Banjos Available Today: General Overview
 
Note: What follows is not an endorsement of any make or model of banjo. I have no vested interest in any of the brands mentioned. Should I do so in the future, I will revise this to reflect a personal interest.
 
Asian: Many, if not most banjos available today are of Asian manufacture. This means mostly China, Taiwan and Korea, sometimes combinations of all three (Made in China, shipped to Korea where it's assembled, finished and shipped to America). This is actually a fairly old tradition, with a rich and diverse history of varying levels of quality produced. Somewhere in the early 60s, some early Asian companies figured out that they could make essentially the same instruments made and sold in the States for pennies on the dollar based on labor rates a fraction of what workers make here. Some of these were very good. The Yamaha company made early copies of the Martin D-18 which even today still stand up pretty well in comparison. If you see one of these in a pawn shop, jump on it. If you see a modern day Yamaha guitar there, jump on it as well. Literally. It probably sounds horrible. Another import, a banjo with the product name "Gold Star" was a copy of a pre-war Gibson Mastertone, and like Yamaha, the early results were so good that today they have been re-released in the hopes of rekindling interest, and some of these are quite good. Today, some of the Asian names that bear looking at are:
bullet Recording King
bullet Gold Star
bullet Gold Tone
bullet Mastercraft
bullet Saga - Blueridge - Rover
bullet Morgan Monroe
bullet Fender
bullet Epiphone

Yes, some of these are American brands, or subsidiary brands of American names, but are nevertheless imports. Asian brands vary widely in quality and price. You must play banjos in order to evaluate them, and in fact, I would never recommend buying a banjo that you haven't had in your hand. Plan a day trip, or weekend trip. It will be well worth the time and effort. There is just too much variation in tone. It is also possible to pay most of the money you are investing in the appearance of the banjo, with lots of pearl and gold engraving. This does not always translate into a fancy sounding banjo; just a fancy looking one.

American brands

Because of the vast wage difference between American and Asian workers, it is almost impossible for American companies to compete with the low to mid range Asian makers. Most American made, playable, entry level instruments tend to run around 800 to 1000. Manufacturing banjos poses another problem to American makers. The market isn't large enough to generate the sort of sales volume that helps to bring manufacturing costs down. One high end manufacturer told me that he hoped to make 175 banjos last year. Another obstacle to determining how much money to spend while assuring that you get something playable is that most of the units sold are the low end instruments, which allows these to be sold at the lowest cost margin, meaning the biggest "value" to you. The higher end instruments, while getting more and more into the American made realm also tend to go up the price range pretty quickly.


The illustration below shows price ranges and relative features. It is a very rough assessment, meant to be a general guideline. Exceptions to this can be found.



 


Some American Brands

A hundred years ago, there were nearly 100 American banjo manufacturers! Why? What happened to them?

The interesting, little known fact about American banjos is that they experienced a heyday that occurred around the 1880s. Whole banjo orchestras were commonly found throughout the country. Banjo makers proliferated without any competition from overseas manufacturers. What killed the banjo craze? One theory is that war changes popular culture. Tracing the history of popular music in the U.S., most of the real generational changes happened during or shortly after major wars. Another factor might be the advent of radio and later, television. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, most entertainment was found outside the house. Social clubs of various sorts proliferated throughout towns and cities. Banjo clubs (as well as mandolin clubs) became common. No town was too small, it seems, to foster its own banjo orchestra/social club. As the new century dawned, demand dwindled, smaller companies went out of business, leaving the larger, more profitable companies. Gibson was about to enter it's golden era of manufacturing, and a man by the name of Lloyd Loar, along with Orville Gibson, was about to revolutionize American instrument making, producing what are still today considered the finest stringed acoustic instruments ever made this side of Stradivarius.


Modern Day American Brands

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Deering

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Gibson

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Stelling

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Ome

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Sullivan (First Quality Music)

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Wildwood

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Crafters of Tennessee


There are many others (smaller, independent makers. I am one of them), and this list isn't intended to be an endorsement of any particular brand, just a representation of the larger, nationally known builders.


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