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There is no way to achieve that old-fashioned Appalachian sound without a banjo, so if you’re looking to try your hand at a little bluegrass, there are a few things to keep in mind when buying your first banjo.
The best banjos come in a few different types, but the specific twang most associated with the instrument (at least in Americana) is produced by the five-string banjo, with five strings normally tuned to a G-chord. The fifth string is shorter than the others, and is attached to a tuning peg sticking out of the side of the neck.
Another common banjo variation depends on whether the instrument is classic and open-backed, or closed with a resonator covering, which helps project sound farther and tends to be preferred by bluegrass players.
What Are the Best Banjos?
The best banjos should be lightweight yet durable, with comfortable strings and a heady, consistent sound. To test the quality of the instrument, press down on the string along the length of the fingerboard — they should easily contact the frets without hurting your fingers. When strummed, the sound should be clear and without buzzes or rattles, and tuners should have their mechanisms enclosed. On five-string banjos, a geared fifth string tuner is usually preferable.
Tuning: Geared tuners are best for beginners as they allow for easy tuning and can prevent the banjo from falling out of tune.
Material: Maple, mahogany, and walnut are all common banjo materials, which each lend the instrument a slightly different sound. Maple can produce a sharp tone while mahogany can sound much warmer. Walnut banjos fall somewhere in the middle of the two.
Resonator vs Open Back: An open-back banjo has no back cover, which creates an open sound chamber. This is a classic banjo design, which produces a low-volume, mellow sound perfect for traditional mountain-style. A closed-back banjo has a wooden resonator covering the sound chamber which projects sound toward an audience. Resonator banjos sound bright and twangy, and are the preferred choice for bluegrass players.
Adjustable Features: Some banjos come with features that can be modified as you see fit. For example, some have a removable resonator, allowing you to play the instrument in both styles, or an adjustable truss rod which keeps the neck straight according to individual needs.
1. Vangoa Five-String Banjo
We consider this Vangoa an ideal starter banjo. It’s a beautiful instrument that sounds great — plus it includes all the accessories a beginner would need, including a self-adhesive pickup, a pack of extra strings, carrying bag, tuner, and three picks. We really love how well the tuner works and the quality of the carrying case, though the picks are admittedly on the small side.
This banjo is also adjustable. By loosening or tightening the outside and inside nut on the truss board, the player can adjust the position of the strings and keep the banjo neck straight. And because the resonator is removable, it can work as both an open and closed back banjo.
Pros: Comes with all necessary accessories and adjustable neck.
Cons: Picks and strap could be higher quality, but are easily replaced.
2. Jameson Guitars Five-String Banjo
We love how beautifully-made this banjo is, with 24 brackets, a maple bridge, adjustable hinged tailpiece and chrome-plated armrest. Plus, while many banjos need a fair amount of assembly when they arrive, this instrument comes already set-up and ready to play (with some minor tuning).
It also includes a mahogany neck and resonator (which can be removed if desired), as well as a maple and mahogany shell and high-gloss finish. Another notable consideration for beginner banjo players is that Jameson, the manufacturer, includes free basic banjo lessons on the company’s website.
Pros: Quality mahogany and maple construction.
Cons: Resonator a bit hard to replace once it’s removed.
3. Costzon 5-String Banjo
Another excellent beginner banjo, this model does require some set-up, but it’s not too tricky. Like the two banjos above, this is a five-string instrument, and constructed from quality wood with a high-gloss finish. Most importantly, of course, it sounds fantastic. Players say the strings feel easy on the fingers and produce a clean, well-balanced tone.
If you did want to improve the quality of the instrument, some people recommend replacing the bridge — an economical hack that may improve the sound quality.
Pros: Easy to set up with a clear tone.
Cons: Could be improved with replacing a couple parts.