When you are just learning an instrument, it can be tempting to choose a cheap model over a more expensive model. This can be a great approach for a beginner who hasn’t yet decided whether he or she will continue playing long term. The problem might arise once you have determined that you enjoy playing the instrument.
In the case of a banjo, one can be purchased for less than $200 and much lower if you choose a used model. On the one hand, buying a banjo in this price range is perfect for the beginner. On the other hand, you’ll probably want something a bit better as you improve and become more accustomed to the instrument.
The thing about a cheap banjo is that it will always be a cheap banjo. There are ways that you might make it sound better, which we’ll discuss below. However, once you begin upgrading parts, it might make better financial sense to upgrade to a better model rather than try to improve the cheap one.
This isn’t always the case and you may even find that a cheap banjo can compete pretty well with a more expensive model. It really depends on the banjo, what you expect out of it and how it is played.
If you are experiencing a bad sound from your affordable banjo model, there are quite a few things you can do to improve the sound. However, many of these things might not be worth the cost and you may be better off saving up for a more affordable option.
If you do wish to improve the sound of your cheap banjo, the following tips might do the trick for you without costing an arm and a leg.
1) Replace Strings
Perhaps one of the easiest upgrades you can do is to change the strings. If you aren’t sure of the quality of strings you are working with, you may try to do this as a first action step. Changing the strings could make a big difference in the way your banjo sounds. You might be surprised by the sound difference of a set of new strings. Some of the best strings on the market for a 5-string banjo include the ones listed below.
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2) Make Sure It’s Set Up Properly
With any stringed instrument, it’s important to make sure all areas are set up properly to get the best performance out of it. The following list includes some main areas of the banjo that you’ll want to make sure are set up properly. A full setup may include more than this short list but these main areas will give you a good place to start.
The following video will give you an idea of what a setup consists of
String Action Adjustment
The action of the strings on a stringed instrument is important in helping with the playability of the instrument. When the strings are too far away from the frets, it makes it more difficult to push them down. You might struggle to even hold down a chord and playing it can have a muted sound on some of the strings.
On the other hand, when they are too close to the frets, you may experience other issues such as buzzing. Having the strings at a proper distance from the frets will make it easier to play which will make it sound better.
It’s essential that you improve the action of your banjo to the proper distance. The proper distance may vary depending on the player and banjo. Deering Banjo sets their banjo action to 1/8″ (3.175 mm) at the 22nd fret. You can measure this distance using a simple ruler or a string action gauge.
This adjustment can be changed in a few different ways. You may need to adjust or replace the bridge, adjust the coordinator rod or truss rod which we’ll discuss next.
Truss Rod Adjustment
The truss rod is the metal rod that runs the length of the neck on the banjo. This isn’t just something that is on a banjo but also most other stringed instruments. This adds additional reinforcement so that the neck of the instrument does not bow under the pressure of the strings. There isn’t always a truss rod installed on banjos but most of them do have one.
There is a lot of pressure that is constantly pulling on the neck of the instrument. This truss rod helps to keep the neck from bowing under all that pressure. It may need an adjustment if the neck is bowing too much. You may need to tighten it or loosen it depending on the type of adjustment needed. The neck of the instrument might change depending on the weather and humidity levels.
It’s a good idea to have this adjustment done by a professional. This can be a dangerous adjustment for an amateur who doesn’t know anything about it. If you aren’t sure, don’t mess with it and have a professional do it for you. You could damage your instrument if you are not careful.
Adjust The Bridge
The bridge of the banjo is where the strings sit as they pass over the body of the instrument. This is the small wooden piece that you see on the banjo body. Banjos have a floating bridge which means they can be moved. It is important that you have it positioned correctly for your instrument.
This will require a measurement so that you get it exactly correct. The bridge should be the same distance to the 12th fret as the nut is to the 12th fret. This is a good setup for most players but more advanced players may need finer adjustments of the bridge to achieve perfect intonation.
This is a simple adjustment but it does require you to loosen the strings so that you can move the bridge into position. This should be something that only has to be adjusted when strings are replaced. Otherwise, it should remain in the same position after the strings have been installed due to the tension of the strings holding it in place.
If you aren’t sure how to make these adjustments, take it to a professional rather than doing it yourself. A professional Luthier or banjo repair person can do a proper set up on your banjo and make sure that it is ready for action.
3) Replace Head
The head of a banjo can be made from different materials. There are frosted top heads, frosted bottom heads, clear heads, Fiberskyn heads, and others available to choose from. These different types of heads can be the difference in having a bright, crispy sound or having a more mellow, warmer sound. It’s subjective and up to the player to decide the type that is best for the music they will be playing.
Changing the head of the banjo will give you a noticeably different sound and you may find that it makes your cheap banjo sound much better.
4) Make Sure Head Has Proper Tension
The head of the banjo is comprised of a thin plastic material that is stretched over the hollow ring. In olden days, this was made from calfskin and you may still find banjos using calfskin. However, most banjos use plastic material for the head. A new banjo may have a loose head that will need tightening.
You can do this by tightening the lug nuts on the tension hooks around the bottom of the tension ring. You’ll want to make sure the tension on these is even all the way around. Make sure you don’t over tighten these as it could do damage to the instrument.
This may improve the overall tone that you will get from your banjo. However, this is very subjective and you may find that tightening the head will make it sound worse to your ears. This is something you’ll have to experiment with until you find the amount of tension for your liking.
5) Replace Or Adjust Bridge
You may consider replacing the bridge on the banjo to help improve the sound. This is a cheap item for you to replace but could make a difference in the way the banjo sounds. It isn’t going to be a night and day difference but it could improve the sound that you hear overall.
It could be worth the price since it is a small upgrade you could make that won’t set you back too much. You may choose to use a compensated bridge which could help to improve the intonation of your instrument.
6) Replace Or Adjust Tailpiece
The tailpiece of the banjo can be another upgrade you could make that might improve the overall sound. Many banjos have adjustable tailpieces but your cheap banjo may not be equipped with one. It’s likely that the only thing you can do is upgrade to a better one.
There are lots of different options and you’ll need to do the research for your specific banjo to decide which one will be best.
7) Improve Your Playing
If all else has failed and your cheap banjo still sounds like crap, it might not be the banjo after all. It could be that you simply need to improve your playing style. After all, people have been playing banjos for hundreds of years and they weren’t playing the high-quality instruments that we have on the market today. For banjos of the past to sound good, banjo players had to have a lot of skill and be very good musicians.
It’s easy to blame the instrument and say that the instrument just doesn’t sound good when in reality, it might just be user error. I have experienced this with other instruments such as a guitar. I have had a cheap guitar before and I always dreamed of having a better one because I didn’t think the cheap one sounded good.
However, my mind was changed once a better musician grabbed a hold of my guitar and played it. It didn’t sound like a Martin but it did sound much better than what I could make it sound like. This proved to me that with better skills, I could make do with a less expensive instrument.
The truth is, a bad sounding banjo, whether it’s a cheap one or not may have more to do with the musician than anything else. Even an expensive banjo can sound like crap if the player isn’t any good. There are techniques you must perfect and these techniques take time and LOTS of practice. Put in the time and effort required to be a better musician and you may magically hear your banjo sound improve.
Differences In Cheap Banjos And Expensive Banjos
An expensive banjo will differ in price from a cheap banjo for a few different reasons. Similar to any instrument you play, there are always cheaper ones and more expensive ones. Usually, there are some commonalities amongst instruments on why this is the case. Let’s look at a few reasons why cheap banjos are cheap and expensive banjos are expensive.
Higher Quality Wood
With a high-quality banjo comes high-quality wood. The rim of the banjo will typically be made of a high-quality maple or mahogany. A cheaper banjo may use a lesser quality of wood for this part of the banjo. The same can be said for other areas of the banjo that are comprised of wood.
This could include the fretboard and the neck as well as the headstock. High-quality woods are often used in expensive banjos and not only that but more intricate inlays are often seen on the fretboard and other areas of these instruments.
Higher Quality Parts
When you purchase an expensive banjo, you can expect more premium parts throughout the instrument. This could include the tone ring, rim, head, and tuning pegs or several other different parts. When you pay a premium price for an instrument, you will generally get more premium parts within it.
You can also expect a more expensive banjo to have better craftsmanship all-around. It may be decorated better with fancy inlays. You’ll generally notice a difference in the overall finish of the instrument and how well it is constructed. It’s as if someone spent a great deal of time with the intricacies involved in creating a masterpiece. It may feel better in your hands that a cheap instrument would.
Some of the more expensive models of banjos are made in the USA and are often handcrafted rather than mass-produced.
Is An Expensive Banjo Worth It?
This question could be asked with nearly any instrument. There are always more affordable options when it comes to instruments and then there are also more expensive options. I used to think that expensive instruments were not worth the price that you have to pay for them. I thought that you were only paying for a brand-name and just to have some bragging rights.
However, this was before I had a more expensive instrument. Having purchased more expensive instruments, my thinking has been changed. I think it’s absolutely worth having an expensive banjo if you are going to play it often. However, if the banjo is something that sits in your closet and rarely gets used, it would be a dumb decision to buy an expensive banjo.
For the person who is in a band or the person who plays regularly and loves hearing the sound of their banjo being played, it can take your playing to another level. It’s not that the more expensive model will make you play better, but it will make you want to play more often and by playing more often, you will improve as a musician. When you become a better musician, it becomes even more fun to play. See the pattern here?
The sound of a more expensive banjo is noticeable and it can be more of a pleasure to sit down and play. Having a cheap banjo that doesn’t sound good, even if you have done the things in this article, isn’t quite the same as having an expensive model.
It’s not worth having an expensive banjo if you only want it for bragging rights. If you are going to play it often and you really love the hobby, an expensive banjo can be a great decision and it will last you a lifetime.
It’s up to you whether the sound and other high-quality improvements are worth the extra price. Don’t buy an expensive banjo just for the sake of having one. Be sure you test various models out and choose one that feels right to you and excites you to sit down and play it.
As mentioned earlier, a cheap banjo is always going to be that way. While there are ways that you may be able to improve the sound, you will probably never achieve the sound you could get from a higher-quality model. You will need to rely on becoming better at your craft if you want it to sound better.
If you are serious about learning and playing the banjo, you can achieve a better sound and have more enjoyment with a higher-quality instrument. Even a mid-range model will be a good upgrade and there are many on the market to choose from. Rather than spending the money to upgrade your cheap banjo, it may be a better choice to save the money and put it towards a better instrument.