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Buying a used banjo is often a great way to find a bargain. This is especially true for those looking to obtain a better banjo rather than settling for a cheaper brand new one. By purchasing used, you can find a good quality banjo that someone else may have just stopped playing.
People often buy expensive instruments when starting out and then become uninterested in learning. They then put the instrument up for sale and some lucky person may walk away with a high-quality instrument for a great price.
However, there are certainly some things that you will want to consider when you are looking to buy a used banjo. It’s far too easy to be misled and end up buying an instrument that is either unplayable or in need of some serious work in order for it to reach a point where it is playable.
You can start by looking for a reputable seller. From there, you should run down a checklist where all the necessary features of the banjo are addressed. There are many different styles of banjos available with each serving their own unique purpose. The differences between banjo styles are discussed in further detail below.
What Are The Things I Should Consider When Buying A Used Banjo?
There are many factors that should go into your decision when buying a used banjo but I have put together ten of the most important ones below. You are really looking for any signs of major damage. String replacements and fret replacements are cheap, especially if you do them on your own. Dents and dings may be hard to look past, though.
Ten things to consider:
- Where are you buying the banjo?
- What type do you want?
- Do you need a resonator?
- What do the frets look like?
- Shape the neck is in
- The condition of the banjo head
- Is the bridge serviceable?
- Look for any signs of rust
- Know when a banjo may be valuable
1) Where Should I Buy A Used Banjo?
It’s usually best to purchase a used banjo from a local dealer. When you go this route, you will be able to see and inspect the banjo yourself before deciding to buy it. However, it isn’t always easy to find a good used banjo at a local dealer depending on where you live.
There are several ways that banjos make their way to store shelves. One such path is being used as a trade-in item to help the seller make an upgrade. They may also be part of a consignment deal in which the banjo is sent with a batch of items that may or may not be sold and then sent back to the original owner if they are not sold.
Either way, you will likely not know if the quality of the item meets the condition you were promised until you take the banjo home and take it for a spin. Be sure to ask whether or not there will be refunds if the banjo does not appear to meet your expectations. Sometimes you notice problems with an instrument after you have gotten it home that you didn’t notice while in the store. This can often happen when you get excited about a particular banjo and overlook the small details.
Another factor that makes a big difference is whether or not the store actually fixes banjos. A used instrument store that also offers repair services should be much more knowledgeable about the condition of the banjo. You will also be able to connect with a resource for making the necessary repairs if you do happen to encounter any issues down the road.
Some of the major music retailers offer used instruments and also inspect them and rate them so you know what you are getting. Most of them also offer money-back guarantees so you will be able to return the banjo if it doesn’t meet your standards. Purchasing from a single person on eBay or Reverb may be a bit riskier as you are trusting that the person is being honest with you.
It isn’t easy to trust others so my first choice is always choosing a local music store if possible but if not, a reputable music dealer such as Guitar Center or Sweetwater will do.
2) What Are The Different Types Of Banjos?
You will find that the number of strings will determine which genre you can play. You will also see different variations of banjos such as open-back banjos that are constructed in such a way to produce softer and mellower sounds for relaxing sounds in quiet environments. You probably already know the type of banjo you are looking for but let’s look at a few different types.
The 4-string banjos exist in two different forms: the plectrum and tenor. Traditional Irish music players look for tenor banjos due to the shorter scale. Dixieland tribute bands tend to go for the plectrum and play the instrument using a guitar pick.
The 5-string banjos are much more popular than the 4-string variations. This is the variation that is used to make bluegrass and folk music. The fifth string produces a drone and is known as the “thumb string.” This feature allows the banjo to have many different tuning options. 5-string banjos are the most common type that you will see.
These types of banjos are essentially hybrids between a guitar and banjo and are often referred to as a “banjitar.” They can be used in jazz music and also known for producing a “bluesy” sound.
3) Should I Get A Banjo With A Resonator?
The resonator is the part of the banjo that helps reflect the sound, for instruments that are equipped with this part. In the alternative, a banjo can be an open-back banjo that does not have any resonator equipped on the back of the instrument. Banjos with resonators have a louder and brighter sound.
This feature is desired in bluegrass and jazz music, where the banjoist is likely to take solos. Folk artists will typically look for the open-back banjos because they are quieter. Consider this factor when you are shopping for banjos because it will make a significant difference.
Look at the condition of the resonator if you are looking to buy this type of banjo. Careful banjo maintenance involves the application of furniture wax on the resonator to both safeguard the finish and leaves the surface looking sharp. You can tell if this part has been cared for when it doesn’t have a bunch of scratches and dents.
4) What Do The Frets Look Like?
The frets are the metal bands along the fingerboard of the banjo that are responsible for determining the pitch, depending upon how the instrument is played. This is one of the more critical components of the banjo and, as such, will surely go a long way in determining the true value of the instrument.
Frets are typically made of one of two metals. You will most often find that the frets are made out of a nickel-silver alloy. Alternatively, they are composed of stainless steel, which is much more durable.
Deering reports that the nickel silver alloy fret is more than enough for most players. However, those who play more often will find themselves having to replace the frets every few months or so. Those who practice quite often or are used to pressing the strings down harder than most will likely find the stainless steel frets more suitable.
Either way, the condition of the frets will go a long way in determining if you are about to overpay for your banjo. When you are about to buy a banjo, check to see if the frets are made out of nickel alloy steel or stainless steel. The banjo with frets made of stainless steel could be a better deal, provided that they are in good shape.
If the frets are in bad shape, they can be changed out but it should be considered in the price that you pay. You will probably need to have a professional do this for you unless you think you can tackle it yourself. Either way, it will be an extra cost that you should consider before buying a banjo with frets that need replacing.
5) What Kind Of Shape Is The Neck In?
The neck of the banjo is made out of wood, while many other parts of the banjo are made out of metal and other materials of similar durability. As a result, the neck of the banjo is one of the components that is most susceptible to damage from changes in temperature and exposure to moisture.
Heat and humidity can cause the neck to start bowing. The bowing is not necessarily a sign that the banjo is beyond repair. Adjustments can be made to the truss rod of the instrument that will allow the neck to be reverted back to its intended position.
If the neck has a considerable amount of bowing, it could be a sign that the truss rod is broken or not functioning properly. This will be difficult to know for sure unless you attempt to adjust the truss rod. You won’t be able to do this in the store so it’s important to make sure the store you are purchasing from offers a returns policy.
How the truss rod should be adjusted:
- Backward bow: this defect follows the shape of an “n” if you look along the neck horizontally
- Forward bow: this defect follows a shape pattern in which the center is slightly lower than the sides if you look along the neck horizontally
If backward bow is the problem, then the truss rod can be loosened via the use of a truss-rod wrench. If the opposite is true, you should be able to make the necessary adjustment by tightening the truss rod. Rather than trying to make the adjustment after you buy the banjo, politely request the seller to make the adjustment themselves if they specialize in musical instruments. By doing this, you will leave it to the seller to make the adjustments and if they discover a non-functioning truss rod, you can walk away from the purchase.
The degree of bowing can be difficult to visualize. It is not necessarily as pronounced as it sounds like it may be. The desired amount of bowing is somewhere between 1/64” and 1/32”. This is equivalent to the thickness of a heavy gauge fourth string.
The truss rod tool that you will need will depend on your instrument. Some use an Allen wrench while some use a socket-type tool.
6) How Do I Know That The Banjo Head Is In Good Shape?
During the shopping process, you should be inspecting the banjo head. This includes the entirety of the circular part of the banjo and all attached components, including the tailpiece, armrest, and bridge. You are looking for dents, scratches, and other similar defects that will affect the sound.
A dirty banjo head is not necessarily a concern, since this can easily be cleaned. This look would be the result of the instrument being played often. While this is certainly something you can take care of yourself, it is a task that would normally be completed by the seller to make the banjo more presentable.
The dust and grime left on the banjo head are mostly residues from oils, moisture, and dirt on the fingers of the player. The banjo head can be cleaned with a white paper towel and a kitchen degreaser like Krud Kutter. The safest way to do this without damaging the banjo is to spray some of the cleaning solution on a white paper towel and gently rub the towel across the banjo head.
A dirty banjo head is not a big deal and is a good sign that the banjo was a good playable banjo. Some people like the worn look of a well-played banjo head as this can add character to the instrument. Just make sure that the head isn’t worn through and is still taught and intact.
7) Is The Bridge Serviceable?
The bridge of the banjo exists as a structure for the set of strings to pass over before connecting to the tailpiece at the bottom of the head. It is the part of the banjo that determines how well sound is transmitted from the strings to the head. As such, it is clearly a critical component. It may need to be entirely replaced if you can’t otherwise reach the desired sound.
Fortunately, it is pretty affordable as far as banjo components go, as you can see with the price tag on this replacement banjo bridge. Still, the condition of this part will go a long way in determining the usability of the instrument. You should also inspect the area where the bridge is supposed to go to make sure that there is not any structural damage.
Things to look for when you are performing a visual inspection of the bridge and its area:
- The bridge should sit flat and square and make full contact with the banjo head
- Look at the bridge shape. A thin bridge may have been sanded down to produce a brighter tone
- If a lot of modifications have been made, there shouldn’t be too many “battle scars” on the surface of the banjo that show that a lot of modifications were made and not performed carefully
- You may see a pencil mark or multiple ones. This is usually done so that it’s easy to know where to position the bridge. This is fine as most banjos you look at will have a pencil mark or two.
8) Look For Signs Of Rusting
When you are evaluating a used banjo, you should be looking for structural damage above all else. In the grand scheme of things, the parts like the strings, bridges, and frets will have to be replaced with some degree of regularity anyways. The major reason you look at those parts is to be able to negotiate towards what you feel is a fair price.
Structural damage like rusting might be a little more work to overcome. These could become more costly repairs and may be a red flag that the banjo was not particularly well taken care of by the previous owner.
Parts of the banjo that may be susceptible to rusting may include:
- Brackets (also known as tension hooks)
- Hooks, nuts and any lugs
- Armrests may be metal
The rusting may not necessarily be beyond repair, but it will require some degree of effort to clean up. Avoid paying more than you should for a banjo that has any rusting that will require a bunch of clean up on your part. Many banjo maintenance experts will encourage the use of 0000-grade (extra fine) steel wool to clean off parts that are mildly rusted.
Don’t commit to a banjo with major rusting. This a major presentation issue and shows that the seller doesn’t care enough to at least make the used banjo moderately presentable. This is a banjo that may have other underlying issues that even the seller isn’t aware of because they haven’t necessarily played the instrument themselves before.
9) Should I Be Worried About Dents In The Banjo?
One of your first steps should be inspecting the banjo for any dents. A big warning sign is if a banjo does not come with a case or appears that it has spent some time outside of a case. A banjo that has spent much of its life outside of the case will probably have at least a few dings and dents on it.
Good banjo cases are not hard to come by online. There are many different types of cases, some with hard outer shells and some with softer coverings. Even the fabric cases like the Crossrock Banjo Case, are quite effective as they are reinforced with high-density padding foam. Hardshell cases like the Crossrock Fiberglass Case are the premium options as far as banjo cases go.
Places to look for dents include:
- Banjo head
- Banjo neck
10) How To Know If A Banjo Is Valuable
It may be possible that you happen upon a rare find at a reasonable price. Looking for telltale signs of the banjo’s age is obviously important for those hunting collectibles, but even casual buyers should look for these features so that you are more well-aware of appropriate pricing.
You may accidentally happen upon treasures as a result of people emptying their attics or the attics of relatives. They may sell the item with little knowledge of its true value. You may also have someone try to pass something off as being more valuable than it actually is. For this reason, you should seek the advice of an expert appraiser when you feel that it is necessary.
Look at the coordinator rod of the banjo. The coordinator rod is the part that is used to adjust the bow angle and string height. If you remove the resonator from the banjo and find a wooden stick running under the banjo head connecting the neck to the tailpiece, then you are likely looking at an instrument that pre-dates WWII.
There are a variety of other features that will be characteristic of vintage instruments that are summarized on this web page. If you are a casual player, then it is most likely that you are just looking for a banjo that is at least relatively new.
The more you shop around, the more likely you will be able to happen upon the find of a lifetime. Be sure that you are at least aware of the steps to take before buying an item that’s being advertised as a gem.
Purchasing Directly From Another Person
Purchasing a banjo or any type of instrument directly from another person may be a good way to go if you know what you are looking for. If you have experience and know all the problem areas to look for, you could end up with a great deal. However, if you are a beginner, I wouldn’t suggest buying directly from another person unless you know and trust the person.
Answering an online ad for a used banjo may present you with a great deal or it could end up being a nightmare instrument. There are lots of scams out there so be careful. If the situation doesn’t seem right or if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Just walk away from these types of deals and don’t even bother negotiating.
If you run across a banjo that could be a great instrument and you have done all your checks, you can often negotiate a better deal than you could in a store. It’s worth a try if you find a good banjo from a trusted seller. Just be careful and make sure you check the item over as you would in any other case. Even better, take another musician with you to look at the instrument. Two sets of eyes will be able to spot things better than you doing it on your own. Besides that, having a second person may help to contain your excitement so that you don’t look past some problems that you wouldn’t have noticed if you had been alone.
Don’t worry about hurting the seller’s feelings. Give the banjo a good inspection even if they tell you everything is fine on it. Don’t trust the word of others unless you know that person. Treat it as a financial transaction that deserves all the due diligence that you can give it.
A used banjo may not necessarily be in perfect condition, but it should at least be priced appropriately for the shape that it is in. Parts like strings, frets, and bridges are easily replaceable and come at low costs. Banjos with major structural damage should be avoided, as these are likely beyond repair. Used banjos don’t come with warranties, so you certainly want to make sure that you know the red flags that signal when an instrument may not be worth the trouble.
Just make sure that you use common sense when shopping for a used banjo. Like anything, you will want to inspect it thoroughly for any of the issues discussed in the article above. These are the common issues that you are likely to find and you’ll be a step ahead of the game if you can spot red flags.