BANJOS, MANDOLINS - What to look for when buying

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A guide to choosing a good instrument

With so many instruments to choose from, how do you know which will be a pleasure to own?

We hope this guide will give you a few pointers - what to look for and what to avoid! Which instruments could be bargains and which are simply cheap.

The first thing that will give you an idea of the quality of the instrument is the degree of finish.  For example external seams are best edged - this is known as perfling or edging.  These are the strips - often showing cream colour - between the finger board and neck and around the join of the top and the sides of the body. 

All metal work including tail-pieces should be nicely finished with no sharp edges. Believe me this isn't always the case.  Also the frets should lie flat against the fingerboard and have no sharp or projecting edges.  If you cannot tell by the picture you see online ASK THE SELLER!! This way you can also tell if the seller knows anything about the instruments he or she is sellling.

There are three types of BANJO construction - Open Back, Resonator and Zither (now only seen on antique instruments)

OPENBACK BANJO

The body construction normally consists of a wooden hoop over which is stretched the 'head' by means of a number of adjustable screw tensioners. The better quality instruments will have more tensioners as this makes for more even stretching of the head.  The most famous banjo head available is the US made 'Remo Weatherking' - it is called this because it is unaffected by the weather. In the old days banjo had hide heads are would alter in tension according to the humidity.

The neck should have a metal rod running the length of it inside, called a truss rod.  When this is adjustable it can alter the bend of the neck.  This affects the action (the distance between the strings and the frets).

The better quality the machine heads (tuning pegs) the easier it is to tune, and keep in tune. Some machine heads are sealed which keeps any lubricant inside, keeping the machine heads in smooth working order, and also keeps dust and debris out!

Fingerboards need to be made from an unvarnished hardwood - varnish can wear off and it just looks awful!

Here's a list of things to look out for ....

  • Number of tensioners - 18 is OK, 24 is good, 30 is high quality

  • Adjustable Truss Rod

  • Sealed machine heads

  • Type of head fitted

  • Fingerboard material

  • Perfling/edging to fingerboard

  • Strap clips

  • All round finish

You might not get a 'yes' to all these points but obviously the more the better. 

RESONATOR BANJO

All the above applies to the resonator banjo and in addition..... This banjo has a wooden back called a resonator which is joined to the hoop by different means in different instruments.  The resonator is there to amplify the sound.

In a good instrument the resonator will be made out of high quality woods with perfling. Better quality instruments will have a cast metal hoop and up to 30 tensioners. This makes the head more stable and gives a better sound quality.  In lower quality resonator banjos there is little more than an open back banjo with a resonator added by means of small flat mounting plates.  These are not built specifically to be resonator banjos and so the quality suffers (and the looks).

 This is a high quality resonator with a cast metal hoop and 30 tensioners.  These are obviously more expensive to produce than an open back banjo of the same quality.

Things to ask about resonator banjos...

  • Is the hoop wooden or cast?

  • What is the resonator made of?

  • And the questions for the open back banjo!

MANDOLINS

Most new mandolins are either flat top or arch top.  You can expect to get a slightly bigger sound with an arch top. The key things here are for both of these is the material used in construction, particularly the top. I would only consider and instrument with a solid wooden top.  NOT PLYWOOD! Spruce Cedar and Maple are woods I particularly like in a mandolin giving a lovely mellow sound.  Other woods are OK but I stress again NEVER PLYWOOD!

The sides and back are often (but not always) made of a different wood to the top. This can be mahogany or other hardwoods.

Things to look out for in a Mandolin...

  • Materials used in construction

  • Good metal work including frets

  • Quality of machine heads

  • Finish around sound hole edges

  • Perfling - this gives a good indication of overall attention to detail and finish

  • Arch top mandolins should be fitted with an adjustable bridge

The most important thing is DON'T BE AFRAID TO ASK the seller

PRICE!!  Remember price is not really an indication of quality.  Some instruments with a known brand are no better than un-named instruments - in fact made in the same factory and are identical to un-named ones. 

Remember you will always pay more for brand names but may not be getting best value.  Then again some cheap instruments are pretty nasty and some instruments are high priced and STILL NASTY!! 

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS and you can often get a very good instrument for a very good price. Don't be put off by 'made in china' or 'made in taiwan' - Most of the cream of known branded instruments are made in these countries alongside identical ones only missing the logo!! 

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