Asian Banjos - A-F
Also see Asian Banjo Catalogs.
From about 1962 on and especially since 1970 there have been a large number of oriental manufacture banjos made to answer the demand. By far and away most of these are entry level 5 string instruments, yet the basic construction for tenor, plectrum and guitar banjos is similar with a different neck and number of strings, so the information here applies to them also. Basically the importer could (and still can) specify a brand name and have it put on an banjo. There are about 6-8 levels of hardware and finish overall, ranging from a very plain wood pot (body) or cast aluminum pot to replicas of a pre WWII Gibson RB-Granada flathead Mastertone (the bluegrass holy grail largely because Earl Scruggs used one for decades, and there were only about 12-15 original 5 string ones built in 1931-34). These were the Gold Star J. D. Crowe models that were frankly better than the then current Gibson product (1981) and arguably equal or better than the originals from the 1930's. Actually, all of the Gold Stars had the best hardware available, there are some extra supernal touches in the early Gold Star J. D. Crowes.
The importer could specify what he wanted, and there were/ are at least 30 quality brands and over 100 others. The quality also varied across the product lines; there were for instance some very entry level Arias and some better Arias at the same time, sort of like Chevrolets and Cadillac Limousines. The major step in quality is usually to the Gibson Mastertone pattern of construction (Masterclone), with a cast metal tone ring (brass/bronze, steel, aluminum and pot metal all have been encountered) sitting on a wooden rim under the drumhead.
For an example of the Mastertone construction, look at the picture of the gold one above. The brown line between the gold tone ring and the resonator flange is the wooden rim. Going down in the picture, there is white drumhead, the gold tension hoop (with arches engraved between the hooks, and an engraved armrest over it on the right side of the picture), the white edge of the drumhead, the gold tone ring, the brown wood of the pot, the gold flange, the white binding on the resonator, the brown wood of the side of the resonator, white binding again, the maroon of the case lining, and the silver paint on the (fiberglass Leaf) case.
There are a large number of links on my site where you can find pictures and information on banjo adjustment in general, and Gibsons in particular. However, practically any banjo can be adjusted to sound "pretty good", and be playable. See Bill Palmer's stuff in particular. The Gibson construction is common because Scruggs, Reno, et al played one, but there have been many other quality brands built in the USA in the past and today. They are not all built in the Gibson way.
I still have a few entry quality instruments, and they sound like me when I play them. Some of my other ones of course do sound a bit sweeter..... but by far the overpowering factor is the player when it comes to producing tone.
If you have an instrument labeled made in Japan, that pretty well places it before 1990, by that time most of the manufacture had shifted to Korea. The Kasuga factory was the biggest maker of bluegrass instruments. They made numerous brands including Aria, Kasuga and Epiphone, often doing nothing but changing the logo. The Kasuga was the last factory producing banjos and mandolins in Japan and it went out of business about 1995.. Some of the hardware on quality American banjos is now Asian made (like tailpieces), and some hardware (steel armrests, coordinator rods) is even Chinese in origin.
Please do not ask me the value of an Asian banjo, including how much to buy/sell it for, saying if you got a good deal or to tell you if it is worth repairing. There are a lot of variables, and I won't/can't give you a answer. I am not in that business, and it is not something I do. If you choose to ignore this, you can send me the banjo, I will tell you my opinion of what it is worth, and I will keep the banjo as the fee for the appraisal.
I do not get into buy/sell recommendations. My views are here on this section and in The Search. The answer for you is in your hearing.
You have to play the one you are thinking of buying.. Travel to where ever it is, period. Think of it as an Odyssey. If you are impatient, it will be to your detriment both in purchase and in actually learning to play. Impatience is a prime reason 95% of people end up failing in their own assessment. This is for the long haul. The potential is there in some foreign instruments; if not properly set up, all bets are off. And there are a few clunkers in any brand, new or prewar. They are not all identical like books at Amazon.com.
Another factor, hidden in plain view, is Americans are addicted to buying things, seldom with a real cost/ benefit analysis. Impulse buying and external validations are habitual. It is a deep training starting in early childhood.
Travel. Play them. Listen. No short cuts, you make your own guarantees. That is the real answer.
This basic list came from Wayne Norman. I've added to it and commented on some of the banjos I have seen. I have broken it down into two lists, entry level through moderate quality banjos, and better quality banjos (here), which are generally replicas of the Gibson Mastertone design.
Aida (sometimes also read as Jida, but it is actually Iida) - See Iida on p. 3.
Antoria - Samick brand name in the UK at least from August 2002 on. Dot inlay tone ring banjo seen on a site in the UK.
Archer - Korean, flathead, 2 pc flange, maple, looks to be Samick built. Seen on eBay.
Aria - Full line of banjos from cast aluminum pot entry level to Masterclones. Aria Pro is early 70 RB 250 replica, with similar inlay, big clunky chrome tuners, one coordinator rod, 3 resonator screws, one piece flange, non brass tone ring, copying the interim Gibson RB 250 version before 71. A gold plated one was available very early on for under $300. (Gibson 71 and later into the 80's has two piece flange, pearloid buttons on offset gear tuners). Pro II was a closer replica of the the later RB250.
Ashbury STB75-5. Current, Korean, Masterclone available through Hobgoblin Music in the UK. Possibly a house brand. Chrome or nickel, eagle claw tailpiece.
Alvarez - Early 70's banjos, usually bow tie fingerboard, delicate and unique filigree peghead inlay with die cast flathead tone ring, 3 resonator screws, cast flange with a the holes being an oval with a larger circle in the middle of it, like a current Deering flange but without any points into the hole, They were pretty good value for the money. Some have been reported to have the brass rod ring under the tone ring like the Tokai Blue Bell and Orpheum. Thin wooden shell.
- No. 4282? Five string banjo. The normally encountered one, sometimes purfling on the upper edge of the resonator, light reddish mahogany finish, non Gibson peghead shape, clunky tuners, bow tie inlay, one or two coordinator rods.
- No. 4280 Idaho Bell five string. Similar, nickel plate, wood inlay on the edge of the back of the resonator. Inlay on back of peghead.
- No. 4284 Silver Princess Folk banjo. Open back, geared pegs, special tone ring to meet the demands of folk banjo players.
From Wayne Norman, who has acquired one:
Has inlaid name "Silver Princess" on the headstock, but no mention of Alvarez anywhere. This is a copy of a Vega Tub-a-phone open back. Early 70's. Chrome plating.
Pot: 28 hooks, shoe brackets on bracket band, with steel fillister head screws instead of flat head brass as used by Vega. Nuts are closed end Vega style. Heavy notched stretcher band. 10-15/16" dia. (Vega). Tone ring is a well-made copy of Vega's. Tone rings rests fully on the rim whereas Vega undercut their rims just past the first 1/4". Hot dog arm rest. Clam shell adjustable TP. 5/8" bridge. Multi-ply pot with pearloid and ivoroid bindings inside and out. Coordinator rods.
Neck: 2 piece mahogany with black stripe. 27" scale (Vega). Small frets. Rosewood FB, diamond inlays, black behind ivoroid binding, side dots. Follows Vega profile, except has thumb stop, and working truss rod. Planetary tuners with finger adjustment of screws. Geared 5th. Bone nut, 1-3/16" at nut. Action easily adjustable.
Tone is quite good. One of the best sounding Tub-a-phones I have heard. Clear, crisp, and bright up and down the neck. with a new Fiberskyn 3 head.
- No. 4286 Montana Five Star Banjo. Bow tie with different inlay on head, "heavy tone ring" (verified by an owner April 02), gold plate, big clunky imitation Grover tuners, pearl lotus flower and dots onlay on rosewood resonator, Mahogany (?) neck. Also seen with patterns of dots inlaid on the fingerboard in x's, etc., on a very early example, c. 1971.
- No. 4289 - Bow tie inlays. Same as No. 4282, but with metal button friction tuners on the peghead in place of the imitations of the large square Gibson ones of the 60's on No. 4282. The 5th string peg is still a metal button and friction. The pot is better finished than 4282, it is semi gloss in place of matte.
- No. 4291 Tenor version of 4282.
- No. 4300 Denver Belle. High end mahogany banjo, carved heel, tortoise binding, Reno inlay, double cut peghead, tube and plate Gibson type flathead ring, nickel plate, wood marquetry binding on upper edge of resonator and on edge of fingerboard.
- No. 4310 White Eagle - S/N 1461 - Vega griffin (Tubaphone #9) style inlays, engraved, carved heel, peghead of unique shape. Sunburst finish maple banjo, Gibson style 2 piece flange 3 ply maple pot, full height 20 hole archtop tone ring (possibly a later conversion), dual coordinator rods, flamed maple resonator (inside and out), chrome finish. Kershner tailpiece appeared to be a later addition.
I've seen a second one of these, not flamed inside the reso, no washers on both the coordinator rods at the neck end, it appears to be holding the neck to the tailpiece side of the pot (!). This one had no S/N and model number tag. The owner also called it an Alvarez Eagle, so maybe it is a slightly different model.
A third one is different still: Labeled Whyte Eagle, the banjo weights approximately 13.5 pounds; the neck and resonator is made of curly maple, resonator is finished on the outside only, inside has a dark stain applied to the exposed wood and the lip of the resonator is half round inset to accept the flange. The neck is butterfly with a thin piece of ebony running down the center. The head and heel are black acrylic, ebony fingerboard with mother of pearl inlays. The fingerboard and resonator are trimmed with cream binding. The pot is 7/8 inch thick ten ply veneer maple, two piece flange with 24 hooks/ nuts. The tone ring is chrome plated bell brass 40 (note the difference to the above) arch top with It has a replaced tortoise shell tail piece. (The original was also a tortoise shell) The heel is carved, the bottom of the heal is black acrylic with a mother of pearl inlay. It has a chrome armrest and had a fifth string slide capo, (6 - 12 fret) originally. Brown hard-shell case, $900.00 and change paid for the banjo and case in '78.
The owner wrote, ".........I bought it brand new in 1978. This is a complete hand made banjo and there is not a single flaw in the construction. All the binding is tight fit and perfectly smooth surface. All the inlay has exact fit with all round edges round. No flat mistakes. The sound is superb, out of the box. In my biased opinion, this banjo is as good as they come. I have seen several high priced banjos with bad bindings, flat spots on inlay and inlay that does not fit."
Around 1980, Silver Belle model was a Mastertone clone with an as yet unknown tone ring, 2 piece flange, H&F, mahogany, chrome(?), Presto, Silver Bell on the 21st fret, nice detailing.
Argus - Wild peghead overall shape and inlay pattern, 2 piece flange, flathead, multiply rim, nickel, Kershner style tailpiece, cordovan (pigeon blood) color like the old Mastertones. ALBAS (stylized as /LBAS) on 21st fret was brand-name of kyowa-shokai, the dealer of Argus banjos), see http://www.t-shiga.com/sub3-5-5.htm for a catalog of the Argus banjo.
Japanese from the early to mid 70's, the top of the pot is the contour of the inside of the tone ring like some Tokai's, and does not touch it...same idea as the Bill Palmer Tone Bell™. If you have further information on Argus banjos, please send information to the owner, on this fascinating instrument, which seems to be built just as the Japanese were getting the hang of it and trying some things too. Here are some pictures of the head and inlay on his "Foggy" model banjo, definitely non Gibson: Head, lower neck, upper neck, pot profile.
Aoyama - similar to Aria, Ventura of early 70's, metal button friction tuners, one piece flange with 3 intersecting ellipse holes, same non Gibson clone peghead shape.
Bluebell - Ibanez in the Japanese market, made by Fujigen. See Ibanez.
Booringwood - current, look like Samick built, brand of Gortin Music Wholesale, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland. BTB75 & BTB85 (carved neck, gold hardware), both maple.
Bradley - light maple; flat head; nickel; adjustable truss rod; pot has double coordinator rods; bell brass tone ring; rim about ¾" (?) thick; peghead and fingerboard inlays are the regulation RB250 style
Contessa - I've seen a Mastertone pattern one like the early bowtie Alvarez above. Die cast tone ring (hb-120V?). There are also West German built banjos with the Contessa name, no relationship to the Asian ones. They were a second brand of Framus, can be identified by the multi lamination neck and a radiused (arched) fingerboard, and distinctly non Asian design.
Dixon - Masterclone in maple, probably 70's. Two coordinator rods, described as "very heavy"
Dorado Deluxe - similar to Alvarez, bowtie inlays.
Desert Rose - Custom made by Scott Zimmerman in Japan, top quality, often JLS #12 tone rings, some Tenessee and Huber. See Scott's Desert Rose Banjos pages.
Electra - Apparently Iida built for an importer in Australia. One the apparent equivalent of Iida 231 seen on Australian eBay. Other models in the then current range are possible.
The correspondent reports excellent tone but is nonetheless converting the banjo to an open back and installing a wood rim.
Emperador - Seen on eBay, similar to early 70's Alvarez, different headstock shape, same pot, flange, resonator, modified dot inlay.
Epiphone - Gibson marketed, looks like a Samick/ DaeWoo Korean combination product. 1996 MB250 masterclone tone ring is 1# 12oz AL or pot metal, 2pc steel flange. I had one that is pretty well dialed in, it was OK if not great. I was willing to put it into airline baggage (in a Leaf case).
es-s - Early 70's RB250 replica, similar to Aria Pro. Blocky metal button tuners, plain 5th peg, mahogany, nickel, filigree diamond pearl in center of the resonator, eagle claw tailpiece, 4 reso screws. Sighted in Finland.
Fender (Korean) - FB58, current, seems to be similar to BC Cho. Die cast tone ring, like the Epiphone MB250.
Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH
Edited 15 Feb 09 by WF