Every banjo is worth more in many ways than what it will probably sell for if you put it on the market. It may help you remember a cherished family member long gone. It may give a youngster a chance to learn skills and musical principles that will last a lifetime.
That said, when you try to sell a banjo, especially a student or off-brand banjo, you run into a different sort of valuation - the apparent value to a stranger who doesn't know and love the instrument like you do.
That's why when folks ask me the value of a banjo they've inherited, I'm becoming increasingly hesitant to answer. Instead I've put all the things I automatically take into consideration into this article so they can hopefully figure it out for themselves.
The tips below are intended to help future readers get started on their own research, explaining how things like condition, brand, and age affect banjo prices in general. If, after going through the list, you still have questions, or if you have any corrections, additions, or other feedback, feel free to contact me.
The picture to the right is included to help you figure out which parts I'm talking about if you are having trouble connecting what we're describing to the instrument in your hands. It is a breakdown of a modern professional banjo, and, as such, shows parts that aren't on every banjo, especially very old ones or student banjos, but it should give you some idea. If you click on it, you'll see a large PDF version that you can print for your reference.
The main areas affecting the value of used banjos are:
There are anomalies in all of these areas, and - as you'll see - some of them overlap, but here are some aspects that have an effect on used market values that you can look for:
Number of StringsBanjos typically come in five-, four-, or six-string models, in that order of popularity. There are cheapo and professional banjos in all of those configurations, so number of strings does not affect quality. But it does affect desirability in some regions, so that will have a bearing on what you can get for yours. For example, I once picked up a relatively fancy Aria 4-string locally for $100. The fellow I bought it from had gotten so many calls from wannabe Buegrass players that he made certain I knew exactly what his banjo was good for before he'd even drive five miles to meet me in a public place with it. Chances are if it had been a 5-string, he could have got $150-250 for it in our area, just because Bluegrass (which requires a 5-string banjo) is so predominant in SW Ohio, and traditional Jazz (which usually uses a 4-string) is not so popular. In New Orleans, the reverse might be true, for all I know.
Again, this is not a question of "intrinsic" value, just of regional demand.
Six-strings (which are a century-old Jazz configuration) are currently being marketed mostly to guitar players who want to "play banjo" without having to learn anything new. Most folks in that category don't want to spend much money on something they're "just trying out" (and doomed to fail on if they don't accommodate their playing to the quirks of that instrument). So most modern 6-strings are fairly cheap, especially the ones that show up used. Even if you have a good one to sell, you may have trouble selling it for an appropriate price, unless you happen to luck into contact with someone who's already figured out 6-string banjo and is looking to upgrade from his or her first cheapy.
ConditionYes, it is possible to bring a badly damaged or neglected banjo back to playability, but it's not always worth it. Any time a banjo changes hands, the new owner should see to it that it is cleaned up, restrung, and adjusted - something that can cost $50-$100 if the new owner doesn't have the skills. If you add to that the need to straighten a damaged neck, clamp and glue a disintegrating pot, or replace rusted hardware, a worn head, or stiff tuning pegs, you can increase the cost of ownership beyond what the banjo is worth.
Here's an analogy. I once had a car on which everything seemed to go wrong at the same time. I told my friends that if I put $3000 into it I'd have a $2000 car. There are many banjos out there that a person could put $200 into and still have a $100 banjo.
I have rescued many instruments over my lifetime, putting my own effort into buffing, cleaning, adjusting, gluing, clamping, and so on. But A: I love to do it, and B: I have the requisite skills. The average banjo buyer won't have those skills or the desire to take on such a project. If all they're looking for is a banjo that they or their kid can learn on, a new $200 import - even with the requisite $50+ additional setup costs that all cheap import banjos really should get - may be a better choice for them. Yes, I wish they'd get a banjo with guaranteed playability, like a Deering Goodtime. But buying a basket case to fix up is not going to give them what they want at any rate.
BrandOnly one factor can trump bad condition, and that's brand. Unfortunately, there are very few brands that make restoring a "junker" worth restoring, and not all of them are as impressive as you'd think. For example, most pre-WWII Gibson banjos with five strings started out as four-strings and got handmade replacement necks when five-strings became more popular. So the value of these instruments depends very much on the craftsmanship of the replacement neck, and how carefully it was attached to the original body. Needless to say, both vary widely in quality. Some conversions were quite good, and the banjos are worth the prices people are asking. The Gibson pots and hardware of that period are complex and unequaled - a good body with original hardware might technically be worth $1400+ by itself. But you need to know exactly what you're getting and that it might cost you another $600-1000 to get a fully professional instrument.
If you have a "name brand" banjo, look on Craigs' List and eBay for similar banjos. Even "off brands" like Harmony may pull in a little more than similar banjos with no brand names, but many buyers know the limitations of those instruments, and have a keen sense of the things' maximum value.
Don't feel bad if your banjo is a brand that no one has ever heard of. Between 1905 and 1980, banjos were built in hundreds of different factories, in Europe and Japan as well as the US. Some of those companies only made a handful of banjos. In addition, many companies paid other manufacturers to make banjos with their name on the headstock. Silvertone (a Sears brand) was the most common, but they were by no means alone.
Unfortunately, if your banjo has a brand that no one has ever heard of, or if it has no brand name at all, it has to stand on its merits alone, which means that no one is likely to pay very much for it unless they see and hear it in action and get their own hands on the thing. And that means that your banjo is going to be "worth" far less if you're trying to sell it on Craigs List in some remote area than if it's hanging on the walls of, say, Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.
AgeSome collectibles become more "valuable" with age. Except for a few specific brand names and models, that is not true for banjos. But age does enter into it if you have someone looking, say, for a specific old-timey sound or look. So here are a few tips to hopefully help you narrow down the age of your banjo.
Here's an irony - when 4-string banjo popularity was at its peak, innovation at the low end of the price spectrum was at its lowest. For that reason, it's possible to find very few differences between two "student" banjos made thirty or more years apart. But there are a few things that generally set banjos from different eras apart, and that's at least a start.
Tuning Pegs Banjos originally had friction tuning pegs, like a violin. Tuning without gears was possible because they used "gut" strings. Then as metal strings came into vogue, banjos started using geared pegs, like a guitar's. Later on, a kind of fancy geared tuner called "planetary" became popular on better models. Planetary tuners are straight, so they look more "authentic," but they have gears hidden inside, so they maintain their tune much better than friction pegs. The better ones hold their tune as well as guitar-style tuners, and are faster to tune because of the gear ratio. That said, most starter banjos being made today use guitar-style tuners, so that's not necessarily a sign of age, but planetary tuners do tend to indicate a newer instrument, or at least a superior instrument within the brand.
Coordinator Rod If you take the resonator off the banjo and find a wooden stick running under the drum head connecting the neck to the tailpiece, you almost certainly have a pre-WWII banjo. A few late pre-WWII and almost all post-WWII banjos have metal bolts instead - they're more adjustable, and they are less prone to changing with the weather. Better resonator banjos tend to have two coordinator rods (bolts), and cheaper banjos tend to have only one, but that's not usually age-related.
Resonator Fastening Mechanism Since the Jazz age, musicians playing resonator banjos have needed to take the resonators off for maintenance (or even for quiet practice). So the banjos with resonators tended to make accommodations that would allow easy removal. In the days of wooden coordinator rods, the resonator usually fastened on by one bolt in the center of the resonator's back. If your banjo has a resonator that attaches this way, it's almost certainly pre-WWII.
Some of the early banjos with metal coordinator rods originally did the same thing. But as metal, threaded coordinator rods became more popular, other ways to fasten the resonator took precedence. Several approaches have been used simultaneously for decades, so from this point on, we're discussing relative cost of construction more than chronology.
The cheapest solution was to attach four little brackets to the banjo pot by bolting them to the J-hooks. Originally, wood screws would attach the bracket directly to the front edge of the resonator - not a great solution, since the wood screws would eventually strip out the holes in the wood. Later on, four threaded sockets were glued into the resonator, and big machine screws you could supposedly tighten or loosen by hand were screwed through the brackets into the sockets.
At the same time this solution was being used at the cheap end, high-end banjos were getting a "resonator flange." That's a ring of metal with holes in it that fastens more or less permanently, to the pot and camouflages the gap between the inside edge of the resonator and the outside edge of the pot. These, too, usually use big screws to hold the resonator on. On better banjos, resonator flanges tend to be cast brass, which was then polished and plated, usually with nickel. On cheaper banjos whose manufacturers wanted to attain the same look, the resonator flange may be stamped and/or made of cheaper materials like steel or zinc.
About the time of WWII, but more popular since the 1960s, a single metal cast pot/resonator flange solution was tried. These are sometimes called "pop-top" banjos because the flange part looks a like an old-fashioned pop bottle top. This solution is still used today, so it won't necessarily help you decide of a banjo was made in 1970 or 2016, but it will help establish value somewhat. In most lines, the pop-top banjos come in between the four-little-bracket solution and the resonator flange solution. So they are seldom used on the cheapest banjo in any given line, but they are never used on professional banjos. Some folks call their pop-top banjos "intermediate." One thing's for sure, they're loud, almost as loud as some tone-ring banjos, though they may sound "tinnier."
Neck Adjustment Rod - Sometime around WWII, the better manufacturers realized that people were buying banjos and guitars for the "long haul," and even their best instruments were becoming unplayable eventually due to string tension. So they started drilling a channel the length of the neck and installing a long bolt that you could tighten to pull the neck back to compensate for the string tension if necessary. You can usually spot this feature by a triangular piece of plastic screwed onto the neck just above the nut.
In 1960, only better models had this feature. Cheaper instruments might say "steel reinforced," but that was really a v-shaped piece of steel that was shot lengthwise through the neck to help reinforce it. It was better than nothing, but not a professional solution.
I once worked on a banjo that had the "V" solution, but had a little, useless triangle screwed onto the neck so it would look like it was adjustable, though it was not. So don't assume a cheap banjo with what looks like an adustment rod cover actually has an adjustment rod.
By the 1980s, almost all banjos had neck adjustment rods, even the cheapest ones, so having one doesn't establish age or value per se, but not having one may indicate a relatively early age.
Again, age does not necessarily improve the desirability of the average banjo. In some cases - because the banjo lacks features that became standard later - it diminishes it.
Original Quality - Another huge factor is whether the banjo was originally meant to be a professional instrument or not. Fancy engravings and bindings and other cosmetic features may indicate the difference within a single line, but the real indicators often include the quality of craftsmanship and the quality of materials. And that's a lot harder to determine from photographs and owner claims.
Pot Materials - During the Jazz Age, 4-string banjo was as popular as electric guitar is today - everybody who wanted to be cool had to have one and learn at least a few songs. So there was a huge market for bottom-line banjos, and some of those designs carried into the days of 5-string "Folk banjo" popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the early resonators were more-or-less metal pie pans bolted to the back of the banjo - but those banjos usually had wooden multi-ply pots. The really cheap banjos of that era had metal pots. They didn't have the spikes of the later pop-top banjos. Rather the resonator was held on by the four-cheap bracket method. Just up from those were wooden-pot banjos with the four-cheap-brackets to hold on the resonator.
For the last sixty years or so, wooden pots without tone rings or resonator flanges have dominated the lowest end of the market, which, frankly, indicates that manufacturers have figured out how to make multiple-ply wooden pots even cheaper than they can make metal pots. As mentioned earlier "pop-top" banjos with one-piece solid metal pot/tone ring/flange construction tend to be "one step up," but that kind of construction never indicates a truly professional instrument.
Today at least one manufacturer is making the pots of their cheapest banjo out of a ceramic material. There is no reason to do this other than cost savings, but the manufacturer does not seem to be passing that savings on to the consumer - their entry-level banjos cost about as much as everyone else's. All things being equal, I'd pass on those.
Fingerboards - Another indicator of cheap manufacture is a painted fingerboard, as opposed to a solid rosewood or mahogany fingerboard. Yes, the frets are real, and the fretboard material may even be a separate piece of wood from the banjo neck. But it's maple or some other light wood instead of rosewood or mahogany, and it's painted dark to look like a more exotic wood. Play it long enough and the light wood will start to show through. (BTW, Deering Goodtime Classics had these, and they were very good banjos. Deering was just responding to customers who wanted a Goodtime that looked more old-timey. Deering has since replaced the Classic with the Artisan, which also has a maple fingerboard, but the stain goes all the way through the wood, so the fingerboard won't get light where you play the most. I have a Goodtime Classic and a Goodtime Artisan - they are both FINE banjos, better players than most imported so-called pro banjos, so I'll forgive Deering if the fretboard of my Classic ever starts looking piebald.)
Tone Rings - Since the early 1900s, manufacturers of professional banjos have used metal rings to keep the vibrations of the banjo's head from being absorbed by the wooden pot. Dozens of designs have been tried, and to this day there are religious arguments about which tone ring design is the best. But one thing's true: professional Jazz and Bluegrass banjos always have some sort of tone ring. Of course, when you see a banjo in the store, with the resonator firmly screwed on, you can't tell if it has a tone ring or if it has one or two coordinator rods (which also makes a difference, for other reasons), so many manufacturers create fancy-LOOKING banjos and leave out those options. Banjos that were made to be played backless may or may not have tone rings, depending on the intended audience, so that's not as critical if you're going to play "old-timey" or Folk banjo.
Quality Construction and Finish - Fancy engraving can make a cheap banjo look more valuable, but the real indicators are more subtle - solid construction, smooth edges and finishes, consistent staining, straight neck, smooth-turning tuners that hold their tune, and attention to detail throughout. It is possible for one banjo to be worth a quarter of what another banjo with identical features is worth, simply because of cheaper materials and shoddier construction. And, unfortunately, that's something the buyer can't necessarily tell unless he or she shows up to buy it.
Examples - To show some of the issues facing the person trying to establish the value of old banjos, the photo below shows two Japanese-made banjos I bought to use as demonstrators in a clinic. Yes, they are four-strings so they're not worth as much in this area as comparable five-strings, but I wanted to use them to compare and contrast.
The banjo at the top is earlier, but it's also cheaper, using open-back geared tuners and four bolt-on resonator brackets. You may be impressed by the fancy engraving, etc., on the banjo below, but the only real differences relate to construction and materials - the banjo on the bottom has planetary tuners and a resonator flange. That said, the resonator flange is zync, as opposed to nickel-plated brass, the preferred material. With the resonator on, you can't tell that there is only one coordinator rod. Neither banjo has a tone ring, which has been a necessity on professional 4-string banjos almost since tone rings were invented. Aria also made some pop-top banjos, which were very similar to the one on the bottom in volume and tone, but tended to cost a tad less. In SW Ohio, the cheaper one would be lucky to draw $75, and the better one would be lucky to draw $125, because there is almost no demand for four-string banjos here. If they were five-string, the one on the top might get $95 and the one on the bottom might get $175 (more, if you get a buyer who remembers Aria's quality instruments of the 1970s). If they were both marked, say "Fender" (a company which usually puts its name on Asian banjos), you might add $25-35 to that.
Making Your Own EvaluationFortunately, with the Internet, you don't have to put your banjo on the market to determine what it MIGHT be worth. First of all, you figure out what you have, as accurately as possible. Then, if your banjo is attractive and playable, you compare that to cost of similarly equipped new banjos to get a maximum potential value. And finally, you can watch the local and national banjo market to get an additional idea of the demand for your specific instrument.
We have provided a checklist you can use to take notes as you work through the following list of features and issues that may affect the cost of your banjo. Click here to view and or print a copy.
First, Determine the features, brand, and condition of your own banjo.
As you have probably determined, an off-brand banjo with a warped neck and a lot of rust will not be of interest to anybody except as a wall decoration, unless it's a premium name brand. Unfortunately those are the ones people usually call me about expecting me to tell them it's a rare collector's item or some such.
If a banjo is reasonably attractive and is playable or can be made playable without a herculean effort, then it's time to figure out what a similar instrument would sell for new - that will determine the top possible value of your instrument unless you have a Gibson, Deering, Vega, or similar top-line brand.
Look at Similar New Banjos - If you're like most people, your area music stores don't carry anything but the cheapest starter instrument, so you may have to look online. Riverboat Music(tm) has a number of banjo pages that show a range of instruments, so that may give you a starting point. Here's some caveats:
The Riverboat Music pages show instruments and links to vendors that sell them mail order. You'll have to click on the links, because the prices keep changing, and we could NOT stay on top of them.
You'll note that in each class of banjos, there is a range of products, from entry-level imports to top-of-the-line professional instruments. Try to match the features to the features of your banjo, but don't assume that a nameless or off-brand banjo with the same features as a professional banjo will pull in that kind of value - making a true "pro" banjo requires craftsmanship and results in playability and tone that are seldom encountered in lesser instruments.
Examine the Used Banjo Marketplace(s) You Have Access To -
Once you have an idea of where your banjo fits into the spectrum, you can look for similar items on places like Craigs' List and eBay. Pay attention to details to see which banjos are closest to yours in age, condition, and features. To help you keep track of the various features and options on various banjos you see, we've included a downloadable PDF to let you chart them here. This chart was originally designed to help people shopping for used banjos, but can also be useful when you're comparing different banjos to determine the value of your own.
If a banjo similar to yours goes on the market and sells right away, they may have priced it too low. If a banjo similar to yours goes on the market and stays there for months, they probably priced it too high.
One problem with doing things this way is the temptation to buy any of the banjos you're looking at. Or anything else that comes up. Sadly, most folks I recommend Craigs List or Ebay to start shopping and spending money on things they don't need, and that defeats the purpose.
Here are some additional tips:
Obviously, the longer you do this and the more examples you see, the closer you'll get to determining the value range of your own instrument.
ConclusionThis article has become a lot longer than I expected it to. Actually it was going to be even longer, but I cut out a section. If nothing else, it may help you compare "apples to apples" when you are trying to figure out the potential cash value of a banjo that has come into your possession.
To me, every playable used banjo is worth a lot more than the dollar value it will probably get if listed for sale. Because it contains melodies, harmonies, traditions, heritage, and at least one person's dreams. Ironically, I am often drawn more to the one with the belt-buckle scratches and worn frets, because those are signs that it has been cherished by someone willing to put in the work to get it to sing. But when it comes to commercial transactions, other considerations enter the equation. I hope this article will help you to figure out what you need to know about the value of your instrument, even if you're just curious about a family heirloom you'd never dream of selling off.
Best of luck!
And please stay in touch!
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