Banjophoria: adj. 1. The feeling of joy and detachment from the world at large that overcomes a banjo player when he enters a banjo shop. 2. That feeling of happiness that occurs in some people when a banjo player starts playing and in everyone else when he quits.
Trust me on this one. You either like it or you don’t.
I have reason to be thinking about banjo’s today. They are delightful instruments and even I picked one up and made some music the first day. I’ve still got one I change the strings on about twice a year. I’ll clean it up and play all the songs I know. I’ll do it the next day or every day for a week or a month. Then I get busy. I have to skip a day or two. I have other things to do. Then it goes back in the case.
It’s a beauty. Deering Standard five string. Nothing fancy, just pure sound and that fabulous Deering neck. Wow. I bought it new fifteen years ago and it still sounds great. The frets probably need to be filed up top ‘o the neck but for the most part it’s a good jo. (jo, banjo, banjer, etc.) You should be jealous. Charles Shultz noted in one of his cartoons that every boy should be issued a dog and a banjo at birth. I tend to agree.
In case you are one of the ones with ‘onset’ Banjophoria—as opposed to the kind that happens when the music stops–here are a few guidelines for purchasing a banjo of your very own.
One. Go to a good instrument shop, one with a good selection of banjo’s and acoustic guitars and sit and just pick it. No you won’t know anything about them, but that’s OK. Even Earl Scruggs picked up a banjo for the first time some time. The best and only way to figure out if you like them is to go make some noise. You will for sure clear the room but that’s OK. The store will understand.
Two. Think about it and if you want one, spend as much as you can afford. When I bought mine it was in the $1200 dollar range. It’s gone WAY up since then but you can get a really good banjo for around three to five hundred dollars.
As a general rule a first Banjo should be comfortable. It should fit your hands and body and feel good when you strap it on. It should also be, regrettably, disposable. You may play for six weeks and hate it and want to sell the thing. The reverse of this is that you may love it, may be a natural, and may end up toting the Banjo to every bluegrass festival and jam session you can get into. If its the former, you’ll regret a huge investment if its the latter, you’ll want something better and therefore more expensive pretty quick. Most people fall somewhere in the middle.
Three. Remember, you probably know zilch about banjos. Since you’re going to need someone to pick with anyway, find someone who can help you out. Find a good banjo shop with a banjo tech who will let you pick his brain. Most will—not just because they want to make a sale. Banjo pickers are generally a laid back lot and love to talk shop.
Four. Buying an instrument without handling it in person and playing it is risky though, but websites are great for seeing what is available. I’ve used Janet Davis and First Quality and they are both just pretty top-notch. Chances are if you call Janet Davis Music you’ll get to chat with someone who knows a great deal about banjos.
I’ve bought banjo heads and strings from Janet Davis (wouldn’t shop anywhere else) and a nifty little old wood bridge (Desert Rose). I ordered a great digital tuner from FQMS. Both are pretty much top-notch. I don’t know about buying a banjo online. Personally, I would rather buy a banjo that I have handled and played but even in most dealer showrooms you are not going to buy the display model. You’re going to get one from stock after they give it a tune up. If you know exactly what you want and you want it new then by all means go for it. Just be careful.
Bottom line: If you like it, it sounds pretty good to you, feels pretty good to you, get it. I used to say two hundred bucks was a great deal for a decent beginning banjo. Make it three fifty or four hundred. I have played a Deering Goodtime 2 and its both playable and affordable and there are other varieties in that price range for newbs.
Five. I think lessons would be great but if nothing else, get a good banjo book and play until your fingers fall off. Not that they’ll actually fall off…. The first night I had my first banjo I played the thing until my index finger started bleeding and I broke a string. I only had what was on it so I had to wait until the next day to pick some replacements up. Oh the long night! Anyway…