UK Banjo Suppliers for Beginners

 - Advice for Beginners -

A simple guide to banjos expressed in musical terms

If you want to play . . . 

. . . then look at        

George Formby "sing-along" ukulele banjos
Jim Royle "sing-along" plectrum banjos and short & standard scale tenor banjos
Traditional jazz plectrum banjos and short & standard scale tenor banjos
Irish music mandolin and short & standard scale tenor banjos
Folk melodies mandolin and short & standard scale tenor banjos
Folk song accompaniment all the 5-string banjos
American "old-time" music open back 5-string banjos
Bluegrass music resonator 5-string banjos
Pete Seeger style music long neck 5-string banjos

Banjos are probably the most confusing instrument available.  The term "banjo" is used indiscriminately for various instruments which are dissimilar in so many respects that they really ought to have different names.  It is further complicated by various groups of players using the same words to mean radically different things.  A "long neck" banjo means one particular instrument to a 5-string folk player and something else entirely to a jazz player.   I'll try to de-mystify some of this but please e-mail any further questions so I can try (over the next few months) to make this page as comprehensive as possible.  Here is a range of the commoner types of banjo.  All the pictures are to the same scale so you can see the different sizes of instrument;  the letters refer to the descriptions that follow.

 

A.  Ukulele banjo (often called "uke banjo" or "banjolele")      

The uke banjo is quite small.  It has 4 nylon strings.  It is usually played by strumming chords as an accompaniment to singing although other styles are possible.  It is generally associated with George Formby.  It's an ideal "sing-along" instrument and very easy to learn.  You can make an acceptable sound with even a modest uke banjo provided it is in good playing order.  Good quality modern uke banjos are quite hard to find (I've only got one in my catalogue) but there are many nice old examples to be had - mostly pre-1940. Both open back and resonator models are available.
(?what's a resonator and what's it for? - see FAQ).
If you want an easy instrument with great portability for song accompaniment, choose a ukulele banjo.
                                           
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B.  Mandolin banjo (often wrongly called a "banjolin" - which is actually a rather different and much rarer version of the banjo - see "other types of banjos" at the end of this page)  

The mandolin banjo is usually quite small although larger versions with full size banjo bodies are sometimes available.  It has 8 metal strings tuned as 4 pairs (so it's effectively only a 4 string instrument).  It is usually played by picking out melodies with a plectrum although other styles are possible.  It's a reasonably strong melody instrument and quite easy to learn.  You definitely need a good quality instrument as a poor example may be nearly impossible to tune.  Good quality modern mandolin banjos are quite hard to find (I've only got one in my catalogue) but there are many nice old examples to be had - mostly pre-1940.  Both open back and resonator models are available.  (?what's a resonator and what's it for? - see FAQ).
If you want a fairly easy instrument with great portability for melody playing, choose a mandolin banjo.

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C.  Short-scale tenor banjo (sometimes called a "tango banjo")

The short-scale tenor banjo is relatively quite small and has very easy fingering owing to its short scale length.  It has 4 metal strings tuned in either jazz pitch (CGDA) or the lower "Irish" pitch (GDAE).  It is usually played with a plectrum either by strumming chords for accompaniment (usually in jazz pitch) or by picking out melodies (usually in "Irish" pitch). Other styles are possible.  It's both a good strong melody instrument and an excellent accompaniment instrument and fairly easy to learn.  You definitely need a good quality instrument as a poor example may be nearly impossible to tune.  Good quality modern short-scale tenor banjos are fairly easy to find (I've got several in my catalogue) and there are many nice old examples to be had - mostly pre-1940.  Both open back and resonator models are available.  (?what's a resonator and what's it for? - see FAQ).
If you want a fairly easy instrument with good portability for accompaniment or melody playing, choose a short-scale tenor banjo.

 

D.  Standard scale tenor banjo (usually just called a "tenor banjo")

The standard scale tenor banjo is quite large and has reasonably easy fingering.  It has 4 metal strings tuned in either jazz pitch (CGDA) or the lower "Irish" pitch (GDAE).  It is usually played with a plectrum either by strumming chords for accompaniment (usually in jazz pitch) or by picking out melodies (usually in "Irish" pitch).  Other styles are possible. It's both a good strong melody instrument and an excellent accompaniment instrument and fairly easy to learn.  You don't need quite such a good quality instrument as they are fairly simple to tune.  Good quality modern standard scale tenor banjos are easy to find (I've got several in my catalogue) and there are many nice used examples to be had.  Both open back and resonator models are available.  (?what's a resonator and what's it for? - see FAQ).
If you want a reasonably easy instrument with acceptable portability for accompaniment or melody playing, choose a standard scale tenor banjo.

(For more discussion of the differences between short & standard scale tenors, see FAQ.)

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E.  Plectrum banjo (sometimes called a "long neck banjo" but only by jazz players)

The plectrum banjo is large and has reasonably easy fingering.  It has 4 metal strings tuned to either close harmony pitch (CGBD), open chord pitch (DGBD) or guitar pitch (DGBE).  It is usually played with a plectrum strumming chords for accompaniment.  Other styles are possible.  It's a very strong accompaniment instrument and reasonably easy to learn.  You don't need quite such a good quality instrument as they are fairly simple to tune.  Good quality modern plectrum banjos are fairly easy to find (I've got several in my catalogue) and there are many nice used examples to be had.  Both open back and resonator models are available.  (?what's a resonator and what's it for? - see FAQ).
If you want a banjo with acceptable portability to serve as an accompaniment instrument in a loud band (playing traditional jazz or whatever), choose a plectrum banjo.

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F.  5-string zither banjo (zither refers to the construction - see FAQ)

The 5-string zither banjo is quite small and has reasonably easy fingering.  It has 5 metal strings tuned to open chord pitch (GDGBD).  It is usually played with the fingers picking out notes and strumming chords for accompaniment.  Other styles are possible.  It's a fairly quiet accompaniment instrument and reasonably easy to learn.  You need quite a good quality instrument as a poor example may be nearly impossible to tune.  Good quality modern 5-string zither banjos are near impossible to find (I've none in my catalogue) but there are many nice used examples to be had - mostly pre-1914.  The construction method means that only closed back banjos are available - any open backs have got a fairly important piece missing!!
If you want a banjo with good portability to serve as an accompaniment instrument for quiet singing, choose a 5-string zither banjo.

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G.  5-string open back banjo (often referred to as an "old-time banjo" - see FAQ)

The 5-string open back banjo is quite small and has reasonably easy fingering.  It has 5 metal strings tuned to open chord pitch (GCGCD or GDGBD).  It is usually played with the fingers picking out notes and strumming chords for accompaniment.  Other styles are common - notably Clawhammer, Frailing and Chromatic 3-finger style - see FAQ.  It's fairly quiet as a melody instrument but reasonably loud as an accompaniment instrument.   It's fairly easy to learn.  You need quite a good quality instrument as a poor example may be nearly impossible to tune.  Good quality modern 5-string open back banjos are very easy to find (I've lots in my catalogue) and there are many nice used examples to be had.
If you want a banjo with good portability to serve as an accompaniment instrument for singing or for playing melodies in the "old-time" style, choose an open back 5-string banjo

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H.  5-string resonator banjo (often referred to as an "bluegrass banjo" - see FAQ)

The 5-string resonator banjo is large and has reasonably easy fingering.  It has 5 metal strings tuned to open chord pitch (GDGBD).  It is usually played with metal finger picks picking out notes and rolls for both melody & accompaniment.  Other styles are possible - notably Chromatic 3-finger style - see FAQ.  It's loud as a melody instrument and very loud as an accompaniment instrument.  It's fairly easy to learn.  You need quite a good quality instrument as a poor example may be nearly impossible to tune.  Good quality modern 5-string resonator banjos are very easy to find (I've lots in my catalogue) and there are many nice used examples to be had.
If you want a banjo with acceptable portability to serve as an accompaniment instrument for loud singing or for playing melodies in the "bluegrass" style, choose 5-string resonator banjo

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I.  5-string long neck banjo (often referred to as an "Pete Seeger banjo" - see FAQ)

The 5-string long neck banjo is very large and has reasonably easy fingering.  It has 5 metal strings tuned to open chord pitch (GBEG#B).  It is usually played with the fingers picking out notes and strumming chords for both melody & accompaniment.  Other styles are possible - notably Chromatic 3-finger style - see FAQ.  It's quite loud as a melody instrument and loud as an accompaniment instrument.  It's fairly easy to learn.  You don't need quite such a good quality instrument as they are fairly simple to tune.  Good quality modern 5-string long neck banjos are fairly easy to find (I've several in my catalogue) though nice used examples can be hard to track down.  Both open back and resonator models are available.  (?what's a resonator and what's it for? - see FAQ).
If you want a banjo with acceptable (just about) portability to serve as an accompaniment instrument for loud singing or for playing melodies in the "Pete Seeger" style, choose a 5-string long neck banjo

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Other types of banjo

The banjolin - strictly a "banjo-violin" - quite similar to the mandolin banjo except that it has 4 single strings instead of 4 pairs of strings.  Sometimes mistaken for a ukulele banjo.   As a general rule, small body and wide neck = ukulele banjo whilst large body and narrow neck = banjolin.  Not very common even in the 1920's.

The harp banjo.  A lower pitched version of the mandolin banjo.  It bears the same relationship to the mandolin banjo that the octave mandola bears to the mandolin.   Sometimes referred to as a "double strung tenor".  Not very common even in the 1920's.

The guitar banjo.  A banjo body with a 6-string guitar neck.  These days, usually tuned to the same pitch as a guitar though they were tuned somewhat higher in former times.  It sounds like an easy option for the guitarist wanting a banjo sound but the 2 lowest strings present considerable difficulties.  If you want a guitar banjo, you want a really good one - the most common one available (which I don't stock) is extremely difficult to tune and near impossible to keep at concert pitch.  There are several good American examples available but they are all quite expensive.

The fretless banjo.  Simply the ancestor of the "old-time" 5-string from the era before fretwire.  Sometimes found with extra strings (6,7 or even 9) which were supposed to make them easier to play.  If you have a good ear and some grasp of how to play the 5-string banjo already, they are great fun.  Fiddlers find them laughably easy but for the rest of us mere mortals...................................!  Some modern examples are available and antique ones are surprisingly common.

The contrabass banjo.  A large thing from the days of the banjo bands.  Tuned to the same pitch as a cello.  Rare even in the 1920's.  One American maker has an item that he calls a "bass banjo" which is fairly close to the period contrabass.

The bass banjo.  A huge thing from the days of the banjo bands.  Tuned to the same pitch as the double bass (and about the same size).  Rare even in the 1920's.


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