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Maude

Need help choosing banjo style please.

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Are there any banjo players on here that could offer some advice to me please. 

My mother in law has decided that my father in law would like a banjo for his birthday, he doesn't know this 🤔

He is in his seventies and has never played any instrument before and in all honesty I'm not sure he'll take it up but she wants to get him one. 

He is a big Billy Connolly fan and is Scottish himself, he used to be into trad jazz in his youth and still enjoys trad jazz, ragtime, blues, and traditional Scottish and Irish folk music. 

With that background is there a better style of banjo to go for? Is one easier to get started on? 

I've been doing a bit of research on four string and five strings, and what styles are suited to each, clawhammer, two finger, three finger, scruggs, etc. 

The standard when looking to buy seems to be five string and I'd narrowed it down to the Harley Benton BJ-55 Pro as a nice compromise between value for money and a nice looking instrument, but now I'm thinking for the sort of music that might be easier to play that would appeal to him, a four string may be better, is strumming and picking melodies easier than bluegrass style three finger rolls and stuff? 

So if anyone could offer any advice on playing styles and the ease/difficulty of learning them then I would very much appreciate it. 

Thanks, Allan. 

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I play frailing/clawhammer style for American old-time music, and used to play 4-string tenor for Irish trad, so I'll offer the following. You could also try asking on banjohangout.org, bear in mind it's a very US-centric site but there are some brits on there too.

If they absolutely have to do this, it might be better to consider a Ukulele Banjo. It'll be easier to get started on than any of the other choices, the learning curve will be less steep, and it's much more likely that he'll be able to find either a teacher or a Ukulele group, which will give him an additional social outlet. Banjo Ukes are a bit more expensive than other Ukes, but this one also from Harley Benton looks like excellent value, for an instrument with a flange and a resonator. https://www.thomann.de/gb/harley_benton_bju_15pro_banjo_ukulele.htm? As with a bass, it'll probably need to be set up; the head tension will need to be adjusted and the bridge put in the right place, for a start.

If he's not played an instrument before, the learning curve is going to be pretty steep whichever style you choose. Billy Connolly is what I'd call a frailer or a clawhammer style player, and he's not half bad either. For that you'd need a 5-string banjo. The HB one that you picked out also looks like incredible value for money, with proper planetary tuners (the ones that point backwards) but it's fitted with a resonator and would be more likely to be the choice of a bluegrass player. Frailers normally would pick an open-back banjo, such as this one https://www.thomann.de/gb/harley_benton_bjo_35pro_5_string_banjo_ob.htm, or this slightly better one https://www.andybanjo.com/cgi-bin/trolleyed_public.cgi?action=showprod_RBROVERRB22P . There are exceptions of course.

Trad Jazz players would normally use a 4-string tenor banjo tuned C-G-D-A and tend to just play chords. Scottish and Irish players usually tune G-D-A-E, an octave below fiddle tuning, with heavier strings to compensate. They tend not to play any chords and just pick out melody. There are short-scale and long-scale tenor instruments. Short scale are easier to play, I think they're probably the way to go for trad jazz. My opinion is they don't sound great in octave tuning but some people use them. There's another variety of 4-string called a plectrum banjo - these are about the same scale length as a 5-string, use a different tuning to the tenor and are probably best avoided unless somebody gives you one for nothing.

It'll be up to you to find out whether there are any teachers or sympathetic players in the area. There are lots of books and youtube videos. For old-time there is a great book by Dan Levinson called Clawhammer Banjo from Scratch. I don't know enough about bluegrass to recommend anything: personally I find bluegrass Scruggs-style picking unfathomable and I think the trailing style is a lot easier to pick up , but it still poses a few challenges.

Hope this helps you make a decision. Happy to chat further if you want to send me a PM.

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All of the above... but just to reaffirm some points...

Yes.. try the banjohangout forum.

Yes.. try Andysbanjos... I got mine from there... good service.

I think an open back will be better... for all kinds of reasons. I had a resonator for playing bluegrass... it weighed a ton (but was huge fun). You can sit on the sofa with an open back and noodle away.. if that's your thing.

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Thanks @pete.young @Trueno

Since my original post I've been doing a bit more research and watching some YouTube vids. My mother in law thought it would just be buy a banjo and had no idea of all the different types. I'd sort of narrowed it down to getting him a four string tenor to try his hand at trad jazz as it looks about the easiest and quickest to get up and running with. Just learn a few chord shapes and your away. I know it's not as easy as that but I really don't think he'll get to grips with finger picking, and Scottish or Irish style would need a bit more knowledge of what notes make up chords to be able to play melodic lines. 

I don't really want to go uke as they always seem to just sound slightly out of tune and too George Formby. 

Thanks for tip about the weight of a reso, I hadn't considered that, also as it will just be at home on the sofa I assume an open back will be quieter than a reso as well as being a little mellower sounding. 

So a four string, open back tenor it is then, I think. 

Just one more question, what average scale length are long and short scale tenor banjos. He'll need a balance between not stretching too far and being able to easily make the chord shapes. 

 

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The resonator itself doesn't make a lot of difference to the weight. Maybe a pound or two. The major factor in the weight is the tone ring: at the price range you're looking at, this won't be significant. 

Usually a short-scale tenor has 17 fret and a long scale is 19 fret. Actual dimensions will vary, short scale will be 20-21 inches, long scale 22-23.

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Ah I see, that's why some mention aluminium tone ring in the advert then I suppose. In the £200 price bracket most seem to be resonator type. 

I wish I could try a few but living where I do there aren't many music shops unless I want a long drive. I do have a Hobgoblin local though, I'll ring them and see if they have any in. 

Thanks again. 

 

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Just been doing some more listening and came across Skinny Tuba (I now want to watch The Sting) that sort of thing would be right up his street and the banjo looks relatively easy to get started on. Obviously not to master but if I can give him some diagrams of some chord shapes and he could strum along I think he'd be happy. If he really gets into it and wants to try a different style we can worry about it then. 

I think I'm sorted 🙂

 

 

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This may be a silly question but do all closed backs have a resonator, or are there open backs, closed backs and resonators? 

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To my knowledge, all closed backs are resonators and have a tone ring... part of the definition, I suppose. I think mine was brass... hence the weight. Deering banjos made a resonator with a wooden tone ring (cocobolo ?) for a specific tone and it was expensive, but it didn't have the characteristic snap that Bluegrass players like. 

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As luck would have it one has popped up on Facebook for sale. An Aria tenor, with strap, pick up and hardcase for £80, I'm off to look at it later. 

Having had a read up the Andybanjo site it would seem a long/standard scale tenor would be better than a short scale at the budget end as the cheaper short scales frequently present tuning issues. I was going to get open back but as this facebook one has popped up locally, I'll more than likely go for it. If he doesn't take to it then we can sell it without loss, or I'll buy it off him :D

https://www.facebook.com/marketplace/item/2156600544657247/

Hopefully that link will work. 

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That looks like a pretty good deal for 80 quid. Judging by the strings I'd say that's probably in G-D-A-E tuning, but easy enough to change.

The second clip is a tenor in C-G-D-A, the first one looks like a plectrum banjo, but I don't know for sure.

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Going to look at the banjo tomorrow now but the owner says there are no scratches or marks on the body or neck so I reckon we'll get it. Good enough to dip his toe in with and test the water. 

Thanks for all your help 👍

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13 minutes ago, Maude said:

Thanks for all your help 👍

You're welcome. It was a pleasure to "Like" pete.young's post! 😁

Seriously though, this was great reading. Please keep us posted.

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Yeh... post some photos when you get it in your sweaty hands. Might even tempt some bass players over to the dark side.

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55 minutes ago, Trueno said:

Yeh... post some photos when you get it in your sweaty hands. Might even tempt some bass players over to the dark side.

Will do 😊

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Well I've just bought it 😀

I'll post some pictures another time as I'm a bit pushed for time at the mo. It's not a resonator but it does have a closed back (which is removable) so slightly mellower sounding which is good. Nice low easy action, strung for Scottish/Irish so should be even easier on the fingers once strung for Trad Jazz.

The big, big bonus is that I might have effectively scored a free banjo and case as it came fitted with a Fishman Rare Earth active pickup, which will never get used. I had a quick Google and these seem to be in the £220-230 price range new, so quite possibly £80 for a second hand one. I don't really know what the value of the pickup is realistically but it's got to half the price of the banjo I'd have thought. 

As it's strung like a mandolin I'll leave it as it is for a bit and take it to rehearsal and let our mandolinist try it out through the PA to make sure it's all good. 

Pictures to follow :)

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Really good find, in that case! I'm interested in the pickup if you decide to sell it, please send me a PM.

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29 minutes ago, pete.young said:

Really good find, in that case! I'm interested in the pickup if you decide to sell it, please send me a PM.

Will do. I'll make sure it's working properly first but I'll PM you when I know what I'm doing. 

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