You can get lots of recommendations for good "low end" banjos. Often people will recommend what they have. This is not nearly as valuable as a recommendation from someone who has a lot of experience and known lots of banjos. It is worth something of course, it indicates that the instrument in question is not a total disaster.
The classic and highly recommended beginner banjo is the Deering Goodtime II. This banjo is $699 list, sells all over the internet for $529, and I got mine used at a reputable music store for $375 in great condition.
Every time I would find an inexpensive banjo for sale on Craigs list and then look up what people said about it on the Banjo Hangout Forums, they would say: "forget that thing, kick in another $200 and get yourself a Deering Goodtime 2". The vanilla Deering Goodtime (MSRP of 499, but available for 379) is an open back banjo. The Goodtime 2, is the same thing with a maple resonator (MSRP of 699, but available for $529). These are light colored "blonde" banjos built from maple, and made in the USA by people who know banjos. No tone ring or truss rod. A big plus is that it is light, since it lacks a tone ring, which gives it "pleasant and friendly" sound.
I highly recommend it, as do many others. It has a nice sound and won't get in the way of your learning.
A recommendation for the Goodtime, is to replace the bridge with a "Snuffy Smith Bridge" to improve the sound (Paul at the folk shop snorted when I told him this). Also recommended are light strings like the D'Addario phosphor bronze strings.
My initial learning was done on a "Lida" (looks like Aida, and some people call these Iida banjos - that's what they get for using such artsy printing). It served me well, but it was a definite step up when I got the Goodtime.
Recording King banjos are Chinese made banjos that currently (2011) have a good reputation. They seem to have replaced the Gold Tones as the hot import banjo.
Recording King was the name of a banjo sold out of the old Montgomery Wards or Sears catalogs. A fellow by the name of Greg Rich seems to be the importer.
More banjo for your dollar is what you hear, and they certainly look nice. The RK-25 (Madison) is a nice Banjo without a tone ring. Then there is the RK-50 (Melody King). Beyond that, the RK-75 (Elite) and RK-80 (Professional) are well regarded banjos with tone rings. The RK-80 gets compared to the Deering Sierra. It seems to be a matter of taste whether the Sierra or RK-80 gets the nod. The Sierra has plain looks, but a great sound.
Gold Tone banjos used to be made in Korea, but are now made in China. There are some who say that the quality dropped a notch when that move was made, but is still quite acceptable.
I have handled some of these, and nearly chose the CC-100R instead of the Goodtime. The CC-100 (CC stands for "Cripple Creek") is a good choice for those who have troubles with the plain looks of the Goodtime (which have grown on me frankly). The shop I bought my Goodtime from recommended it as "more for my money" than the Deering Goodtime. Note however that I, after looking them both over did choose the Goodtime and lived happily ever after.
The CC-100R+ goes for 450 and has a brass tone ring, maple body and neck, 18 brackets, the R indicates that it has a resonator. I'd like to see one of these, sounds pretty good.
I handled an open back CC-50 and liked it a lot (for $269). Handsome dark wood, very light and friendly, sounded nice. The CC-50RP goes for 320 and has planetary tuners, and a resonator.
The OB-250 has been called a "fantastic" (and heavy, 13 pound) banjo with a MSRP of 1319, but selling for 990. The BG-250F has an MSRP of 999 (sells for 750) and has been called as "the best deal going". It has a brass tone ring, maple neck and body, planetary tuners
I don't hear great things about the Epiphone Banjos. Epiphone is Gibson's "import line", so these are made in China (or somewhere), but since Gibson has their name tied to them, there is some implication of quality. The Epiphone guitars have a good reputation. If you call an Epiphone a Gibson, people will correct you. The MB-200 goes for $249 (MSRP of 448) all mahogany. The MB-250 goes for $599 (MSRP of 999) and is a good looking instrument. Mahogany neck and maple body.
There are lots of good and not so good banjos from China (aka "Asia"). They get imported and get nice folksy names slapped on them, such as:
Mastercraft. These are also Asian banjos, no better or worse than their ilk. As someone said, you can order these exact banjos from at least 6 different Korean brokerage houses with any name you want on them. They are cranked out by the thousands. Mastercraft seems to be the label put on the ones shipped to the Banjo Hut in Tennessee. The good news about these is that the banjos are set up by the Banjo Hut people in Tennessee who do care and know what they are doing. They look sharp, but the Gold Tones sound better.
Here is a U-tube video on Banjo setup. Any banjo is a poor banjo if poorly set up.
People suggest putting a sheet of foam or some towels in the resonator to avoid annoying your family and friends while practicing. Actually a thin sheet of foam may improve the sound a bit on some less expensive banjos.
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