Shopping for Used BanjosDon't.
In most cases. Yes, I've bought at least fourteen used banjos over the years, and only one new one - my first, back in 1968. But I know banjos and know what can be fixed and what can't.
In many markets, if you're looking for your first banjo and all you want is something to help you learn the basics, you'll discover that most of the used banjos you have access to are "beginner" banjos, and most people selling them are asking almost what you would pay for a new one with similar quality and features. I'm not saying you can't get a good deal, sometimes a VERY good deal, on a starter banjo, but if you're starting out, please use the features and content of this article to compare the used banjos you're considering to the what a similar new banjo from a reliable vendor would cost.
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(s) you're considering. 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.
If you've read our articles "What is My Banjo Worth?," or "Evaluating and Buying Used Guitars," you'll discover a lot of overlap, but I felt we needed a targeted article just for folks looking for their first banjos and considering used ones. Also, for your convenience, I've put one of those eBay list things onto this page. But don't buy anything you see just yet. Most used banjos at the lower end of the spectrum are overpriced, and many have problems that the owners aren't even aware of. (Ironically, it may be easier to get a nice bargain on a professional banjo than on a student instrument. But I'm taking about, say, paying $1000 for a beat-up but still playable professional banjo that cost $2600 new, as opposed to paying $325 for a like-new student banjo that would cost you $400 new.)
In addition, you should probably read our "What Kind of Banjo Do I Want" article and narrow down the kinds of banjos you're interested in. For example, you can learn Bluegrass music on any playable 5-string banjo, but you can't play typical Bluegrass banjo parts on 4-strings or 6-strings.
Things That Affect the Value and Usefulness (For You) of Used Banjos
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 Strings
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+ 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 badly worn head, or stiff or sloppy tuning pegs, you can increase the cost of ownership far beyond what the banjo is worth compared to buying a new one with similar features.
Here's the fun part: most owners of damaged or unplayable student banjos don't know anything about banjos (they inherited it or traded a pedal for it or something). So they may not even know it's an unplayable instrument that's not worth repairing, and they'll be outright insulted if you tell them that. Worse yet, there are people who know very well that they're trying to rip you off and hope you're as dumb about banjos as they are pretending to be. Either way, if you go to check on a banjo that turns out to have serious problems that were not in the listing, don't bother trying to argue, just say there's another banjo you're going to check out and get back in the car.
BrandOnly one factor can trump bad condition, and that's brand. Unfortunately, there are very few brands that make 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 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.
In the meantime, virtually every banjo you'll see that is less than 20 years old was made in China (except for Deering, Deering Goodtimes, and Gibsons and a handful of custom or commemorative models). Some brands have almost no quality control, especially the kinds they sell at WalMart around Christmas. Some brands, like Washburn, Fender, and Gold Tone have at least some quality control. Gold Tone claims that every banjo they sell comes to their shop for hands-on inspection and tuneup before it goes out to the stores. (Their bottom-line banjos don't seem to get as much care as their better banjos do, though.) If you go back a few years, some fine banjos were made in Japan, including the Alvarez tone-ring-equipped banjos and the Fender Leo banjo, which was far superior to the current Fender banjo line.
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 are 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 (1910-1930), innovation at the low end of the price spectrum was at its lowest. The same thing is true for 5-string student banjos made since 1960. For that reason, it's possible to find two student banjos made thirty or more years apart that are virtually identical except for wear and tear. Can you see why the term "vintage" is meaningless for such instruments?
That said, 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. Frankly, you don't want a banjo with friction pegs unless you're planning on using nylon strings in a 19th-century historical recreation or some such. In which case, good luck getting a 120-150-year old banjo in playable condition.
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 student-line banjos being made today still 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 are almost certainly looking at 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. (If you're looking at a banjo with a resonator, try to get one with two coordinator rods. If you're looking at a banjo with resonator and tone ring, two coordinator rods are highly recommended.)
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 you're looking at a banjo with a resonator that attaches this way, it's almost certainly pre-WWII.
Some of the 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 on 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 bolt four little brackets 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 the four-little-bracket 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 brass, usually nickel-plated, though I have seen some Japanese imports that used zinc, a more brittle material. A number of older banjos used stamped steel resonator flanges. This was cheaper than a cast flange but it still usually indicates a slight upgrade from the four-little-bracket solution.
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 if 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." If you're never planning on playing the things without the resonator, they will usually serve you just fine as your first banjo, even for local or regional performances. (With the resonator off, the flanges are dangerous.)
Neck Adjustment Rod - Somewhere 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 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. By the way, Deering's 4- and 5-string Goodtimes lack adjustment rods, but they've figured out how to stabilize the neck so they hold their shape. Also, you may come across an early banjo with a three- or 5-piece neck - the neck is built-up with multiple kinds of wood with the grain running in different directions to add stability. Outside of these exceptions, a neck without adjustment capability may warn of potential future problems.
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, things you can't always tell until you get your hands on it.
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 professional instrument.
At one point in the 1950s or 1960s, Harmony started making pots out of Bakelite, the same kind of plastic used for the handles on sauce-pan lids. If you know what a distributor cap is, imagine one large enough to spread a banjo head over, and you'll get the idea. No point in buying one of these unless you get it really cheap, or you need something to throw in the car for long trips through extreme climates.
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. They're probably at least as useful as the old Bakelite pots, but something about that much synthetic material on an instrument that is typically made of wood bothers me.
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 always 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 use, 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 you can't usually tell from photos.
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 Ohio 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 zinc, 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 $95-125 and the one on the bottom might get $150-200 (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.
By the way, Aria also made a handful of very nice banjos, so don't let my analysis of these two instruments put you off.
Examine the Used Banjo Marketplace(s) You Have Access To -
Once you have an idea of the sort of thing that will fit your needs, you can look for items in that range on places like Craigs' List and eBay. Pay attention to details to see what banjos will most closely meet your needs in terms of 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.
If a banjo you think may suit your needs goes on the market and sells right away, they may have priced it too low, and you may have missed a bargain. If a banjo similar to what you're looking for goes on the market and stays there for months, they probably priced it too high. Either way, once you've paid attention to the marketplace a while you start getting an idea of the price range you'll probably be looking at.
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 who use Craigs List or Ebay 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 what's a fair price for the banjo(s) you're interested in.
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 the banjo under your consideration, but don't assume that a nameless or off-brand banjo with the same features as a professional banjo is worth as much as a name brand banjo. Making a true "pro" banjo requires craftsmanship and results in playability and tone that are seldom encountered in lesser instruments.
Once You Have Your Hands on the Banjo
Check the NeckSight down the neck (like you would an arrow or a piece of lumber). If the neck looks like a ski slope, pass. If it's straight on both outside edges, that's good. If this is a nice banjo otherwise, and the neck is gently bowed, it still might be work a look, as long as:
If the neck bows more along one edge than the other, or if it bows more sharply along one part of the fingerboard than another, run do not walk. Also, if the neck bows more than a couple millimeters and there is no neck adjustment screw, you should pass.
Sloppy Neck AttachmentBanjos have one or two "coordinator rods" that run underneath the head of the banjo. On many cheap banjos these loosen up over the years. On many bottom-of-the-line new Asian banjos they are never tightened properly in the first place. The big "tell" is if you strum the strings and then change position, say, move the banjo out from your body a little. If the banjo goes up or down a quarter-step when you change position, it COULD just signify a loose coordinator rod, which is almost always fixable. But it does indicate that the banjo hasn't been properly setup or maintained.
Fret the StringsSee how much pressure it takes to hold the strings down against the frets on the neck using the end of your finger on the string. If you don't have callouses yet, it may hurt the tips of your fingers but it shouldn't hurt the muscles in your fingers or hands. Obviously, if you have a guitar player with you, he or she can do this in a heartbeat. A guitarist can also check for fret buzz up and down the neck. Fret buzz occurs when you push the string down at one fret, but when you pluck the string, it "buzzes" against another fret closer to the bridge. This problem is usually caused by one of the following:
Make Certain the Tuning Pegs Turn SmoothlyIf the gears on the tuning pegs are exposed, especially on any banjo made after 1960, that's usually a sign of a cheap instrument. Guitar-style tuners with the gears covered usually indicate a beginner instrument within a given line (keep in mind that a beginning Goodtime is still three times the banjo as most beginning Chinese-built banjo). But if they turn smoothly and hold their tune, they shouldn't give you any problems.
Planetary-style tuners (the kind that come in from the back of the head) usually indicate a better banjo within a given line (again, an off-brand banjo with planetary tuners may still be a worse banjo than a name-brand banjo with enclosed guitar-style tuners - all we're talking about is the relative position within a given line.) On a good banjo, planetary tuners help you tune more quickly than guitar-style tuners. But on a cheap banjo, they may be just as sloppy or hard to turn as guitar-style tuners.
One less-than-optimum tuning peg by itself may not be a bad sign - a previous owner may have cracked it in a doorway or something. But more than one signifies either cheap materials or systematic abuse, or both.
The fifth string is almost always geared. If there just seems to be a friction attachment, or if the gear is too tight or too sloppy to tune easily, that may well frustrate you in the future. That said, some dandy intermediatel banjos in the 1960s and 1970s were made with fifth-string friction pegs, so don't let be the only thing that puts you off an otherwise fine instrument.
Listen to the ToneEven if you can't play the banjo stroke the strings and see if the banjo produces a nice, resonant tone. If all you can hear is low notes, the banjo may just need new strings, but if it was a student banjo to start with or has other problems, take the dull sound as an indicator that it might not have a lot of resonance even with new strings.
Don't Worry About Missing StringsYou're going to replace them anyway. If you're serious about this banjo, and it's "real money," and you want to be sure of what you're getting, you might take a set of strings with you when you look at it. That said, people who respect the instrument and know anything about it won't put a banjo with missing strings on the marketplace, so you can't count on them actually knowing anything about it (or any claims they make about it necessarily being true).
Don't Worry Too Much About a Missing BridgeIf the bridge is missing on an otherwise worthwhile instrument, that's not a deal-breaker, but it will keep you from checking out the banjo the way you probably should. BTW, I put aftermarket compensated bridges on some of my banjos anyway. You can get "straight" banjo bridges online for $5 or so, compensated ones cost a little more ($12 and up at the moment). Even the most expensive aftermarket professional bridges generally cost under $40.
That said, people who respect the instrument and know anything about it won't put a banjo with a missing bridge on the marketplace. So you can't count on them actually knowing anything about it (or any claims they make about it necessarily being true).
Check the Case or Gig Bag (if Applicable)Remember, the purpose of a gig bag is simply to make the banjo easy to carry and to protect it from minor cosmetic damage. It won't protect your banjo if people throw suitcases on top of it - the neck is easily snapped under such abuse.
Some cheap banjos come with gig bags that are basically nylon sacks and offer no real protection against anything. If the value of the "gig bag" is part of the deal, it should be heavily padded, the banjo should fit snugly, but not too tight to get in our out easily, the zipper(s) should work smoothly, and the handle and (if present) straps should be well-attached.
Cardboard Cases are usually covered with vinyl or cheesecloth so they look like actual luggage, but they're flimsy and lightweight. Sometimes they're called "chipboard," which sounds better than cardboard, but is no different. If the banjo comes with a cardboard case, that's usually a sign of age - most companies stopped making those by the late 1970s. They're better than nothing, and will keep your banjo reasonably safe, as long as you don't crush or drop it, but they don't have any intrinsic value.
BTW, if you take your banjo on a trip in a cardboard case, make certain the latches didn't come unsnapped during the journey, a hazard of cardboard cases. More than one banjo player has hurled his banjo onto the driveway at the end of a long drive because of this.
Hardshell Cases are built like actual luggage. Traditional hardshell cases are made of something like plywood and very heavy. Some new ones are made with rigid fiberglass or even aluminum shells. They are much lighter, and hold up about the same. The airplane-rated ones hold up better, but will cost a lot more.
If the banjo comes with a true hardshell case, make certain that the handle is well-attached and that latches close properly so it doesn't spring open and spill your banjo on the ground if you pick it up wrong. BTW, hard cases are usually a special order item. If someone spent the money to buy a hardshell case for the banjo you're looking at, they felt it worth protecting, and that in itself may say something.
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 relative value of two different banjos you're looking at.
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 weed out the unsuitable options, and find the banjo you need for the next stage of your musical journey.
Best of luck!
And please stay in touch!
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