[Dixielandjazz] RE: [Band-in-a-Box] OT Any Banjo players?

Elazar Brandt larryb at actcom.co.il
Wed Nov 17 00:18:42 PST 2004

**NOTE TO DJML: Long answer to banjo question. If not interested, delete now.**

Dear Jack,

Greetings from Israel, where I seem to be the country's premier (and only) tenor
banjo player, except for one student I have taught to play. I own about 6 tenor
banjos, a couple of good ones, and several inexpensive models that I rent or
sell to my students. I have been playing for over 30 years, and I also do most
banjo repair and setup work, except for the hard-core woodwork.

In your friend's price range in the US you should be able to find something
worthwhile that is second hand, and there are even a couple possibilities for
new ones.

Here are some guidelines I would recommend to look for:

1. Tone ring: a hefty brass ring with holes in it that sits on the round wooden
rim and under the plastic or skin head of the banjo. You have to take the back
off to see it. This is what distinguishes pro banjos from lesser ones. Gives
both increased volume and better sound.

2. I strongly prefer banjos with two coordinator rods, the metal rods inside
that hold the neck in place. If you have only one, it is harder to adjust the
neck properly, and also 2 of them hold the neck more firmly, giving a more solid
feel while playing. The neck should be adjusted so the strings are as low as
possible, but without touching or buzzing against the remaining frets when you
press them down.

3. ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL! Make sure the neck is straight. Look down the length of
the neck, holding the strings carefully so none pop and lash into your face or
eyes, and try to align all the tops of the frets. If you see anything other than
a straight row of frets with no dips or variations, either insist on it being
straightened, or go on to the next banjo. Or maybe someone else on the list has
an easy way to straighten banjo necks.

4. The wood and metal parts should be in reasonable condition, and none missing.
Make sure all of the hooks are present that hold the head in place.

5. Much of banjo-istry is cosmetic. Unlike guitars, the wood body of a banjo
does not affect its sound very much. What produces the sound is the strings,
bridge, head and tone ring. Aside from the tone ring, the rest is inexpensive
and can easily be replaced. And I would ask for new ones with the banjo, unless
your friend knows how to change them himself. And then he should learn to change
them himself.

6. There are different kinds of heads, and they produce different sounds, as
well as having different visual appearances. For a louder, brighter sound, good
for playing in a band, smooth heads are preferable. If the inside of the banjo
looks good, a clear head gives a nice effect, and I'm told, gives the brightest
sound. For a somewhat less bright tone, there is a frosted head, but if the
player drags his pick or fingers on the frosted head, it makes a heck of a
racket. A real skin head produces a warmer tone that is good for soloing. But
these are sensitive to weather, temperature, humidity, and they break easily.
There are now Fyberskin heads, plastic heads designed to simulate the look and
sound of skin. I've had good success with these.

7. The head should be tight. How tight? There's a joke among us that goes,
"until just before it breaks." How you know that is anybody's guess. But it
should be tight enough that you cannot easily depress it with your fingers, and
the bridge will make some depression but not very much. Fortunately, plastic
heads are hard to break.

8. The tail piece should be adjustable, and should pull the strings downward
behind the bridge, but without touching the head.

9. The tension hoop that holds the head in place should be even in height all
around, and should never be below the surface of the head.

10. The resonator on the back of most banjos projects the sound forward. These
add weight to the instrument, and some people prefer to play without them. In
this case, there are banjos that are designed to be open back. Those will have
more of a finished look in back without the resonator than one that has simply
had its resonator removed.

11. Tuning pegs should turn freely, but hold their position when you set them.
Most can be easily tightened with a screw driver if they are otherwise in good
shape. Strings should run up the centerline of the peg head between the tuning
pegs, and then be wound around toward the outside of the peg. Winding them 4 - 6
times around the peg will help prevent breakage of the strings, and the
instrument will stay in tune better.

12. Frets tend to wear down, especially those near the beginning of the neck
where most playing is done. Check that the frets are uniform height, without
depressions worn into them.

Most of the rest is cosmetic. You might find a banjo that sounds great and looks
terrible. The player has to decide what he can live with. There are simpler and
more elaborate decorations, carvings, inlays, gold plating of metal parts, etc.
These account for most of the cost of a banjo over the basic structure, and do
not enhance the sound.

New banjos that meet the above recommendations, with modest decorations,
generally list between $1000 to $2000 in the US. There are used ones around for
much less. Just check them out carefully.  One company, Gold Tone, produces nice
banjos that are basically Gibson copies, in the $500 to $800 range new. The
upper range model is better than the lower range, having more professional
features. They're made in Korea, and assembled in the US.

For a good selection of banjos, parts and accessories at reasonable prices, you
can check on the web for First Quality Musical Supplies at www.fqms.com. They
offer a large selection of new instruments, and usually have pre-holiday sales
and discounts.

If you or your friend have further questions, and if no other players on the
list tear apart everything I've told you, you are welcome to email me. Good

Elazar Brandt
Doctor Jazz Band
Jerusalem, Israel
Tel: +972-2-679-2537

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Bill Biffle [mailto:bbiffle at brgcc.com]
> Sent: Wednesday, November 17, 2004 6:28 AM
> To: jackcarlson at comcast.net; DJML
> Subject: [Dixielandjazz] RE: [Band-in-a-Box] OT Any Banjo players?
> Jack, I've taken the liberty of posting your query to the Dixieland Jazz
> Mailing List which has a plethora of banjoists on it.
> Bill Biffle
> "I always keep a supply of stimulant handy in case I see a snake, which I
> also keep handy." -- W. C. Fields
> -----Original Message-----
> From: jcarl02339 [mailto:jackcarlson at comcast.net]
> Sent: Tuesday, November 16, 2004 7:40 PM
> To: Band-in-a-Box at yahoogroups.com
> Subject: [Band-in-a-Box] OT Any Banjo players?
> Sorry for the off topic post.  Got a phone call today from my
> brothers wife looking to buy him a new banjo as a Christmas present.
> I told her I would try to find out more about it for her.  My
> brother does not (often)play professionally but is a talented string
> player (guitar, banjo, stand up bass). Apparently the 40 year old
> $50 yard sale banjo he has now, has seen it's day.  He plays a 4
> string tenor banjo and she is looking to spend between $400-500.  A
> quick google search gave me a diverse amount of selections and only
> added to my confusion.  I figured I'd ask this group because (a)
> there seems to be a diverse amount of instruments played by the
> members and (b) it's the only music group I belong to and everyone
> is always so helpful.
> Hoping I could get  some recommendations for brands, models, things
> to avoid.
> I'll also drop by a couple local music stores but wouldn't mind
> having some knowledge beforehand.  Thanks in advance.
> Jack Carlson

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