Best Banjos for Beginners in 2020 – Reviews of 5-String Wonders
The banjo has a fascinating history with African roots. This instrument is versatile and offers you a world of opportunities. You can use it to enrich your sound in any genre of music.
But to master the banjo, you need to learn some theory and go through a great deal of hands-on practice. It can be daunting to decide where to start. How many strings do you need? What else should you pay attention to?
I’ve prepared a short list of affordable banjos that can help you out. Any of these can be a great choice for a beginner, even if you’re not sure of your preferred style or genre yet. There is also a quick look at some questions that you might have about this instrument.
14 Best Beginner Banjos - Five-String Wonders
My top choices are all sturdy five-string banjos with a powerful sound.
Table of Contents
- 14 Best Beginner Banjos - Five-String Wonders
- Important Banjo Facts You Need to Know
- How to Check the Quality of the Build
- How Much Should You Pay?
- The Difference Between Short Neck and Long Neck Banjos
- How Should a Banjo Sound?
1. Luna Celtic
The Luna Celtic 5-string banjo is not something everyone can afford. However, for beginners, you would be hard-pressed to match its level of sound quality and feel.
The resonator is perfectly designed to create a loud and clear sound. This makes the banjo not only beginner-friendly but also a good transitional instrument for when you’re ready to play live. It’s a long-term investment if you will.
The Celtic motif gives this 24-bracket banjo a timeless look. What’s perhaps even more surprising to see is that there’s also a 6-string model available for the same price. To make things even easier for you, the banjo is also equipped with a geared tuner.
2. Washburn B9
Washburn has a history of producing quality and affordable instruments. Just as you would probably think about a Washburn guitar if you were just starting out, you probably want to take a look at its 5-string closed back banjo.
The Remo head helps you achieve a fairly loud and sharp sound. What’s even more impressive is the cast aluminum tone ring. Most manufacturers stick with zinc, even for considerably pricier banjos.
The B9 also comes with a truss rod. And to make it even more versatile, Washburn made it so that you can easily remove the resonator. This will cause your volume to drop but it will also give you a richer and very different sound.
3. Ibanez B200
If you know your musical instruments manufacturers, then you know all about the level of quality that Ibanez maintains. This closed back banjo might be just what you need to start learning and transition into live performances.
The resonator is surprisingly loud. The mahogany neck only has 22 frets, which should make it easier to master. The pearl inlay on the neck and headstock screams Ibanez and it gives the banjo a very modern look.
The Ibanez B200 is lacking in one department. It comes with a friction tuner. This increases the chance of your 5th string going out of tune if you’re playing fast. It also demands more maintenance and the purchase of friction peg lubricant.
This US-made banjo is a considerable investment. However, the sound quality makes up for the price.
This banjo is designed with durability in mind. If you like staying with one instrument for a long time, this could be the banjo for you. Deering also offers a generous 6-year warranty.
The neck and the resonator are both blonde maple with a satin finish. The finish is resistant to scratches and the usual wear and tear of daily practice.
It comes with a three-ply maple rim, 11 inches in diameter. The 5/8’’ bridge is made of ebony and maple. The tuners are all sealed and there is a geared 5th string tuner included.
If you’re looking for ease of playing, this could be the right model for you. It arrives fully assembled, with an informative booklet included. The booklet features chord charts and it’s written with absolute beginners in mind.
This Resoluute banjo is affordable but it produces a strong and crisp sound. The resonator’s made of mahogany, and it is removable. If you want to experiment with different musical genres, this might be the best banjo for you.
The fingerboard is maple and the banjo has 24 brackets. You can use the geared 5th tuner to achieve the best pitch. The Remo drumhead improves the acoustics and creates a loud and sharp sound.
This is a 30-bracket banjo with a glossy and modern look. Oscar Schmidt by Washburn specializes in affordable but professional-grade string instruments.
While many banjo manufacturers use zinc for the tone ring, the OB5 has a tone ring of cast aluminum. There is a geared 5th tuner and a Remo drumhead. The fretboard’s made of multi-inlay rosewood.
In spite of the modest price, this model is durable. It has great acoustics and you can remove the resonator for a different sound.
The Deering Goodtime banjo is an adjustable action banjo made with a three-ply maple rim. It’s a very durable instrument and one that’s comfortable to play no matter your experience.
It has 22 frets and sealed geared tuners. You may appreciate the original Deering tailpiece design, which is unique to Goodtime banjos and offers an interesting look, feel, and sound.
Although it weighs close to 4lbs, the Deering Goodtime is not hard to play on. Its 26.25” scale length makes it a reliable intermediate instrument, with both beginner and pro applicability.
Of course, if you’re looking for an open back instead of a resonator banjo, few make them as reliable as Deering.
The Oscar Schmidt OB3 open-back banjo has a glossy finish and a Remo head. This combination gives it an authentic yet slightly modern look, which should accommodate players of all ages.
I like that the OB3 is available in two models, one with a rosewood fretboard and another with an ovangkol wood fretboard. While to some, this may come down to personal preference, I am a proponent of rosewood fretboards since they’re very reliable, easy to adapt to, and comfortable.
The multi-inlay fretboard is beginner-friendly, which is helpful when dealing with a long scale. Due to the somewhat tighter spacing, I think that this is a good starter instrument, especially at this price range. And, to top it all off, very slight action adjustment will be required for the instrument to sound good.
9. Rover RB-25
The Rover RB-25 is a five-string banjo with an 11” rim and standard spacing. It’s a ruggedly built instrument with a comfortable play style, thanks to its Deluxe Vega armrest design.
Its mahogany neck and East Indian rosewood fingerboard offer a cool combination of style, personality, and durability. The adjustable truss rod is a great feature to have too.
The friction peg tuners resemble guitar-style gear head tuners, thus making it slightly easier to tune the RB-25.
I also like the tuning retention of the 5th peg as well as the versatility of the 25.5” scale length. It offers plenty of tonal range. The calibration, on the other hand, may not always be ideal for beginners.
The Deering Artisan Goodtime is an open-back banjo with an elegant finish and very impressive tuners. It produces a rich sound, at least when compared to other Goodtime banjo models. That makes it more suitable for intermediate and professional players.
I like that the tuning stability is good enough for both practice and jam sessions. Another cool thing about this model is how easy it is to play in higher keys. That’s is largely in part to the way the spikes are installed on the 7th, 9th, and 10th frets.
The lightweight construction makes it comfortable to play and easy to transport. However, the instrument doesn’t have the best craftsmanship. Suffice to say that there might be some issues when adding the 5th string. Luckily, this doesn’t occur in all Deering Artisan Goodtime banjos.
If you’re on the market for a complete set built around the best beginner banjo, this ADM banjo comes with everything you need and more. If you’re short on cash, this set has accessories galore at no extra cost – strings, straps, carry bag, cleaning cloth, digital tuner, extra picks, and replacement strings.
Unless you also want it to do the playing for you, you can’t ask for more. The fretboard has 24 frets. This allows you to play complex and genre diversified music. The mahogany resonator is good quality. However, it’s not as loud as what you might get from more high-end manufacturers.
The banjo also features a geared 5th tuner. This will help keep it in tune for longer. Aesthetically speaking, the combination of white on natural wood is just ideal for traditionalists.
12. Pyle PBJ60
This is an affordable option with a geared 5th tuner. Unlike the friction tuner you get with most banjos, this tuner is very accurate and keeps all five of the strings tuned for a long time.
The design of this instrument honors the musical tradition of the early 20th century. It’s a high-gloss model with a rich wood finish. All the hardware is chrome-plated and sturdy.
While the bridge is maple, the fingerboard is rosewood. It’s a closed-back unit with a mahogany resonator.
Despite the modest price, every component of this instrument is precisely constructed. The tuner key pegs are white jade. There is a Remo M1 drumhead as well.
It’s equipped with a universal adjustable truss rod, which you can use to alter the sound of your banjo. You get a truss rod adjustment tool to go with it.
13. Jameson 5-String
Jameson Guitars specializes in folk and acoustic string instruments. This company sells reasonably priced banjos that don't seem to be built while compromising sound quality or durability.
This five-string banjo comes with a geared 5th tuner. This gives you more accurate tuning due to an internal gearing mesh. Using this tuner is no different than using a guitar tuner and it also keeps the fifth string tuned.
This model has a closed mahogany back with a nut width of 1.25’’. Mahogany creates a warm tone. Like in most five-string banjos, there are 24 brackets.
The Jameson 5-String has a nickel-plated armrest. The seven-ply mahogany and maple neck is slim and elegant. The rim’s made out of three-ply mahogany, while the 5/8’’ bridge is made of maple.
The glossy finish makes this a beautiful instrument. It is easy to use, and you can choose between right-hand and left-hand models.
While the Vangoa banjo may be an intermediate-level instrument in sound and overall build quality, it’s the package deal that makes it all worthwhile.
If you’re looking for a complete bundle, know that this five-string banjo comes with a tuner, replacement strings, strap, fingerpicks, and a quality carry bag. Therefore, you will find everything you need to practice at home, go to the studio, or visit a tutor.
I also like that you can find the same bundle with a smaller banjo option, one that’s perhaps more suitable for kids or smaller-sized players.
In terms of actual sound, the Vangoa banjo is capable of producing sweet melody, but it might need a setup and slight string height adjustment.
Important Banjo Facts You Need to Know
Getting started with a new instrument is always a little daunting.
While some mistake the banjo for a simple instrument, it has gone through a complex evolution. It is a part of Caribbean musical culture. Today, this stringed instrument is particularly well-loved in the South.
Various artists have left their marks on the development of this instrument, including big band and classical musicians. The banjo shares some major traits with the acoustic guitar and the ukulele. But violin and viola players have also left their mark on its sound and construction.
Here are a few questions you might have about this instrument.
Do You Want an Open-Back Banjo or a Closed-Back One?
My top picks are all closed banjos. Some of them have a removable resonator.
But, what’s the difference between open-back and closed-back models? Which is better for a beginner?
Closed-back models come with a resonator made of wood. If you’re planning to play your banjo in front of an audience, a resonator will make it easier to make yourself heard. In addition to increasing the volume, a resonator can make your sound brighter and more vivid.
If you enjoy bluegrass, you should opt for a closed-back banjo.
On the other hand, open-back banjos have their upsides as well. You can use an open-back model to play in clawhammer style, which is also called frailing. This is a good choice if you want a gentler tune.
Some banjos come with a removable resonator. Since many beginners aren’t sure of their style, this is a good choice for a novice. Removing the resonator is a simple process, as all you need to do is to loosen some screws.
How Many Strings Do You Need?
In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, banjos had four strings. But over the course of the nineteenth century, a fifth string was added to this instrument. This addition is attributed to Joel Sweeney, who also developed resonators for these amazing instruments.
While some artists prefer the simplicity of four-string banjos, most modern musical genres require five strings. The fifth string has a different pitch than the other four because it starts at the fifth fret. This adds to the unique sound of the instrument.
Some musicians like using six-string banjos instead. If you know how to play an acoustic guitar, you might find it easier to use a six-string unit. But if you’re an absolute beginner, it’s easier to master five strings at first. This is why I pick only five-string models when it comes to recommending the best banjos for beginners.
What About Tuning?
Tuning a banjo can be similar to tuning a violin. Many models use simple friction tuners, and it can be a challenge to tune them to the accuracy you need.
The friction pegs have two designs. They are either tapered or champion pegs. Tapered friction pegs resemble a violin tuning peg. The concept relies on the peg and hole matching perfectly and making contact on the sides to keep the peg in place, and the string in tune.
This, however, has a minor flaw. It doesn’t exactly stand the test of time. No matter how much lube you use or abrasive substances you add. The cool thing about these pegs is the wide range of materials used, including bone.
In contrast, champion pegs rely on a mechanical clamping action. They feature a screw at the bottom which allows you to adjust the tension. They’re a lot easier to maintain and deal with than tapered pegs but they’re not more precise either.
Geared banjo pegs are more similar to what you see on guitars. They feature worn-gear and buttons on the sides of the headstock. This type of tuner won’t spin loose. It may be difficult to use at first if it’s of poor quality. However, it still keeps the strings in tune a lot better and it’s generally cheaper too.
This is why it’s better to go for geared tuning when possible. Models that come with this feature are also less likely to fall out of tune.
How to Check the Quality of the Build
Reading reviews is one thing, but how can you tell if what you see on paper translates into the real world? Here are a couple of things to check for.
Check the action of the strings. Press down across the entire fretboard. There should be no uncomfortable pain while trying to make contact with the frets.
You should also start strumming or plucking the strings. Don’t worry about chords or melody here. You’re only checking for sound clarity. No string should have a buzzing or rattling sound when plucked. If you hear that, know that it’s a sign of poor tuning and string height adjustment.
Last but not least, always check to see the quality of the tone ring. Is it made of a good material? Is it rugged? Its mere presence might indicate better acoustics but not all tone rings are equal.
How Much Should You Pay?
As it is with any other instrument, at one point or another you have to factor in the price. Even though there are various cheap banjos on the market that perfectly suitable for beginners, ask yourself how much are you willing to sacrifice in terms of quality?
Not all expensive banjos are amazing. But the more you pay, the better the chances that the banjo will serve intermediate players too. Maybe even be loud and clear enough to use in live gigs. If you’re sure that you or someone you’re buying it for is serious about pursuing the banjo, then I’d recommend getting a high-quality instrument from the start.
The Difference Between Short Neck and Long Neck Banjos
Short neck banjos, or parlor banjos, are more beginner-friendly. They usually don’t have more than 19 frets, which makes them very accessible. Because of the shorter neck length, they are also lightweight and easy to travel with.
At the same time, the combination of a shorter neck, fewer frets, and less weight makes the short neck banjo more suitable as a starter instrument. If you’re not sure what to get for your kid, the short neck is usually the answer.
Long neck banjos tend to have three additional frets. That enables a five-string long neck banjo to be tuned to open E. I recommend this tuning if you plan to do plenty of singing and voicing.
Along with more versatility, long neck banjos offer a more interesting sound because of the lower tuning, as well as extra range. And in my opinion, it shouldn’t take too long to transition between a short neck and a long neck model once you grasp the fundamentals.
How Should a Banjo Sound?
Play any classic country tune, and you’ll hear at least one or two passages that don’t sound like an acoustic guitar. It’s a unique twang, sharp and very bright, no matter how it’s played (strumming or picking).
Of course, that “classic” tonal quality does suffer changes from one instrument to another, depending on everything from the materials used to the craftsmanship.
Some banjos sound richer than others, and not just because of the notes played in the melody. An extra string could add more depth. A resonator box, as opposed to open back design, also helps make the tone more vivid.
A Final Thought
The banjo had a major role in the development of country music as we know it. Jazz ensembles make use of this instrument as well, and it has a place in alt-rock and in the work of various indie performers. Amazingly, the banjo can even be used in pop or classic metal.
Becoming proficient at this instrument will take a while. Finding the right instrument is only the first step. But if you get an easy-to-use model with a clear sound, you will find it much easier to keep working on your new passion.