Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about the four string banjo
(First 6 questions courtesy of the Four String Banjo Web Site)

Table of Contents

  1. How do I tune the four string banjo?
  2. What's the best banjo for a beginner?
  3. Where can I get lessons?
  4. How much is my grandfather' banjo worth ?
  5. What is the difference between the tenor and the plectrum banjo?
  6. Which is better -A skin head or a plastic head?
  7. Plectrum or Tenor or Five String?
  8. Why do I need to change my strings?

How do I Tune the four string banjo ?

The standard tuning for the tenor banjo is CGDA. Irish Players often tune the tenor GDAE. The plectrum banjo is tuned CGBD. These are by no means the only tunings. Many people use Guitar tuning and other variations. 

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What's the best banjo for a beginner?

The obvious answer is the best one you can afford but that doesn't help much when you do not know if you will stay with it or whether you want to spend a whole lot on an unknown venture. The best advice I can give is to buy from a reputable dealer. Before you even start looking for a banjo, see if there is a good repairman near you. Very often they will know of banjos that people are looking to sell so that they can move up to a higher quality banjo but more importantly they can do a setup on whatever banjo you decide to buy and that setup can make the all the difference in the playability of the instrument.

Very few banjo players who stay with the banjo for any length of time are still playing the banjo they started with. Therefore any decision regarding purchase should include some thought about resale. Banjos are no different than most items for sale. New things depreciate rapidly. Your competition when selling a relatively new instrument will clearly be new instruments. Your price must therefore be significantly lower or the person will buy the new instrument. I usually recommend that people buy a good condition older instrument. A Gibson TB-1, a Paramount A, or a Vega professional or from the 1930's that you buy for $400 to $600 will in all likelihood be quite salable for the same price or more two years from now. If you want to pay a little less look for a B&D style C , Vega little wonder, a Slingerland MayBell or a Ludwig Kingston. A new banjo from the Orient that you buy for $400 to $600 will probably fetch as much as 40% less two years from now.

There will in all likelihood be those who disagree but I believe that the action and playability of the banjo is the most important factor for the beginner. Tone is something to worry about later when you are able to play with some confidence. That's when you want to start looking to trade up.

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Where can I get Lessons?

Banjos Unlimited(See their Newsletter " Resonator")and FIGA (Fretted Instrument Guild of America) have members all over the country. One of the best ways to find out about players in your area is to join either or both, Banjos Unlimited and FIGA and ask what members they have in your area. Many areas have Banjo Bands which provide an excellent opportunity to learn and to play. The September issue of Resonator lists many teachers around the country. Failing that there are a number of very good video and cassette tape lessons available. There is no better way to learn to play than to play in a group. If there is no group, buy a copy of Band in A Box or Jammer and use those programs to play along with. It is a lot more fun than a metronome and neither program cares if you make a mistake or how many times you want to repeat the song.

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How much is my grandfathers banjo worth ?

The rules of the marketplace work here just like anywhere else. The willing buyer and the willing seller set the prices. Like any market that has both collectors and users vying for the products, prices can swing drastically for seemingly no reason at all. Playability and collectibility do not always work in concert. As a general rule Bacon, Paramount, Vega and Gibson are the most in demand instruments. Slingerlands, Ludwigs, Epiphones, and others which sold for about the same prices in the mid 20's as those instruments are no longer equals. In the mid 1920's a Gibson TB-3 sold for $100 as did the Slingerland Melody King. Figure on $1000 to $1200 for the Gibson to day and about $300 for the Slingerland.

Every manufacturer in the twenties had their basic professional level instrument that sold for $100 to $150. From there instrument stayed structurally pretty much the same but the level of decoration went up from there. Gold plating, rhinestones, pearl inlays, carving and other items of beauty were added bring the price up and up. For example the basic B&D Silver Bell #1 sold for $140 and the Silver Bell # 9 sold for $900. There was not $760 more Playability in the #9 but the price was paid by many players who wanted the ultimate banjo.

To figure out what your instrument is worth, look at the listings from companies like Elderly Instruments, Gruhn Guitars, Mandolin Bros. The Music Emporium and others. If you have one of the names that I mentioned above you can get a very good estimate of the value by asking Mandolin Bros or Elderly what they would expect to get for you on a consignment.

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What is the difference between the tenor and the plectrum and the five string banjo?

The tenor has either 17 or 19 frets and the plectrum has 22 frets. There are no hard and fast rules about the use of either banjo. Generally the tenor is best known for its ability as rhythm instrument in Dixieland bands and the plectrum is the choice of many soloists. In the hands of the right players they are effectively interchangeable in terms of their uses. Some of the best solo banjo players around use the tenor and some of the best Dixieland players use plectrums.

The shorter neck of the tenor requires more use of inside chords to reach all of the melody notes without getting to far up into the upper reaches of the fretboard where things can get some what squeaky. The longer neck of the plectrum allows for more notes to be reached on the first string. In addition the first string does not need to be stretched as tightly to be brought into tune. This allows for a somewhat easier tremolo.

The five string is an institution unto itself. It is an exceptionally versatile instrument. The most commonly known music played on the five string is bluegrass but there are numerous styles including but not limited to Old time music, ragtime, jazz. There are many sources for information about the five string banjo. Just run a search on any search engine using the word "banjo" and you will find lots of links.

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Which is better -A skin head or a plastic head?

The following is an answer given to this question by a fellow named Jeff Kimble. His answer while not necessarily agreed to by all "experts" is well stated and I believe covers the issue well. If you like the sound of a skin head and want to put up with the headaches that go with it, then by all means do so. My preference is a for either a clear mylar or a smooth topped white mylar head. I play in a Dixieland band and I have to be heard in the midst of some very powerful brass and rhythm instruments. I need the volume. When I play alone and sing, I find the fiberskin head provides sufficient volume and a nice resonant tone.

I have been repairing and playing banjos for over 25 years. IMHO,based on experience, there is just no reason to subject one's self to the misery of a real skin head. The advent of the plastic head solved all of the problems of the old skin heads. The only reason people used skin heads is because "back then" that's all there was. They are expensive, a real pain in the rear to put on, they don't sound very good by modern standards, they don't stay tuned to a tension for very long, they make it very hard to keep the banjo in tune, they crack and split, and on and on. If they had anything other than nostalgia to recommend them you would see some banjo players using them. I've only seen a few and they liked the sound, but they were constantly fighting with them and griping about them. The fiberskin heads do give the banjo a darker sound (like skin) which is desirable and pleasing for some types of banjo playing. I'd suggest trying one of these. They have all of the advantages of the plastic heads and none of the disadvantages of the real skin head.

Jeff Kimble
Revised 9-12-96

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Plectrum or Tenor or Five-String?

Actually the world of banjos is not that difficult to ferret out once you get some basic understandings down.  To begin with, the crowd that we usually run around with in a "banjo band", play four string banjos.  There are fundamentally two types of common  four-string banjos which can easily be  recognized by the length of their neck. 

The Tenor banjo (well known on the early Riverboats) has 19 frets.  It usually is the melody instrument in a banjo band.  Its pitch is a little higher and it has a strong sound that can punch out of a band of other instruments.   

The Plectrum banjo has a longer neck of 22 frets and frequently plays the rhythm section in a banjo band.  Either instrument can play either role but together they tend to split into the two parts that I mentioned.  The plectrum banjo is often the one of choice for a person who is playing for their own enjoyment or wants to be able to solo and play all parts of a song.  It has a slightly larger range of notes, and in particular, can hit some of the lower ones better, which tends to add a good lower bass sound to a song.

Five-string banjos are physically equivalent to plectrums but with a fifth string tuned (usually) to the same note as the first (highest) string.   This banjo is usually associated with the blue-grass and country types of songs and is frequently played with "finger picks".  The sound is very dominant and emphasizes right hand techniques.   A lot of banjo band players take the fifth string off and play it like a plectrum banjo with a single pick.  This is an inexpensive way to begin playing since five-string banjos are more common and usually have more inexpensive models available.

I really wrestled with my early decision as to which banjo to play (and which to begin learning on).  I started with a five-string, spent a full year with lessons with an instructor, and then realized that I had made the decision bass-ackwards.  I had spent a year learning playing techniques to accommodate blue-grass music.  What a person should do, is decide what kind of music they like and then pick the instrument to fit the music!!! In my case I happened to hear a jazz band play some Dixieland music and (whamo!) realized that to engage in that style fully, that a tenor or plectrum was a more appropriate playing device.  So, off came the fifth string and bingo, I was in business.  With that simple modification, I was able to join in with the Seattle Banjo Club in playing the 'ol standards from the 20's and 30's.  After a year of this, I knew that I'd made the right decision (sorry, to you Cripple Creek lovers) and I purchased a plectrum banjo.  So, my advice is to pick your banjo after you've picked your favorite music style. 

-- Bill Barker (Jan 1998)
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Why do I need to change my strings?

One of the first things that you're taught to do when learning the banjo, is to change your strings on a regular basis.  For an average beginner this is about once a quarter (or every three months).  For an experienced player who is playing for audiences a lot, they should consider doing it monthly.  A pro might even do it before each big show.

Some of the rationale for this is that old strings stretch over time and begin to lose their elasticity.  When they reach this stage, they can't form the wave forms as easily and the sound from them is "blunted" or "dull".  New strings, on the other hand, sound "crisp" and "sharp".  It's this latter sound that gives the banjo its distinctiveness.  When playing with a band that has other instruments in it, this "sharpness" is very important in order for the banjo to stand out.

One hint that I picked up at a FIGA convention was to always make sure that the string notches on your bridge are in a "V" shape.  This allows "tight" contact and will help to prevent buzzing of the strings.

(Bill Barker Oct 98)

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Do you have information that would be useful to beginning players?? If you'd like me to add it here, then send it to me via email at: ( .

Updated:  08/14/11              Visitors:    Hit Counter

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