Banjos have one of the most easily recognizable sounds of any instrument, famous for their unique twang which can be heard in numerous popular bands. With that said, they can be a bit tricky to learn for those who have never played one before. We spent two days comparing banjos with new players in mind, and we'd say the Epiphone MB-100 is the best beginner banjo because it offers proven quality and performance at a reasonable price, which ultimately makes it the perfect fit for new players to learn on. Article Summary
Banjos have been around for a long time, offering one of the most easily distinguishable sounds of any string instrument. From rock bands like Mumford & Sons to country groups like Zac Brown Band, banjos play a prominent role in several different genres of music, and it’s safe to say bands like these would have quite a different sound with their beloved twang.
If you’re just getting into banjos for the first time, choosing the best beginner banjo can be a bit tricky. With regular acoustic or electric guitars, there are a number of different styles and designs, giving you a lot of options to choose from, especially in the entry-level range. While there are still some options with banjos, there isn’t quite as much variation, making the selection much more slim.
We’ve spent two days looking at banjos that would make great starter models for those who want to learn to play, and we’ve found three models that we believe fit the need perfectly. These banjos are all built with great quality, priced reasonably, and provide a simple design to learn on. Best of all, these beginner models are sure to keep up with you as your skill evolves, so you won’t need to buy another banjo just to keep advancing (which commonly happens with other beginner instruments).
The best beginner banjo overall
Epiphone isn’t a brand that traditionally makes banjos, even though their roots are somewhat intertwined with this instrument. However, their rise in popularity and overall growth has allowed them to expand their production to other instruments aside from guitars. As you could expect, they have applied the same type of ideology on banjos as they have on guitars. In other words, good quality at a reasonable price. The Epiphone MB-100 is the solid representation of that, offering great value for the money and a perfect starting model for beginners.
Epiphone MB-100 is a five-string, open back banjo. That is probably the most standard configuration you can run into. The entire thing was designed to be versatile, which is why many of its users like to take on the road with them. Once we get a bit closer, we can see that most of the components on the MB-100 are in line with the traditional standards. That means a Remo head, a classic 26.25-inch neck and more. With that said, Epiphone went with a good choice of materials. The entire instrument is made of good quality mahogany. That includes both the body and the neck of the MB-100.
One thing that is usually the pitfall of open-back banjos is the hardware. Since there is nothing to support the instrument in the back, the hardware is tasked with holding everything together as well as delivering a good performance. Epiphone knows this very well, which is exactly why they installed a good set of hardware on MB-100. Everything was designed in Nashville, TN and meets Epiphone’s strict quality control rules. For example, they fitted the MB-100 with solid nickel tuners, which are known to be more than decent in use.
The tone this banjo offers is great. You get a nice, lush sound which features good projection and volume. The only real thing to keep in mind with this model is that a proper setup might be necessary. Just like guitars, banjos can benefit greatly from a good setup job. Even so, you shouldn’t really run into any issues right out of the box.
We’ve chosen the Epiphone MB-100 as our top pick because it offers the best price to performance ratio. There are much cheaper banjos out there, but buying them is a gamble, to say the least. Those who want an instrument that will last, and keep up with the user as they progress in skill, should count on investing a little bit of extra money to get the right equipment.
A great bang for your buck
RW Jameson Guitar Company is known for their cost effective instruments which still satisfy a large number of quality requirements, and their 5-String Banjo is one of the best entry level models you can get, despite it being priced considerably lower than its immediate competition. The only reason why we have put this banjo in the second place is because of Epiphone’s proven track record. Not that we are seeking security in branding, but when a banjo has been out for so long and scores great marks across the board, Epiphone definitely did something right. With that said, Jameson’s banjo is also a great choice if budget is a top priority for you.
The first thing you will notice with this model is that it comes with a closed back. This means that you have a resonator that does wonders for the tone. Jameson’s main tonewood of choice for this model was mahogany. The neck is made out of it, as well as the resonator. Now, the shell is a 7 ply design that features multiple layers of both mahogany and maple. Solid shell designs are considered to be the best choice, but you can’t really expect that kind of design features in the entry-level segment of the market.
Moving on to the hardware, we see one interesting detail. Jameson has actually installed a geared tuner for the fifth string. Geared tuners are something you generally see on higher end models. Up next are the brackets. There are 24 of them, which means that the resonator and the shell are properly braced. One little feature that we really like about this banjo is the addition of the armrest. You’d be surprised how many entry level models come without this little plate, even though it is a fairly important element for beginners.
The tone you can expect from Jameson’s 5 string banjo is great, to say the least. Chords come off very naturally while faster paced picking lines sound awesome. The banjo comes more or lest already setup, meaning that you won’t have to do much aside from tuning the strings. With the hardware being pretty solid in the first place, making any kinds of adjustments to the action and the tuning of this banjo is fairly easy.
Overall, RW Jameson’s 5-String is a model we’d definitely recommend as one of the best beginner banjos. It is much easier on those who are working with a limited budget, which is exactly why it became so popular. In addition, the fact that Jameson included some fairly high-end solutions to this model has only brought it more positive attention.
A higher-end banjo for beginners
Last but not the least, we have a truly special banjo that exceeds what you would generally consider being an entry-level instrument. Deering’s Goodtime Banjo is more of a mid-range model than something designed for beginners. So, why did we include it on our short list? There are always two kinds of players for any type of instrument out there: those who start out and get a dedicated entry level instrument, and those who decide to invest into something that will last them far longer. This Deering banjo is there for the latter group.
Right off the bat, you will notice that this is an open back model, just like our top pick from Epiphone. However, that is where most similarities end. Deering went with maple as their tonewood of choice. Using maple instead of mahogany has its benefits, especially considering the quality of the maple used in this specific banjo. The neck is a solid maple piece with hardwood inlays and a rather slim neck profile. The shell is a maple design as well, although it’s not a solid piece but rather a 3 ply solution.
In terms of hardware, things get a lot more interesting. First of all, the tuners are all sealed and geared. This includes the fifth string tuning machine as well. The bridge is a maple and ebony piece that is fixed to a Deering’s original tailpiece. The entire banjo is finished with a nice satin layer, giving it a more refined feel. As soon as you pick the Goodtime for the first time, you just know you are holding a quality instrument.
The tone is definitely more in line with where this banjo sits on the general scale of quality. It is easily something you could use on stage should you need to. Its tuning retention capabilities are great, which isn’t really all that surprising considering how good the hardware is.
Those who want more of a “high-end beginner” banjo without stepping into true high-end territory, should really look into Deering’s Goodtime. This is one of the best bang-for-the-buck mid-range models you can find.
How we picked our top three
Finding a couple of banjos to recommend to beginners is a lot harder than it seems. Just like with any other instrument, there are so many cheap models out there that lack quality. Going in blindly and just selecting one based on looks is a sure-fire way to end up with a bad instrument. Therefore, we had to apply some rules to our selection process. Here are some of the more important ones.
Quality and performance
When it comes to quality, there are certain standards that need to be met. By this, we mostly mean the quality of tonewood and build in general. There are banjos that look great on paper but are pure trash when you actually pick them up and hold them. You will notice hasty finish job, a sub-par hardware, and other similar points of quality control (or lack thereof). All of these things can result in extremely poor performance. Our solution for this problem was to stick with brands that have a good track record when it comes to instruments, and more specifically banjos. The next step was to find models in their offer which met the rest of our requirements, which wasn’t all that hard. At the end of the day, we wanted to find banjos proven in both quality and performance. We feel that we have delivered a list that meets and exceeds that standard.
Even though banjos haven’t changed a lot since they have first appeared, there are still several variations to choose from. Our goal was to stick to the traditional designs as much as possible. With these, you know exactly what to expect and how to treat that instrument. On top of that, learning technique and developing your skills on a traditional banjo is much easier. With that said, we did include two open-back models and one closed-back banjo to give you some choice if you’ve already done a little research on which back style you prefer.
Lastly, we have to talk a bit about the price. After all, that is one of the most important factors for any beginner. You don’t want to spend too much money, but spending too little is definitely more dangerous. Like we have said before, there are so many dirt cheap banjos out there which can be tempting. However, with these instruments, you definitely get what you pay for. Our goal in choosing the best beginner banjo was to find a happy medium where you would get more than the minimum of quality, while still spending a reasonable amount of money.
Things to consider before buying
Choosing a good banjo for your needs requires some planning. The models we have shown you above are the most vanilla type of banjo you can get. As you can expect, there are other types out there as well. Here are some of the most important things to consider before you make a final decision.
What type of music do you plan to play?
This is actually a big one. Banjos are used in a variety of genres, he type of music you intend on playing can dictate what kind of banjo you should get. Thankfully, most new users are interested in playing the genres which are covered by a standard 5-string banjo. These include jazz, country, rock, bluegrass, and others. Now, if you are more into Irish traditional music or Dixieland style, a four-string banjo is probably going to work much better for you.
With that said, you will still be able to play anything you want to on any banjo. The only real thing that will change is how much the tone of your banjo is in line with that genre. We think that most banjo players agree that stuff like this is not too important when you are just starting out. However, if you are getting a banjo that you plan on playing for a long time, it doesn’t hurt to take genres of music into consideration.
Open-back or closed-back?
Choosing whether to go with an open-back or closed-back banjo mostly comes down to personal preference, as the main difference between the two is sound. Traditional banjos were exclusively open back. This design offers a balanced tone that isn’t too sharp or aggressive. Closed-back banjos are no different apart from the resonator piece in the back, which is designed to channel all of the sound produced by the instrument towards the audience. For the most part, those who perform on stage often like to use a closed-back type of banjo because of this projection upgrade. Either one is going to work great for a new user, so just go with what you like better.
Figuring out a budget for a banjo is just like any other instrument for those who are new. There is a single question you need to ask yourself: Are you going to be playing in the foreseeable future? Here’s the key to solving this issue: If you are not sure whether or not playing banjo is something you want to do in the long run, investing in a more expensive instrument makes no sense. Users who think like this should get a decent affordable instrument and run with it. However, if you know that banjo is something you want to do in the future, investing in a better starter instrument can be extremely beneficial down the road. Doing things this way means that you don’t have to worry about replacing your banjo anytime soon, nor do you have to think about the quality of your instrument.
Other accessories you may need
Accessories are often overlooked when new users pick their first instrument. Do yourself a favor and factor these in right away, as doing so will make your life much easier. There are basically two accessories you should get right from the start. One is a bag for your banjo, and the other is a decent strap.
As you probably know already, banjos are relatively gentle instruments. It really doesn’t take a lot to damage one if you don’t handle it with enough care. As such, some sort of protection is necessary. If you can’t get anything better than a simple gig bag, that is completely fine. At least your banjo will have some sort of protection during transport and storage. On the other hand, if your budget allows, you should definitely look into hard cases as they offer much better protection than a standard soft gig bag.
Straps are pretty self-explanatory. Playing banjo sitting down is great for practicing but you should try and play it while standing as much as you can. Doing this will get you comfortable with holding a banjo in this position, which is something many new players tend to overlook. A good strap is a must-have piece of gear. Especially since it is meant to keep your banjo from dropping on the ground. Don’t cheap out on straps, no matter what instrument you play.
Online banjo lessons for beginners
Luckily, in this day and age, there are tons of online videos and tutorials for any beginner who’s just getting started with an instrument. Below is one of the best beginner videos we’ve found, but there’s also a whole library of lessons on BanjoCompass.com. We’d recommend starting there.
Wrapping it up
Choosing your first banjo is every bit as exciting as it is scary. Being new to an instrument means that you still don’t know all that much about it, which is why we tried to provide as much information as possible to guide you through buying your first one. The three banjos we’ve chosen are proven in terms of quality and performance while offering reasonable price tags, making them the perfect fit for any beginner to learn on. Consider the type of music you’ll play and which style you like best, and you’ll be on your way to mastering this infamous instrument.