Best Banjos for Beginners – Buying Guide and Reviews

Banjos are the unsung hero of string-based music, often overshadowed by its bigger brother, the guitar. However, they’re massively fun instruments to play and one of the easiest to learn. There are several types of banjo to choose from, from resonator to open-back to hybrid varieties.

In this article, we guide you through how to find the best beginner banjo.

At a Glance: Our Pick of the Best Banjos for Beginners

Note: Clicking the above links will take you to further information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.

Buyer’s Guide – Key Considerations

Resonator or Open Back

The first decision most beginners needs to make is whether to go for a resonator or open back model. Closed back resonators have a metal plate attached to their back, which, as the name suggests, helps to resonate the instrument’s sound. Bluegrass musicians especially favor them for their extra projection. The open back type, as you have probably guessed, has an exposed back which does not project sound nearly as much, giving you a much mellower tone altogether. They’re popular with folk musicians, especially those who play the clawhammer technique as opposed to plectrum. So are you into bluegrass, folk, or somewhere in between? If you can’t make up your mind, go for something like the Jamesons Guitars one that had a detachable resonator, so you get the best of both worlds.

Number of Strings

The second most important consideration is how many strings you want. Unlike the guitar, which in most cases always has six, banjos vary from four to six. Many beginner models have just four, and to a great extent it’s advisable the beginner starts with one of these. Five string models include a fifth ‘drone string,’ which lets you play traditional bluegrass or jazz styles.  Finally, six string banjos are more familiar with guitarists for obvious reasons, but they don’t have drone either.

Wood Type

The rim and the neck are the most important in terms of wood type. High-quality rims are made from multiple layers (or ‘plies’) of wood that produces a nice resonant sound. Cheaper models are often made from porous wood or, in the case of many rims, aluminum.

So what types of wood are the best? Well, for the neck and body, mahogany or maple tend to be the material of choice – maple is slightly brighter than mahogany, which tends to be on the ‘softer’ side. Sapele wood is popular too, giving you a well-balanced sound with not too much twang.

As for the fretboard, the best ones are made from extra tough hardwood such as ebony or maple (ebony is considered superior). For the bridge, maple is a popular choice.

Amplification

At this stage in your buying journey, it’s wise to ask yourself if you plan to gig with your banjo. The models we review below are all of the acoustic variety, but you can find electric models but they tend not to resonate as well. The option most people take is to buy an aftermarket banjo pickup.

Product Round-Up & Reviews – Best Banjo for Beginners

Jameson Guitars

Jameson Guitars 5-String Banjo 24 Bracket with Closed Solid Back and Geared 5th Tuner

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For a fairly standard mid-range price, this one by Jameson Guitars features some decent design ideas. So, what exactly do you get for your money? Well, the best aspect of this model has to be its closed mahogany back and maple bridge. Jameson have used mahogany as it provides a full, resonant sound and looks really attractive, whereas maple allows the notes to sustain well and produce a nice bright tone. There’s even a removable resonator back, for that extra amplification if you’re in a band. Other design features include 24 brackets and a stylish chrome plated armrest.

Because this instrument has five strings, you’ll be able to learn to play a full range of traditional techniques using the drone string. There’s even a geared 5th tuner, so you’ll be able to adjust it to just how you like it. There’s also an adjustable tailpiece (that’s hinged) and truss rod, so you can set up the neck and action how you like it. Just remember, it’s full-sized so it may be a little big for kids.

Who is it suitable for?

Overall, it will suit any adult novice looking to learn traditional bluegrass or jazz styles. The overall tone this model kicks out if very nice considering the mid-range price. There’s also a lefthanded version available, for any lefties out there.

PROS

  • Tonewood – For an affordable price you get mahogany back and maple neck, which are high-quality hardwoods.
  • Drone string – Can’t be used to play traditional styles of music.

CONS

  • Fiddly – Removing the resonator and putting it back on may take some time.
  • Tuning pegs – Apart from the 5th string, which has an adjustable screw, the other tuners are quite tricky to use and not quite as precise.

Lagrima Banjolele

LAGRIMA 4 String Concert 24.5 Inch Banjo Uke Ukulele Banjo

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This somewhat unique instrument is a cross between a ukulele and a banjo (it’s tuned like a ukulele but looks and sounds like a banjo). The best thing about this is its size – it’s tiny – which makes it perfect for kids to use and easy to carry to lessons. It’s only 24.5” long, with a neck that is 3.5” wide and features a press easy fretboard with low action so that kids can play notes easily.

Another cool aspect here it’s fingerboard is made from high-quality rosewood, which means it produces lovely warm, rich tones. The closed-backed body is made from a solid piece of sapele wood, which gives it a deep, well-balanced, tonal clarity.

As it has four strings, it won’t be as confusing for kids to learn chords and scales on. As such, they won’t have the luxury of a drone string, so will eventually miss out on learning to play using traditional techniques.

So, as you’ve probably already clocked, this is perfect for kids, as it is small, portable and specially designed for little fingers. For the price, you get some high-quality tonewoods here too, especially with the rosewood fingerboard.

PROS

  • Price – This thing is the most affordable we’ve reviewed, so you won’t need to break your bank account to afford one.
  • Playability – Small and easy, making them an excellent choice for younger children.

CONS

  • No 5th string – You won’t be able to learn traditional styles.

Vangoa

Vangoa 5 String Banjo Remo Head Closed Solid Back with beginner Kit, Tuner, Strap, Pick up, Strings, Picks and Bag

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If you’re after a complete beginner package, then Vangoa’s bundle is something you should consider. Here you get accessories such as a tuner, gig bag, pick up, strings and the instrument all for a similar price as the Jameson’s one we mentioned earlier. So, you may find yourself saving a bit of cash not having to purchase all the extra gear separately.

The best thing about the instrument itself is that it features as high-quality Remo drum head, which you can bend to create different pitches in your melody, pretty cool eh? As well as this, you can detach the back of the banjo so it can sound like an open back or a resonator. So, tone-wise, this thing is pretty versatile and should meet the styles of both folk artists and bluegrass banjo players.

In terms of tonewood, the neck, back, and sides are made from mahogany. This produces a warm, rich tone while remaining reasonably tough and durable – which is great if you’re going to be traveling a lot with it. The neck itself has an adjustable truss rod built in, which means that you can adjust the string height to your liking with little difficulty. Unlike some models, this version comes with step by step instructions which describe how to set it up and how to adjust the tension safely.

Who is it suitable for?

Overall, its a great option for musicians that want to have the option to learn different styles of music. With its additional 5th drone string and removable back, you won’t miss out on anything, and for this price, you get a lot of quality material and equipment.

PROS

  • Versatile – Having a removable back and an extra 5th string means you’ll be able to play most styles of traditional and modern music.
  • Price – This bundle is value for money considering the equipment and quality tonewood provided.
  • Construction – Not too bad for the price.

CONS

  • Not so bright – Because the tonewood used is entirely mahogany, you miss out on some of that twang and brightness that maple or ebony offer.
  • Jack of all trades – It’s versatile, but it doesn’t offer the full intensity of a higher quality resonator model.

Trinity River

Trinity River TRTB1 4-String Tenor Banjo

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Here we have another mid-range product, selling for a similar price to the Jameson and Vangoa’s bundle pack. However, it’s a four string resonator and comes with a carry case, so it is slightly different from the models we’ve just discussed.

The two best features that the TRTB1 has to offer are its Nato resonator, which works wonders at amplifying the instrument’s sound, and the Remo head, which provides that classic bright, twangy tone. So, put both these components together, and you get an instrument that cuts through a mix with no issues, making it a great option if you’re going to be playing in an ensemble regularly.

Just be aware that there are 19 frets across the neck and that the frets are pretty wide. This longer scale size shouldn’t be a worry if you’re a larger adult, but kids and more petite builds may find this a bit of a stretch to play comfortably. With that in mind, there’s an adjustable truss rod in the neck, and a set of open tuners, so you can set the intonation and action up just the way you like it so that it’s more comfortable.

Who is it suitable for?

Overall, thanks to its high-quality resonator and head, it’s perfect for any of you in a group. The thing you need to remember is that the TRTB1 is going to be too large for kids.

PROS

  • Tone – The TRTB1 has a fantastic traditional tone, which sounds excellent used in bluegrass and folk styles.
  • Loud – The Nato resonator allows this thing to boom out melodies.

CONS

  • The case this instrument comes with isn’t protective and lacks padding.

Washburn Americana Series

Washburn Americana Series 5-String Banjo, 22 Frets, Mahogany Neck, Rosewood Fretboard, Remo Top, Sunburst Gloss

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As far as banjo brands go, Washburn American is right up there. This model is one of their costliest ones, but you get some brilliant features for the extra money. The manufacturers are so sure their design will stand the test of time that they’ve even included a lifetime warranty for your peace of mind, which is never a bad thing.

The best thing about this is its quality mahogany neck, back, and body. This gives it a lovely rich, warm tone, with plenty of resonance that booms out towards your audience. The neck is also covered in a rosewood fretboard, which further exaggerates the overall tone and volume you get from the body wood. The neck itself is fitted with an adjustable truss rod, so you can fine-tune the intonation just how you like it.

The additional 5th string will allow you to learn the full range of traditional playing techniques and comes with a geared planetary tuner, so you can change the drone tuning when necessary. The other 4 strings are manipulated by guitar style tuners, so even beginners should be able to figure out how to use them easily enough.

When it comes to playability, there’s a built-in chrome armrest so that you can relax while you strum and marked frets, so you can keep track of where and what you’re playing. This instrument has a whopping 29 frets, which means it’ll most likely be far too large for kids and possibly some smaller adults too.

Who will get the most out of this?

Overall, this one is perfect for intermediate to advanced adults that want to invest in an instrument that they can play the full range of traditional music styles with. This thing is built to last, so your extra cash is probably a wise investment if you’re happy with a warm tone, rather than a twangy one.

PROS

  • Tonewoods – Mahogany and rosewood used here give it a rich, warm tone, with good amplification.
  • 5th string – For traditional styles.

CONS

  • Lots of frets – 29 frets make this instrument too big for children.
  • Price – This is the most expensive item we review, so make sure you won’t be breaking the bank if you buy one.

Deering Goodtime

Goodtime 17-Fret Tenor 4-String Banjo

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This one from Deering Goodtime is the only six string model we discuss today and is currently selling for a mid-range price similar to the one from Trinity River. But what exactly do you get for your dollar? Well, of course, the thing that sets this instrument apart from the rest is that a guitarist will be able to pick it up and play, thanks to it having six strings. So, in that way, Deering Goodtime has created a banjo that is easy to work with, by incorporating a guitar’s scale and chord theory into their design. Just remember that if you’re looking to play traditional folk or bluegrass styles, this doesn’t include a drone string so it won’t teach you the technique.

In terms of tonewood, the neck and body are made from Sapele wood, which produces a well-balanced sound, with not too much high and not too much low twang. There is also a rosewood fretboard which emits a warm, rich tone. Overall, this instrument kicks out warmer sounds rather than that extra twangy sound you get from some models made from maple or ebony.

There are 22 frets in total, so it isn’t as large scale-wise compared to the Washburn model we mentioned above. There’s also an armrest and marked frets so you can visualize where you need to place your hands.

Who will appreciate this?

Overall, due to it being slightly smaller than Washburn’s design, it’s probably going to work well with more petite musicians, that have had some experience with the guitar. However, remember you won’t be able to pick up the full range of playing techniques you would on a banjo with a 5th drone string.

PROS

  • Great for Guitarists – If you’re okay with the guitar, you’ll be able to play this easily.
  • Warm tone – The Sapele wood body and rosewood fretboard mean it kicks out a well-balanced, warm sound.

CONS

  • No good for traditional styles.

Recording King Dirty Thirties

Recording King RKT-05 Dirty Thirties Tenor Banjo

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This beauty is the second most expensive on the list, but for the price, you get some pretty cool features. The best thing about the design is that it has 4-strings, making it easier for beginners to get their head around, without that extra drone string adding to the confusion. The instrument comes tuned to C-G-D-A, and as it’s a tenor banjo, it’s is great for Celtic, folk and 30’s style Dixieland jazz.

The second coolest thing here is that the neck and rim are made from maple for that bright twang, with plenty of sustain. There’s also a rosewood fretboard, for that extra smoothness and a touch of warmth – this works well with the bite you get from the maple neck. It’s worth mentioning that the neck itself has an adjustable truss rod, so you can set up the intonation to meet your needs.

In terms of playability, the instrument’s scale length is 23,” and there are 19 frets, so most builds of musician should find it comfortable. As well as this, there’s also a marked fretboard, so you can visualize where to place your hands for chords and scales.

Who will like this?

Overall, we’d say that Recording King’s RTK-05 will be great a choice for beginners that want something simple using a high-quality instrument. Having four strings will make it easier to grasp the basics like simple chord shapes and arpeggios; however, remember that you won’t be able to learn drone technique without the 5th string.

PROS

  • Tone – The RTK-05 produces a bright, twangy tone, perfect for folk and jazz styles.
  • 4- strings – It won’t take as much time to master.

CONS

  • Price – There are other four string models out there for less cost, see the Trinity River model we reviewed earlier for example.
  • Technique – Not great for traditional styles.

So, Which is the Best?

If you want to play traditional styles of folk, jazz, and bluegrass, then a five string will be your best bet. So have a look Jameson Guitar’s model if you’re a lefty or the Washburn Americana or the Vangoa if you need something of professional quality. Just bear in mind, the Vangoa is a little cheaper than the Washburn Americana, but isn’t quite as durable.

If you’re a complete beginner and want to ease yourself into learning, then go for a four string like Recording King’s RTK-05 or Trinity River’s TRT-B1.

If you have some experience with the guitar already, then you’ll get along with Deering Goodtime’s six-string banjo.

Finally, if you need something for your kids to mess around on, the Banjolele by Laguna is a great choice. This thing is tiny and features a set of easy press strings so that little fingers won’t struggle.

Happy Strumming 🙂


Image Credits:

Featured image source: Mark Walz / CC BY-SA 2.0

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