School of The Rock


What kind of Banjo Do I Want?

by Paul D. Race

Note: This article is being archived, as parts of this web site are being rearranged, and redundant articles are being eliminated.  To see the current version of this article, now hosted on the page, please click this link.

Recently I got involved in a  Dixieland-based musical project that required a banjo player. They  couldn't find any legitimate Dixieland banjo players to get involved, so I volunteered to retrain myself as necessary and play the part (though I haven't played Dixieland banjo for something like forty years). I  already owned a 5-string banjo (a legacy of my Folk background), but  it's not played the same as the 4-string banjo that the music was  written for. I could have taken the fifth string off of mine and  retuned it, but I didn't want to sacrifice having a 5-string for the  durClick to learn more about our online newsletter supporting Folk, Roots, and Americana music.ation of the project. So I wound up buying a second banjo, which  gave me an excuse to shop for a new toy. That was a plus.

But, as a minus, I  also found myself explaining the different kinds of banjos again and  again, to the director of the musical, to the director of the orchestra, and even to a 20-something Bluegrass banjo player who kept telling anyone who would listen that I wasn’t playing a “real” banjo because I wasn’t playing a 5-string.

This experience  reminds me that many things that were "common knowledge" among musicians when I was a kid no longer are. So here's a breakdown of why different kind of banjos exist, and why two or three instruments that are nearly  identical require such different techniques and produce such different  sounds. If you don't play banjo or guitar already, parts may be a bit  difficult to follow, but there's a summary at the end you should find  useful.

Depending on how you interpret the history, the banjo either came from Africa This is a reproduction of a mid-1800s fretless 'minstrel' banjo with a 5th 'drone' string that starts a third of the way down the neck.or  evolved among enslaved African peoples in North America. By 1860 or so, the old photos and songs indicate that the banjo was popular with white musicians, too. By 1885, most banjos had 5 strings, which included a  "drone" string located next to the lowest string on the banjo. The  "Fifth string" was seldom fretted - sometimes it wasn't even over the  fretboard, so it always played the same note.

By 1900 or so, the  banjo had worked its way into nearly all North American folk traditions, and developed standard scale lengths and tunings. There were two major ways to play the banjo:

  • Finger-picking patterns (the predecessors of modern Bluegrass patterns), and
  • Strumming techniques (similar to later Dixieland techniques).

We'll pick up our discription from about a century ago, when the  banjo was establishing itself as a critical element of early Jazz  styles.

Plectrum (4-string, Dixieland or Jazz) Banjo

 As early Jazz music (what folks often call Ragtime) evolved, it was only natural that the banjo would become part of the sound. Jazz players  eventually abandoned the drone string, because it was incompatible with  most keys and chord patterns of early Jazz. Strumming overtook  fingerpicking, because the banjo was used largely as a rhythm-keeper,  and strumming helped the old "open-backed" banjos competcdr_logo_verticale with brass  instruments in volume.

Strumming was usually done with a "plectrum" - the ancestor of our  "flatpicks." All four strings were strummed at once, often very  quickly. Eventually 4-string banjos and rapid strumming techniques  became intrinsic to Dixieland playing, and to the Tin Pan Alley songs  that imitated Dixieland. Songs like "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" and  "Alexander's Ragtime Band" are two examples of Tin Pan Alley songs that  typically use a strummed banjo. By the time such songs were popular,  4-string banjos had found their way into many homes as well.

When other kinds of banjos and banjo playing emerged, this kind  of banjo became known as a "Plectrum" banjo, to distinguish it from  banjos that were intended to be "fingerpicked."

Plectrum Banjo Construction

 Plectrum banjos exhibited the following traditional elements of banjo construction:

  • Tunable drum head, originally mounted on a wooden frame (like a  tambourine), but eventually mounted on a metal frame and equipped with  metal clamps that could be tightened or loosened to adjust the tension  on the drum head.
  • Long wooden neck with chromatic fretboard and mechanical tuning knobs on the head.

 Most plectrum banjos built before 1920 had "open back" construction,  meaning that there was nothing between the back of the drum head and the banjo player's belly. Many tenor banjos (a slightly smaller variation) are still open back. This structure give the plectrum banjo more  "plunk" than "ring," which actually works better for music that has fast chord changes. It also helps keep the strummed banjo from being too  loud to sing over without vocal strain.

About 1920, two features that increased volume and sustain began to be added. This Vega banjo from about 1930 has added the tone ring and the resonator.  Most modern plectrum banjos have both.

  • Resonator, a wooden shell that fastens to the back of the banjo body, adding depth, volume, and sustain to the tone.
  • Tone ring, a solid metal ring that sits between the head and the pot (body), adding volume and sustain.

These features help modern plectrum banjos compete in volume with  larger bands; however, some plectrum players remove the resonator when  they want a more authentic early sound.

Plectrum Banjo Tuning

Most plectrum banjos are tuned (going from the highest to lowest  strings) in D, B, G, and C. A related banjo, the Tenor, sometimes used  another tuning, although most tenor banjo players who are playing  Dixieland use D, B, G, and C now. Tenor banjo players who play Irish  music are likely to tune in fifths, such as A, D, G, C, or E, A, D, G.

Plectrum Banjo Playing

As pointed out earlier, traditional plectrum banjo is strummed with a  flatpick, usually with a down-strum on the down-beat. Often the strums  come pretty fast, including thirty-second notes on some songs. When a  Plectrum banjo player does play a single-string solo, he or she  continues to use a flatpick. On a slow solo, the player often uses a  rapid picking technique like that of a European mandolin player.

If the right hand has it comparitively easy, the left hand has it  much harder. Because of the complex chord structures of Dixieland and  Tin Pan Alley songs, plectrum banjo players need to know as many Jazz  chords as the average Jazz guitarist - much more than most banjo or  guitar players.

To add a little more challenge, many plectrum banjo solos are  played by choosing chords that have the medody note at the top of the  chord. Consequently, you will use one Eb chord for when the melody goes down to an Eb, another one for when the melody goes to G, another one  for when the melody goes to Bb, and another for when the melody goes to  high Eb, and so on. Advanced players almost never use "open chords,"  so 95% of the chords they play are made by sliding the same twelve or so chord shapes up and down the neck. But the short version is that  Dixieland banjo is NOT as simple as it looks or (sometimes) sounds.

Tenor (4-string, Folk, Irish) BanjoThis is an early 1900s 4-string banjo.  The fifth string has been abandoned, but neither the resonator nor tone ring has been added.

The tenor banjo is very similar to the plectrum banjo in construction.  The major difference is tuning, although in the United States, in 2012, most people who own tenor banjos tune and play them like plectrum banjos. That said, for Celtic-inspired music, the tenor is more  traditionally tuned in fifths, (A, D, G, C, or E, A, D, G). Or thicker strings may be used with evem lower tunings.

Tenor Banjo Construction

Tenor banjos resemble plectrum banjos in construction. Historically,  some had shorter necks or other differences, but if you buy a tenor  today, it will generally differ from a plectrum only in the way it is  tuned (and that is not universal)

Tenor Banjo Tuning

Though most tenor banjos today in the U.S. find themselves tuned like  plectrum banjos, it is more traditional for tenors to be tuned like a  viola, in straight fifths (A, D, G, C). The "Irish Tenor" banjo may be  tuned in fifths even lower, such as E, A, D, G. This tuning is one  octave down from a mandolin, so it's a great way for mandolin players to get variety in their sound. In Celtic music, the tenor banjo is often  used to play melody. The lower pitch helps it to blend in better with  other traditional instruments.

Click to see the options and uses of 4-String banjos.Some guitar players who pick up a tenor banjo for variety might adapt it to a guitar tuning, usually copying either the first four strings of a  guitar (E, B, G, D), although, if you go with a lower tuning (and  heavier strings), you can copy the lowest four or the lowest four  strings (G, D, A, E). The latter puts you near the same range of the  Irish tenor banjo. Neither tuning is "authentic," though if you're not  playing with or for people who would know the difference, you'll  probably get away with it, especially with flatpicking styles. If  you're a guitar player looking for a guitar-tuned-banjo to fingerpick,  however, I'd recommend a six-string banjo, for reasons explained later.

Tenor Banjo Playing

 In Celtic music and some other folk genres, a low-pitched tenor banjo  (E, A, D, G) is often flatpicked, with an emphasis on individual notes,  flatpicking patterns, or arpeggios. When the tenor is used for jazz, it is generally strummed (and often tuned) like a plectrum banjo.

To learn more about Four-String Banjos for any kind of music, click on the banner to the right.

5-String (Folk or Bluegrass) Banjo

As the banjo found its way to Scots-Irish-descended cultures in Appalacia, the dronThis 1920s-era Vernon banjo has a removeable tone ring inside the body.e string fit right in. After all, folk instruments like the  Appalacian dulcimer were already adding extra, unfretted, strings to  boost volume. So retaining the drone string on the banjo was only  natural. At first, many banjos were hand-made, but metal tone rings  were beyond the skill of most rural craftsmen. So the "store-bought"  banjo found its way to some very "out-of-the-way" places.

Appalacian players seldom had to compete with brass instruments, so  they could retain early fingerpicking patterns and develop new ones.  Adding metal fingerpicks to resonators and tone rings allowed 5-string  players to hold their own even in barn dances and music halls.

 Folk banjo players like Pete and Peggy Seeger adapted fingerpickinThis Fender banjo includes the tone ring and resonator used on all professional Bluegrass banjos currently being produced. Click for bigger photo.g styles to a wide range of folk traditions.

In the meantime, back in the hills, banjo players like Earl  Scruggs added "blue notes" (flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths) to  help create what we now consider the traditional Bluegrass banjo sound.

Both Folk and Bluegrass banjo picking patterns are radically  different from the flatpicked strums of traditional 4-string players.

5-String Banjo Construction

 Modern 5-string banjos include drum heads, resonators, and tone rings  that are very pretty much identical to those on modern Plectrum  (4-string) banjos. They inevitably have a slightly wider neck, at least from the fifth string down, and may have longer necks.

 Like Plectrum banjos, 5-string banjos with resonators and tone rings  tend to have more "ring" than "plunk." In addition, the fifth string  tends to keep sounding at times when the rest of the strings are being  dampened because of chord changes - this adds to the "ringing" effect as well.

Bluegrass banjo players appreciate the fact that resonators and  tone rings give the banjo enough volume and sustain to compete with  instruments like steel guitars and upgright bass. However, traditional  old-timey folk banjo players may take the resonator off when they need  to get a tone that is more "authentic" for century-old musical styles. A few even go to nylon or, when they can get them, gut strings. (Listen  to the banjo on the Cold Mountain sound track for example.)

5-String Banjo Tuning

 Most 5-string banjos are tuned (going from the highest to lowest  strings) in D, B, G, and D, with the fifth string tuned to high G. This "open G tuning" is standard for Bluegrass banjo and makes it relatively easy to play songs like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown " Folk musicans like Pete Seeger, who used his banjo to play many  different styles may use a D, B, G, C, High-G tuning or alternate  between the two.

5-String Banjo Playing

 Unlike traditional 4-string, the 5-string banjo is almost never strummed with a flatpick. Rather, individual strings are picked in a complex  pattern. As a common example you might:

  • Play the third (G string) with your index finger.
  • Use the back of your middle or ring-finger's fingernail to strum downward across the first (High D) and second (B) string.
  • Use your thumb to pick the fifth (High G) string.

 In a 4/4 song, you would typically pick the third (G) string on beat  one, then strum the first and second string on beat two, then pick the G string on the second half of beat two, giving a bum-ditty effect.

If you want to play an alternating bass part, you play the fourth (D) string on beat three, then play beat four exactly like you played beat  two. Click to start researching your major 5-String Banjo options.

You may have noticed that if you're using the open G tuning, it's possible to play a nice banjo part without even using you left hand  until it's time to change to another chord. But that doesn't mean the  left hand is lazy. Rather it means that the left hand is freed up to  add other fancy stuff.

5-string players often add a note to the second half of the first beat by doing something fancy with the left hand. For example, on a  first-beat low note that you'd ordinarily fret, you might leave the  string open when you first pick it, then fret it on the second  half of the first beat. That way you have SOMETHING playing on every  beat. This is called "hammering on," in case you wondered - it's an  important component of many Bluegrass banjo strums and solos.

In addition, if you're playing a melody or solo, you might add  melody notes by picking the first or second string instead of strumming  it.

Most 5-string banjo players use the thumb and first two fingers for Click to see's tips for buying 'backless' banjos. everyClick to see's tips for buying the best Bluegrass banjo you can afford.thing. Many wear picks on all three fingers to increase their  volume.

Note: If you're a Bluegrass fan, you should know that you can learn Bluegrass picking on any 5-string banjo that is in playing condition.  However, if you want to perform Bluegrass, you need to consider getting a banjo with accommodations like tone rings and resonators that make the  things nice and aloud. Our article "What is a Bluegrass Banjo" breaks these differences down in more detail than we have room for in this article.

To learn more about the various kinds of 5-string banjos, click on any of the banners to the right.

6-String BanjoThis rare early-1900s 6-string banjo shows that the 6-string is not just an upstart. Yes, it's missing a bridge, and the original drum head has been replaced, but I'd still like to get my hands on it for a day or so.

 Six-string banjos have been around for at least a century, occasionally  being used by folks who already played 4 or 5-string banjos when they  needed the lower range. Today, most 6-string banjos are strung like  guitars, so folks who play guitar already and don't want to take the  time to learn banjo can get something like a banjo sound simply by  trading instruments. If you listen to the sales drones, a 6-string  banjo will make you a "banjo player" overnight. But BOTH 4-string and  5-string banjo players can hear a 6-string banjo from a mile away, and many of them despise iThis Slingerland 6-string banjo is probably from the early 1920s - note it is still lacking a tone ring or resonator.t as a "cheater's" instrument.

As a person who has dabbled in 4-string banjo and who has played BOTH 5-string banjo and guitar for over 40 years, I believe that a 6-string  banjo sounds best if you treat it as a unique instrument.

6-String Banjo Construction

Most modern 6-string banjos have all the bells and whistles of comparable  5-strings, incldeering_boston_elect__acousticuding resonators and tone rings. But they have a shorter scale length than many banjos. For the convenience of guitar players,  they retain the 24" scale length of the average steel-string flattop  guitar. This, in turn, means that the banjo neck is shorter than the  neck on traditional five-strings, and even many plectrum banjos. That,  and the six-peg head and relatively wide neck make it obvious to 4 or  5-string players that you're not playing a "real" banjo. But, again, if you take advantage of the instrument's unique strengths, they may not  only forgive you, but also ask you how you get that sound.

6-String Banjo Tuning

 As I stated above, a 6-string banjo is usually tuned to typical guitar  tuning with the high to low notes tuned to High E, B, G, D, A, and Low  E. When you pick one of these up, it helps to remember that the lowest  note on a 5-string banjo is usually the same note you're playing on the D (4th) string of the 6-string banjo. And you have two more strings  below that, so you can play nearly an octave below any Bluegrass banjo  player. This will only get you dirty looks in some Bluegrass settings.  But for other kinds of folk-based music, you may find those lower notes useful. One example of 6-string banjo in popular culture is the banjo  introduction to the "Rainbow Connection" from the original Muppet movie. There are "base notes" in the banjo part that can only be played on a  6-string banjo.

6-String Banjo Playing

 As mentioned before, many people buy six-string banjos hoping that  they'll get the same sound as a 4 or 5-string player. My notes on  trying to substitute a 6-string banjo for a 4-string or 5-string are  below, followed by some things I've learned about playing the six-string banjo as an instrument in its own right.

Substituting for 4-String - If you know Jazz chords on guitar,  and you listen to enough Dixieland banjo to get a sense of their sound  and strumming patterns, it IS possible to play Dixieland on a 6-string  banjo. In fact, at least one professional guitar player (Al Chernet)  has gotten solid, well-playing gigs doing just that. After all, there's not THAT much difference between the range of a plectrum banjo and the  range of a guitar's highest four strings. (Remember to avoid strumming  the lowest two strings - if you're playing with horns and piano,  strumming the lower two strings will just muddy the sound.) Our article "Are 6-String Banjos for Real" provides more hints on this application.

Substituting for 5-String - Unfortunately most 5-string  banjo picking patterns can not be duplicated on 6-string banjo. Maybe  imitated if you really know your way around BOTH guitar and 5-string  banjo. That fifth banjo string, ringing out on the second half of every second beat has no parallel on a guitar-tuned instrument. So abandon  any hope of playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" or such Bluegrass  classics. And prepare to be beaten about the face and elbows if you  bring one to a Bluegrass jam.

However, if you're in a group with other acoustic players, and you want to add the impression of a Bluegrass banjo playing along, you might gain some traction with a fingerpicking pattern that "thumbpicks" a bass note on the first beat,  strums the top two or three strings with the back of your fingernails on the second beat, and fingerpicks ONE of the higher strings on the  second half of the second beat. In fact, I had worked out a picking  pattern like this on my guitar some years back, and it sounds amazingly  good on the 6-string banjo. Which leads me to . . .

Playing the 6-String Banjo as a Unique Instrument - In spite of the 6-string banjo's potential use as a "plectrum"  (Dixieland) banjo - as long as you only strum the highest four strings,  the instrument's unique characteristics are most obvious if you  fingerpick the thing. I don't use fingerpicks on this or my other  banjos or guitars, preferring to let callouses build up on my right hand so I can get a nice crisp pluck without anything in between my fingers  and the strings. If you're already used to fingerpicks, by all means,  use them.

Because of its extended bass range, a 6-string banjo's low notes  have some of the metallic texture of a National or Dobro steel-faced  acoustic guitar, so if you've been playing one of those like a guitar  (and not as a slide), you'll notice some of the same characteristics.  If you haven't, you may notice:

  • The bass notes do not have the depth of a wood  guitar's bass notes, so they don't provide quite as firm a "foundation"  as you might be used to. That said, they have a sound that is unique in acoustic music.
  • When fingerpicked, the strings do not seem to sustain as long as they would on an acoustic guitar. This is especially  noticeable when you "hammer on," that is fretting a string after it has been played, to "sneak in" another note that may not fit into  your picking pattern - a common Bluegrass banjo technique. On my  6-string banjo, when I "hammer on," I have to "fret with a vengeance" to get the second note loud enough - something that is never an issue on  my guitars.
  • Until you get used to fingerpicking the 6-string -  including building up right-hand calluses - you'll notice that some  notes will play much louder than others, even if you apply almost  exactly the same pressure. The answer is to keep practicing until you  build up those calluses, and get more consistent with your right hand.
  • If you're used to a guitar picking pattern that pluck  the high strings on beats 2 and 4, try substituting a light strum with  the back of your index or ring finger's fingernails - once you get the  hang of this, it will "sound" moClick to see the options and uses of 6-String banjosre like a banjo, and keep a more  consistent balance among strings. 

In other words, whether you're a banjo or guitar player, or both,  prepare to make some adjustments and to do some experimenting. In fact, some patterns or solos that sound great on my acoustic guitars just  sound weak on the 6-string banjo. Others that aren't that impressive on guitar come alive. The short version is that you probably don't want  to pick one up in the afternoon and take it to an important gig that  night - there is not a direct correlation between what "works" on guitar OR 5-string and what "works" on the 6-string banjo. (Please  refer to our article "Are 6-String Banjos for Real" for more information on this topic.)

To see the our recommended Six-String banjos for various uses, please click the button to the right.

Honorable Mention - Banjo Ukuleles and Mandolins

 If you already play ukulele or mandolin, what are you waiting for? If  you don't, you probably shouldn't pick up a uke or mandolin banjo to  start on.

Many folks know that the ukulele was a popular instrument among young adults in the 1920s. What most folks don't know was that the mandolin  was almost as popular as the guitar in North American homes around 1900. When plectrum ("Dixieland) banjo sounds invaded the early airwaves and record stores, musical instrument manufacturers made it "easy" for the  hundreds of thousands of folks who already played mandolin or ukulele -  they flooded the market with instruments that played like ukuleles or  mandolins, but had a drum head, so they sounded something like banjos.  New versions are still available today, and many excellent vintage  examples are on the used market, often sold as "banjos" with no other  description. A 1920s era mandolin banjo.

The ukelele banjo has four strings, like a plectrum banjo, although they're higher  pitched. Strummed "properly," the instrument can do a pretty good  imitation of a plectrum banjo playing a little "up the neck." If the  instrument has "gut" or nylon strings, the plunky sound is reminiscent  of pre-1900 banjo, which may be more authentic for certain kinds of  music. Some plectrum banjo players double on uke banjo just to add a bit of variety. In fact, ukulele banjos are still available new, and you  may be able to find or order one in your local music store.A 1920s era mandolin banjo.

The mandolin banjo has eight strings, almost always metal. The result is that it "rings"  more than it "plunks," and can play very loud. Again, it's relatively  high pitch, but in a pinch, you can imitate a plectrum banjo playing "up the neck." A few "tenor mandolin" examples have been made with long  necks and strings so they play closer to the range of a 6-string banjo,  but these are rare. If you already play mandolin, either instrument  would be worth tracking down. On the other hand, there's no compelling  reason that a mandolin player who wants to play strummed or flatpicked  banjo couldn't buy a 4-string banjo and retune it an octave down from  his or her mandolin.

To learn more about unusual members of the banjo family, click here.

Summary of Your Choices

 The short version is:

  • A Plectrum or Tenor 4-string banjo played with a flatpick is your first choice if you want to play a lot of Dixieland -style banjo
  • A 5-string banjo is your only real choice if you want to play serious Bluegrass or most kinds of Folk banjo.
  • A 6-string banjo can be used to:
    • Substitute for a Plectrum (4-string) banjo in a Dixieland-style setting, especially if you avoid playing the lower two strings
    • Add banjo tonality to acoustic-based ensembles
    • Play as an instrument in its own right.
  • Ukulele or Mandolin banjos can add new tonalities for folks who already play ukelele or mandolin.

Banjo Shopping Hints

Note About Buying Cheap Banjos The fact that banjo isn't taken seriously in some circles has let  innumerable manufacturers to treat them as toys. The spiel goes  something like this: "Have lots of fun! Get a banjo for only $99!"  Like a $40 guitar, a $99 banjo (and many $199 banjos) will do nothing  but frustrate you, unless you A: Get one that can be set up and B: Know how to set one up, or have a close friend who does. Some just can't be set up without herculean effort, though. For example:

  • Mandolin banjos require extremely precise fretboards  to play in tune from one note to the next. If the fretboad is  inaccurate, send the instrument back - it's not worth fixing.
  • The necks of full-sized banjos must be very solidly  attached to the body. If the whole instrument goes out of tune every  time you shift your weight from one foot to the other, send it back.

Other issues that will hinder your playing, but might be fixable if the banjo is otherwise worthwhile include:

  • Banjo necks must be very straight, and should include an adjustment rod.
  • Sloppy tuning pegs will give you headaches, but could be replaced if it comes to that - just don't bother putting a $100 set of  pegs on a $100 banjo.

Note about Setting Up Banjos - On top of that, remember that  virtually no stringed instrument that lists for less than $600 is  playable out of the box. Pretty much every banjo I've seen "new" needed the head tightened, Click to see cases, straps, picks, strings, and other accessories for banjos of al kinds.the neck adjusted, and the bridge moved into proper position before you can even tell if the instrument is worth keeping. After all that, if you  decide to keep the instrument, you will need to replace the strings -  factory strings are seldom worth playing before they cross the  ocean. Needless to say, mail order or high-volume stores aren't going  to do all of this prep for you - it takes time and a certain amount of  skill and intelligence. Click to see cases, straps, picks, strings, and other accessories for banjos of al kinds.

Buying used is no guarantee that the instrument has been set up  either - the original owner might have got it from a mail-order or  volume supplier and might never have had it set up. For more  information on what it takes to make an out-of-the-box banjo (or guitar  or mandolin) playable, please refer to our article on "Setting Up Acoustic Guitars and other Fretted Instruments."

If you want to check out a used banjo and you know nothing about banjos, take a friend who knows something about them, or at least knows something about guitars - that's better than nothing. Much of the information in our article "Evaluating and Buying Used Guitars" applies to shopping for used banjos as well - the main difference is  that there are far fewer used banjos than used guitars in most markets.

If you want to take a chance on a cheapie banjo from a volume or  mail-order store, go right ahead - just consider that you might need to  send one or two back before get one that can be made playable. You'll  note that the reviews of cheap banjos usually have 50% people who know  how to set them up and are delighted with the value, once they've put an hour or so into getting the thing playable, 20% people who don't know  how to set them up and think the instrument was made by Satan himself,  20% people who think it's pretty but haven't figured out yet that it it  would be easier to learn on if a technician took a "crack" at it, and  10% people who really did get a bad one and think the store owes them  damages for the emotional hardship it has caused.

That said, you don't have to spend the value of a good used car  to get a great banjo on your first try. Several companies make nice  lines of banjos that are solid, well-built, and priced no more than  comparable quality Click to see our Banjo Buyer's Guides on RiverboatMusic.comguitars. If I had to replace my 5-string right now,  I'd probably check out Fender's banjos - they're suprisingly well made  for the price. But you should shop around, not only for your first  banjo, but for someone who you trust to help you maintain it.


 Please get in touch.if you want to share photos of a unique instrument or ask any related questions.

Whatever road you decide to travel, I am certain that it will be made more fun with a properly chosen and set-up banjo or banjo-like  instrument. :-)

 - Paul Race

Note: When we founded this site, we planned for this page to list articles about choosing, buying, tuning, and maintaining acoustic fretted instruments, starting with guitar, banjo, and mandolin.  As it turns out, a sister site has generated a lot of interest, and we’re posting most of our articles about acoustic instruments on that page (see below).

Related articles, now hosted on include:

  • Whatever Happened to the Banjo? - Marginalization of an American Icon - Banjo was once every bit as popular as guitar in  this country - why don’t you hear them on the radio much these days?
  • Are 6-string Banjos For Real? - Despite the false claims of manufacturers and the ridicule of 4- and 5-string  players, they are real instruments with a respectable history.  
  • Banjo Pickups - a review of aftermarket pickups that will work on most acoustic instruments.
  • Axes in my Life - Fretted instruments I’ve owned over the years, including what I  learned from each:  Banjos, guitars, mandolins, basses.  Brand names  include Kay, Harmony, S.S. Stewart, Ovation, Cameo, Deering, Hondo,  Fender, Dean, Samick, more.
  • What is a Bluegrass Banjo? - You can learn Bluegrass styles on any playable 5-string banjo.  But if you want to play “out” you’ll need certain features.
  • Dean Backwoods Six Shootout - Dean’s “electric-acoustic” 6-string banjo is not just an upgrade to  their acoustic 6-string - it’s a different banjo with different pros and cons.
  • Beginning 5-string Banjo- the first of several planned articles to help folks trying to get  started on this instrument. We explain multiple styles so you can  choose your favorite.

If you have questions, ideas, or articles you want to share on these or related topics, please contact us.  If you know of a link that would be helpful here, please send us the URL and we’ll evaluate it.

All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is  copyrighted © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009,  2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 by Paul D. Race. All rights  reserved.

Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to jump to the Discussion Forum Page Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.

Visit related pages and affiliated sites:
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Best-loved railroad songs and the stories behind them.
Visit musings about music on our sister site, School of the Rock With a few tools and an hour or two of work, you can make your guitar, banjo, or mandolin much more responsive.  Instruments with movable bridges can have better-than-new intonation as well. Acoustic-based, traditional, singer-songwriter, and folk music with a Western focus. Check out our article on finding good used guitars.
Carols of many countries, including music, lyrics, and the story behind the songs. X and Y-generation Christians take Contemporary Christian music, including worship, for granted, but the first generation of Contemporary Christian musicians faced strong, and often bitter resistance. Different kinds of music call for different kinds of banjos.  Just trying to steer you in the right direction. New, used, or vintage - tips for whatever your needs and preferences. Wax recordings from the early 1900s, mostly collected by George Nelson.  Download them all for a 'period' album. Explains the various kinds of acoustic guitar and what to look for in each.
Look to Riverboat Music buyers' guide for descriptions of musical instruments by people who play musical instruments. Learn 5-string banjo at your own speed, with many examples and user-friendly explanations. Explains the various kinds of banjos and what each is good for. Learn more about our newsletter for roots-based and acoustic music. Folks with Bb or Eb instruments can contribute to worship services, but the WAY they do depends on the way the worship leader approaches the music. A page devoted to some of Paul's own music endeavors.