A Very Small Banjo World

This entry was posted by on Sunday, 16 October, 2005 at

So I’m finally getting frustrated with my cheap “beginner” banjo. The The pegs are super-cheap; whenever I try to tighten the drum head, they slip off. The action above the 5th fret is terrible, probably due to cheap-neck curvature. The tone is weak, and I’m insanely jealous when I listen to my teacher play his banjo. One day I asked my teacher: “why does your banjo sound so GOOD?”. He said that it was “all about the rim” — it turns out he’s playing a Stelling Bellflower with a Tony Pass rim. What an incredible, punchy tone. It just cuts right through you.

Oh Yes, It Will Be Mine.

It’s funny, I used to think that it was wrong to buy expensive instruments unless you were a truly great player and “worthy” of such hardware. But now I realize that even if you’re still an intermediate player, having a really nice instrument is just an incentive to practice more often… it makes everything more enjoyable! My teacher was right: if having a nice instrument makes you pick it up more often, then it’s worth every penny.

In any case, I posted some of my questions about rims to the discussion board on www.banjohangout.org, and it generated a number of interesting responses. Even more interesting is that a couple of days later, I got a private email from Tony Pass himself! He offered to answer any questions I had about building or buying a banjo, a really sincere email. Tony said I’d be “surprised at how cheap I can put together a professional quality banjo.”

Moral of story:

  • It’s a really small banjo world. Every banjo player knows every other one, and the folks who build banjos are even more famous (and just as accessible) in the community.
  • I don’t know squat about banjo construction. I’ve got a lot of reading to do, and a lot of research to do. Maybe I’ll take a drive up to Elderly Instruments in East Lansing, MI, or maybe I’ll head down to visit the Squeaky Animal Studio in Nashville. I’m sure Mark and Marg are surrounded by banjo-crafters and dealers.

Until I try a whole bunch of different banjos, I have no idea what “sound” I want, much less how to ask an expert to build one for me. Ah well, all in good time. I’ll keep saving my pennies and doing my research.

8 Comments to A Very Small Banjo World

  1. David Carlton says:

    February 5th, 2006 at 10:51 pm

    I completely agree about getting a good instrument; I’m a decent but by no means exceptional piano player, but I am so happy with the piano we bought a year or two ago. I was just playing it today and thinking how pleasant it feels…

    (For those who care, a Bohemia 132 “Concerto” upright with Renner hammers; much much much nicer than a grand piano of the same price would have been.)

  2. Simon Griffiths says:

    December 30th, 2006 at 9:37 am

    One of the first things my dad taught me was that beginners couldn’t be expected to use sub-standard tools – they don’t have the skills to persuade them to do the job.
    I’m a rubbish picker, but looking at building my own banjo, and doing what you are probably doing – researching, researching, researching.
    I’m not surprised at Tony’s response – he’s a machinist, used to working with close tolerances, good tools, and understands that art is only science that isn’t understood – yet. And he’s gone a long way to doing that. And yes – I’ll be buying one of his rims, his logic is impeccable – good enough for Stelling, way good enough for me!
    So get, build, borrow whatever makes your playing easier and more inspiring. If you want to pick it up and play it, because it sounds good, you’ll learn quicker, and enjoy it more.
    Could there be a better reason?


  3. Jason Selig says:

    January 3rd, 2007 at 4:16 pm

    I have spent lots of time researching banjos.

    I started playing banjo about six months ago, and I quickly outgrew the Fender “start-up” kit that I bought to learn. I have been taking lessons since I bought it, but grew tired of the toy-like sound it produces.

    With the recent sale of my house, I decided that I would reward myself with a nice banjo. I was not sure what I wanted, but I knew I wanted “that” sound.

    That’s when the research began… further fueling the confusion. It seemed like every banjo player had his/her own opinion. Gibson, Deering, Stelling, Ome…. Maple, Mahogany, Walnut, Cherry – Which one do I choose.

    Not to mention that the selection in stores was limited to none, as Baltimore is not exactly a hotbed for banjo pickers.

    I found a place called Turtle Hill Banjo Company in Maryland. The drive was about an hour, and I figured I would go to the shop and see what I liked. I was blown away! I sat there and played more than 30 different banjos. I didn’t look at names, or prices. I just played and eliminated banjos until I found the “right” banjo for me. In fact, at one point I grew tired of playing, so the owner of the shop played for me. It was a great experience, and very educational.

    I wound-up buying a 1925 Gibson Style 3. However, It was a very difficult choice, and I am still thinking about some of the other banjo’s I have played. I will reward myself again one day and I will definately go back to a place like Turtle Hill.

    So, what became of the Fender? I have muted it down to nothing with a mute, rags behind the head and everything else I can do to dampen the sound. It is now my nightime practice banjo.

    My advice is:
    -Play as many banjos as you can
    -Try to play them at the same time, so the sound will be fresh and you will be able to differentiate.
    -Have fun with it, and learn as you go.
    -Don’t be stuck on any certain brand/model before you start, because what you orignially want and what you end-up wanting could be totally different.

    Good luck,


  4. James says:

    July 12th, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    If your ever looking to buy a new banjo, or to learn more about the history of the banjo, check out our site.


  5. Mark Hopkins says:

    January 20th, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    I started with a Goodtime, and it’s been a great banjo. But when I was ready to upgrade (and I had convinced my wife I was going to stick with this thing), I chose a Chuck Lee model. I describe it as a grand piano versus an upright. Both will do the job, but the better, more expensive one just feels more ‘right’.

    I’m in Texas, so that might have influenced the Chuck Lee decision, but but I am extremely happy with it.


  6. Jason Bickel says:

    March 10th, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    Hey any of you pickers want to try playin to some really catchy pop/country songs of mine. My name is Jason Bickel and I live in Baltimore, MD. I have written some really great pop tunes and I think they need a banjo playing along with them. I used to play in a pop rock band, but I always loved bluegrass, and I really believe that is what my songs are missing. So if you want to get together and jam sometime give me a call at 410 818 9459.

    Thanx and happy pickin’

    Jason Bickel

  7. keith Campisi says:

    May 16th, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    A great Banjo with real HOT sound at 1/2 the cost=GOLDTONE 250+…you’ll love it!

  8. Robt says:

    February 1st, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    I was reading some of the comments regarding making a cheaper banjo sound great. I work on banjos and know how to get the sound and tone into a cheap banjo without spending a lot of money. I own a Gold Tone OB 250 + as well as a Stelling with a Tony Pass rim and a Huber tone ring. The Stelling speaks for itself. But I took the Gold Tone and routed the rim making essentially a Bell Tone system, installed a Kulesh Big 10 hole tone ring and a Fults tail piece. Sounds fantastic.

    But, now this is important. I also own a cheap Korean Tyler Mountain TMS 85. Not much as banjos go. But, I routed the rim, installed a gold-plated tone ring from eBay (cost $87)and put on a price tailpiece. It sounds almost as good as the others at a lot less money. I paid $5000 for the Stelling, $1500 for the Gold Tone. I paid about $600 for the Tyler Mountain including the tone ring and tailpiece. It is all most people need for many years. Email me if you have any questions. rlwhittemore@yahoo.com