Simon Middleton, founder of UK's leading banjo retailer, Banjos Direct

Simon Middleton, founder of UK's leading banjo retailer, Banjos Direct

Many people drawn to buying their first banjo simply don't know - understandably - where to start.

At Banjos Direct I get numerous enquiries from people wanting to play the banjo for the first time who are, understandably, somewhat bewildered about where to start.

So this guide isn’t about the finer points of difference between different qualities of banjo: but is really about the basics of how to choose a banjo that suits you.

1. How many strings do you want on a beginner banjo?

Whilst there are banjos with 10 strings and even 12, for most first-time buyers the decision is really between 4 strings, 5 strings or 6 strings. The choice is really a function of where you’re coming from musically, and where you want to go.

Let’s start with the 6-string banjo (more often called the banjitar or banjo-guitar). This is instrument is a fantastic way in to the banjo sound for guitarists, because it is tuned exactly like a standard guitar and can be played in much the same way as an acoustic guitar.

It’s an increasingly popular solution for guitarists, but it isn't the instrument on which you can learn to play the banjo proper: so I don’t recommend it as a place to start.

Moving on to the 4-string banjo: these are generally (though not exclusively) played with a plectrum and tend to be used in three main traditions of music, and come in three different scale lengths.

The standard ‘Tenor banjo’ has 19 frets, is usually tuned CGBD, and is popular in traditional jazz and ragtime styles as a chord strumming instrument.

The ‘Irish Tenor banjo’ has 17 frets, is most often tuned GDAE and is most popular as a melodic instrument, playing the fast single note tunes popular in Irish folk music.

The ‘Plectrum banjo’ has 22 frets and is most often tuned CGBD, which makes it in effect just like a 5-string banjo without the 5th ‘drone’ string. The ‘Plectrum’ banjo was developed to allow players to strum chords and play single note melodies.

More popular and more widespread than any of these banjo types is the 5-string banjo. The 5-string is the instrument that most people conjure up when they picture a banjo. It is popular in country, bluegrass, old-time and folk music: and now making serious incursions into pop music.

In fact the 5-string banjo is arguably more popular than it has ever been, and as it is the choice of most beginners, that’s where we’ll focus our attention now.

2. Openback or resonator back?

The banjo has been described as a drum with a stick and some strings attached, and there is some truth in that description. The ‘drum’ part essentially consists of a skin (now usually synthetic rather than actually made of animal skin) stretched taut across a wooden and metal frame.

That ‘drum head’ arrangement can be openbacked or fitted with a wooden ‘resonator’. The resonator is a kind of wooden bowl which affects the movement of air inside the banjo head and then projects the sound waves outwards towards the listener through a narrow gap running around the banjo head.

The crucial difference between openback and resonator banjos is one of volume. Resonator banjos tend to be louder: but there are also tonal differences.

For the purposes of this guide the most important difference between the two kinds of 5-string is really the styles of music that they are associated with.

Openback banjos are most frequently connected to old-time music: a folk style of relatively simple tunes and songs connected with poor rural communities in America. Openbacks have a warm percussive tone which is often described as ‘plunky’.

They are frequently played in a down-stroke style with the thumb and the back of one finger: a style known as Clawhammer or Frailing. But they are also picked with a thumb and one or two fingers, not unlike guitar picking, often solo, or to accompany singing.

Resonator banjos, with their brighter, louder and more penetrating tone, are much more associated with the so-called ‘Bluegrass’ tradition, often played with other complimentary instruments including acoustic guitar, fiddle, mandolin and double bass.

The Bluegrass style is almost always played with fingerpicks on two fingers, and a thumbpick, to give a bright and clear tone. Bluegrass is often rapid and can be very complex, but it can also provide an exciting musical journey for a beginner, once the basics are mastered.

The boundaries between Bluegrass music and other country and folk styles are becoming increasingly blurred and it would be wrong to think that a beginner can’t lean to play Bluegrass on an openback or old-time on a resonator.

It’s all a question of tone and personal preference: but as a rule of thumb, if the world of Bluegrass appeals to you go for a resonator banjo. If you are drawn to old-time styles perhaps choose an openback.

Some makers offer convertible banjos from which the resonator can be quickly removed to give you an openback.

3. Tone rings and woods

A tone ring is a metal hoop that sits on tope of the rim of the banjo immediately under the skin, which is stretched across it. Because it is in direct contact with the skin it has a very discernible affect on tone. There’s a whole of debate about the qualities of different tone rings (different metals and designs) or whether the best sound (on old-time banjos) comes from not having a tone ring at all.

For the beginner player though this is all too much information and doesn’t help in your choice of instrument.

The best advice is to play (or have someone else play to you) a variety of instruments and select the one which sounds the most appealing to you. Simple as that.

Much the same is true of woods. The most popular woods at the beginner end of the banjo spectrum are mahogany and maple. There’s no definite advantage of one over the other. The important thing is to look for an instrument which is clearly well put together and on which the wood is of good quality, well finished and with no cracks, splits or poor glue joints.

4. Tuners

Tuners, or tuning-pegs (sometimes called machine heads) are the mechanism by which the strings are tightened or slackened to tune them. Many beginner players look for ‘vintage style’ or ‘planetary’ tuners as a sign of quality on a banjo, but this can be misleading. Planetary or vintage tuners are the ones which stick out of the back of the headstock of the banjo, and they have a more ‘authentic banjo’ look and feel.

But don’t be afraid of ‘guitar-style’ tuners (the ones that stick out of the side). Many makers, like GoldTone, use good quality guitar tuners on budget banjos and there is nothing wrong with this. Even high end makers like Nechville use guitar tuners on hand-made banjos costing thousands.

So it’s not a case of guitar-tuners bad, planetary tuners good. The important thing is the quality. Try the tuners out for yourself. Do they stick or slip? Or do they move smoothly but stay where you set them?

5. Advice

Perhaps the most important step of all in choosing you first banjo is to ask advice from people who have knowledge. Ask a banjo playing friend. Or visit one of the popular banjo forums. Or ask your banjo retailer whether on the high street or online to give you a clear explanation of the merits of particular instruments. Whichever route you take, make sure you talk to a banjo specialist.


Banjos Direct is based in Norwich, Norfolk, UK and is Britain's leading specialist banjo retailer, serving customers all over the world.

Email: sales(at)
Tel: +44 (0) 1603 305800

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Simon Middleton

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