In the world of banjos, tenors are the perfect choice for anybody looking to start playing an instrument without previous experience, making them ideal for beginners. They’re short in length with narrow necks, so incredibly comfortable and easy to play. Their four strings also mean that these things are easier to master, than say, a six-string acoustic guitar which is harder to get your head around.
Tenor banjos usually come with either 17 or 19 frets and are used to play Celtic folk music, jazz, and popular music as part of an ensemble. The 17 fret Irish tenor banjo is usually a bit smaller, whereas the 19 fret variety will have its strings tuned to GDAE rather than CDGA, in 5ths.
In this article, we’re going to cover everything you need to think about if you’re interested in getting one.
At a Glance: Our Choice Of The Best Tenor Banjos On The Market
- Gold Tone AC-4 (Best for Beginners)
- Rover RB-35T Resonator (Best Vintage)
- Trinity River TRTB1 (Most Affordable)
- Deering Goodtime 17-Fret (Premium Choice)
- Recording King RKT-05 Dirty Thirties (Best for Folk)
Note: The links above take you to more information, current prices and customer reviews on Amazon.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Buying Guide – Key Considerations
So, how do you decide if you go for an instrument with 17 or 19 frets? Well, neither is inherently better of course, but they do have their differences. Tenors with 17 frets tend to be used to play Celtic and folk styles of music and are tuned to GDAE, in ascending order. This is great if you want to play traditional folk music specifically, but it can make it harder for players to transition over to a 19-fret banjo. These models are tuned to CDGA, so will play completely differently in regards to chord shapes and scales. The ones with 19 frets are often used to play Dixieland jazz or pop music, so are a great choice if you want something with a little more sonic versatility.
Before you buy any old tenor banjo, make sure you check the product description specifics, as some more affordable options don’t come ready to play. For example, often, the bridge isn’t set up, and the strings will not be in place or tuned. So, beginners may struggle to get everything up and running and may even damage the instrument trying to set everything up.
Even if you do manage, chances are the action won’t be exactly how you like it, which means the strings may feel uncomfortable to play, and the instrument’s intonation may be incorrect. But don’t worry, this is all fine because you can always ask a music shop to set it up for you – remember it’ll cost you, so factor in the extra chunk of cash when you make the purchase.
Product Round-up & Reviews – Best Tenor Banjos
Gold Tone AC-4
So, we start our reviews by looking at the second most affordable tenor banjo on our list, the AC-4, but what exactly do you get for your dollar? Well, we think the best aspect here has to be the instrument’s African blackwood fingerboard. This gives its overall tone a very rich warmth, similar to Brazilian rosewood, which is a rare find these days. In terms of playability, the blackwood fingerboard feels very smooth, like ebony, so you’ll have no problem sliding up and down the frets on this thing.
This manufacturer have also designed the AC-4 to include a two-way adjustable truss rod, which means you can adjust the instrument’s tension in both directions – towards the body end and the headstock. This is a cool feature if you’re a fussy musician because you get extra scope for manipulating the intonation and string tension to exactly how you like it. In regards to tone, this thing has an 11” smooth Remo head, so it’ll bring plenty of bright highs into your mix. There’s a composite rim designed to provide a little extra snap, which compliments the bite from the mylar head nicely. They’ve also given the AC-4 a professional looking satin black finish, which will be sure to blend in with most styles of music and ensembles. The company have been quite generous here and included a convenient gig bag, which considering the price, is good value and will save you some cash in the long run.
So, overall, we’d say this banjo is a great option for beginners shopping on a budget. This thing even arrives at your door with a professional set up so you won’t be needing to spend any extra cash getting it adjusted in a music shop.
- Comes setup – This saves you a lot of time and money initially.
- Tonewood – The AC-4 features a quality blackwood fingerboard, which is smooth on fingertips.
- On the bright side – If you’re after traditional cowskin head tones, this will most likely be too twangy for you.
- Machine heads – These aren’t the best quality out there, and are prone to damage if they get knocked about a lot.
Rover RB-35T Resonator
Next, we’re taking a look at the Rover’s RB-35T Resonator, which is currently selling for a mid-range price. So, what exactly do you get for your dollar? Well, if you’re a fan of the 1920s and 30s sounding tenors, this is the perfect choice for you. Rover have included a single-leg 30’s style armrest and an Old Waverly tailpiece for a touch of vintage-inspired comfort and tone. There’s also a rich, rustic sounding mahogany resonator, for some extra power and a nickel-plated flange to secure the head in place, so you’ll have your audience convinced your instrument is old school.
Another great thing about the RB-35T is that it features a mahogany neck and an Indian rosewood fretboard, both of which provide your ears with rich, warm tones. It’s worth pointing out that these woods work nicely with the mahogany resonator we mentioned above too. Along the fretboard Rover have also included handy dot position markers, so you know what key you’re playing in at all times. Additionally, they’ve incorporated an adjustable truss rod into the neck so you can get your string tension set up exactly how you like it. This instrument comes set up to CGDA standard tuning, with the bridge in the correct place too. So, it’ll likely save you some time and cash otherwise spent taking it for a setup at your local music shop.
Overall the RB-35T is going to suit anybody into country, blues and Dixieland jazz era vintage sounding music. For the price, you get some authentic features and high-quality tonewoods that’ll leave your audience believing they’ve taken a time machine back to the 1930s.
- Vintage – Rover have included a 30’s looking armrest and an Old Waverly tailpiece for a truly retro experience.
- Tonewood – The mahogany and rosewood used here give out a lovely warm tone.
- Not so bright – If you want twang, you’re not going to find it here.
- Very loud – If you want something quite to practice with at home, don’t choose this model, this instrument is noisy.
Trinity River TRTB1
So, now lets look at the most affordable so far, the TRTB1 by Trinity River. But, is it any good for the low cost? Well, firstly you get 19 frets here, so this thing is designed for a CDGA tuning and Bluegrass and Dixieland Jazz styles over Celtic or folk, and it pulls it off fairly well. It’s Nato wood resonator resembles a lower-quality mahogany version, but because it’s less dense, it absorbs more of the instrument’s sound. This means the banjo doesn’t project too well, in comparison to say, a high-quality mahogany version, however, the overall tone it produces is still pretty decent and on the warm side of things. There’s also a coated, plastic Remo head which adds a little extra depth to your tone.
Trinity River have also been pretty generous and included a custom-fitted gig bag, which is kind considering the low cost. But of course, being an affordable option, the TRTB1 is imported from China and doesn’t come set up, so you can either give this a go yourself (which isn’t advisable if you’re a complete novice) or take it for a setup at a music store. Just remember to factor in the extra cost of this before you purchase, as you may be better off purchasing something a little higher-quality that includes a setup.
We’d say that overall, this thing is an excellent option for complete beginners that are shopping on a budget. While it’s true the tone doesn’t equally match say the RB-35T we mentioned above, for the money, it’s pretty decent, plus you get a gig bag.
- Remo head – This gives the instrument a little more beef and depth of tone.
- Gigbag – For the price, it’s generous to get a carry case included here too.
- Tone – The sound this thing kicks out is ok, but not the best out there.
- Tuning – If you don’t get a professional setup, the TRTB1 tends to go out of tune quickly.
Deering Goodtime 17-Fret
The next on our list is our premium choice, so what exactly do you get for your dollar here? Well, the Deering Goodtime’s 17 Fret features some high-quality tonewoods, so we’d say it’s definitely worth the money. The three-ply maple rim and maple neck combined with the maple resonator gives the instrument a fantastic bright twang, which works especially well in Celtic and folk styles of music. The neck itself is also super slim, so most builds of player will find it comfortable to hold and get their hands around. That said, if you’re tall or have an especially large handspan, it may feel a little too thin for your taste.
Deering Goodtime have also included a set of sturdy, geared tuning machine heads, so you’re never going to struggle to keep this thing in tune. Additionally, there’re dot inlays across the fretboard so you can tell exactly what notes you’re playing without having to think too much. The manufacturers have also been kind enough to ship it with its bridge pre-setup so you won’t have to fuss about taking it to a music shop for extra attention. Aesthetically speaking, Deering Goodtime have done a great job making this thing look classy and stylish, with its white head skin and pale maple body and neck wood.
So, who’s this instrument best suited for? Well, we’d say this thing’s going to be a great option for anybody looking to play Celtic or folk genres of music. It’s got some very high-quality maple included for the price and delivers a very pleasing tone, with plenty of note separation too.
- Tone – Sounds incredibly bright and crisp.
- Thin neck – This makes increases playability by making it easier to maneuver your hand across the fretboard.
- Price – All this quality material comes at a higher cost than the other models we’ve mentioned.
- Thin strings – This isn’t really a flaw, but some players may prefer the tone and feel of heavier gauge strings.
Recording King RKT-05 Dirty Thirties
The last Tenor model we take a look at during this article is Record King’s RKT-05 Dirty Thirties. This item is currently selling for a mid-range price similar to the AC-4 we mentioned earlier, but what exactly do you get for the money here?
Well, the RTK-05 is designed to play Celtic and folk styles of music and pulls it off pretty well, thanks to the tonewoods that Record King have made it from. The neck and rim are both made from high-quality maple, which produces that bright twang you’d expect from a folk banjo. But, interestingly, they’ve also included a rosewood fretboard, so you get a nice touch of warmth alongside all those bright highs. The neck itself also contains an adjustable truss rod, so you’ll be able to adjust this thing to the exact tension you like.
The RTK-05 comes tuned CGDA which also works really well in Celtic styles of playing and features a Remo fiberskyn head, for a sound as close to animal hide as you can get. Fiberskyn heads sound really warm and full, and work well when used with claw hammer styles of playing. Just remember, they’re slightly quieter than plastic versions, so if you need something loud, this may not be the right banjo for you. In terms of playability, the neck here is nice and thin, so even if you’re petite, you should have no problem playing this thing. There are 19 frets in total, marked by black dot inlays, so you’ll always know what key you’re playing in.
Overall, we’d say the RTK-05 is an excellent option for anybody wanting to purchase a high-quality banjo to play folk and Celtic styles of music. This thing sounds quite similar to Deering Goodtime’s premium choice option above so you may find you save a little money buying this instead.
- Tonewood – High-quality maple and rosewood give this instrument a really decent sound.
- Fiberskyn head – This is the closest sounding material to real animal skin heads, and it sounds fantastic.
- Paintjob – The finish on this instrument isn’t great; some of the black colors look uneven.
- Flimsy – Although the tone is similar to our premium choice option, this thing is not quite as durable and isn’t likely to last as long.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this read and feel like you’ve got a better idea about which you should choose. Overall, there’s no correct choice; it rather depends on how much you’re looking to spend and what style you want to play.
With that in mind, if you’re a beginner, perhaps the AC-4 would be a great option, this model is really comfortable to play thanks to the Blackwood fretboard.
If you’re looking for something that sounds and looks vintage, we’d recommend Rover’s RB-35T Resonator for Dixieland Jazz and Record King’s RTK-05 for folk styles of playing. Both pull off 1920’s-30’s styles nicely.
If you’re shopping on a tight budget then go for Trinity River’s TRT-B1, this thing still features some decent Nato tonewood, and you’ll barely notice a dent in your bank balance for it.
Finally, if you’re willing to spend a bit more on the best of the best, then you should consider Deering Goodtime’s 17 Fret Banjo. This model produces a lovely bright twang thanks to its maple neck, making it perfect for folk music.