Picking out a banjo can be difficult, especially for a beginner or intermediate player. You’ve got different lengths, styles and string counts. Even once you narrow it down to a 4-string banjo, you have options. When choosing the best 4 string banjo you still have a wide number of options available to you!
We like to think of this as an embarrassment of riches! The 4 string banjo is such a diverse and fun instrument to play that musicians have adopted it to different styles of music and made adjustments to traditional instruments to suit their needs.
In our buyers guide we will cover different things that you’ll want to know and consider when buying a 4 string banjo. Before that you’ll see four of our favorite tenor banjos and plectrum banjos.
If you are in a hurry, our favorite 4 string tenor banjo is a Deering Goodtime 17-Fret Tenor Banjo and the the best 4 string plectrum banjo is the Gold Tone CC-Plectrum Cripple Creek Plectrum Banjo!
Before we get to that though, what is the difference between a tenor banjo and a plectrum banjo?
The Difference between 4 String Tenor Banjo vs 4 String Plectrum Banjos
While you can find banjos in a wide variety of different styles of music, from replacing a guitar in a rock band to the purest of southern bluegrass, each banjo tends to have it’s specialty. The tenor banjo and 4 string plectrum banjos are no exception. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them to play whatever style of music you’d like, but they are commonly found in certain places and styles of music!
The Tenor Banjo
The 4 string Tenor banjos are distinguished by their shorter scale length and fewer frets than a standard banjo. Tenor banjos come in either a 17 or a 19 fret design, with a scale length of around 21in.
The 17 fret tenor banjo is traditionally tuned G,D,A,E from thickest to thinnest string. This instrument is called an Irish Tenor Banjo and is commonly used to play Irish, Scottish or Celtic styles of music. When you hear jigs, reels, hornpipes, or polkas, you’re probably hearing an irish tenor banjo!
The 19 fret tenor banjo is more common than the 17 fret version and is used in traditional Dixieland, ragtime and Jazz music. The Irish punk ska band Dropkick Murphy’s have brought this instrument to the forefront of popular music today as it features in much of their music!
The Plectrum Banjo
Plectrum Banjos are normally 22 frets and are very similar to a 5 string banjo without the drone string. They are tuned to drop C tuning, that is C,G,B, D and is generally found in the hands of a jazz musician. The plectrum banjo is usually played with a flatpick, which used to be called a plectrum, thus giving the instrument its name.
Guitar players also tend to pick up this instrument if they don’t choose a 6 string banjo. When they do, it is tuned to D,G,B,E (Chicago tuning) so they can play it like the highest four notes of a guitar.
Now that we’ve got that wrapped up, lets move on to the best 4 string banjos for beginners and intermediate players!
Best 4 String Tenor Banjo
Deering Goodtime 17-Fret Tenor Banjo
The Deering name is synonymous with the banjo in America. The 17- fret Tenor Banjo is no exception!
With a full maple rim and slender maple neck this banjo sounds amazing and has a nice mellow tone thanks to the open back design. This is the same material that banjos that are 5 times the price are made from.
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When talking about beginners, the slender neck and 17-fret design keep things simple. For intermediate players the quality of this instrument will allow you to be happy with this instrument for years of playing. While known as a Irish/Celtic style music instrument, this banjo is fun for anyone!
- 3 Ply Maple Rim
- Maple Neck
- All geared tuning pegs
- Amazing Value for this Quality
- Deering name brand
- No Resonator Option
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Rover RB-20T Tenor Banjo
Rover is a fairly new banjo brand that is bringing a great selection of value options for beginner banjo players. Most banjos under $200 dollars are junk, while quality options are around $500.
This leaves new banjo players with a choice. Poor quality or more expensive than they’d like. Rover is giving players a option in the middle!
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The composite rim is one way they are doing this. Another of these is the mahogany neck and rosewood fingerboard. You still get great features like an adjustable truss rod, guitar style tuners, and mahogany resonator.
If you are on a budget, this is the tenor banjo that you want!
- Mahogany Neck
- Rosewood Fingerboard
- Adjustable Trust Rod
- Great Value Option for Beginners
- Composite Rim
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Gold Tone CC-Irish Tenor Cripple Creek Tenor Banjo
If you are familiar with Gold Tone banjos you know that the Cripple Creek is their entry level lineup. This line boasts over 7000 sales since its induction 12 years ago.
This 17-fret Irish Tenor banjo just simply sings. It has a maple rim, neck and resonator.
These banjos are also set with low string action that helps beginners play the instrument.
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The maple headstock, brass tone ring, and black binding on the neck and resonator make this one of our favorite looking tenor banjos. The resonator is also removable, giving you the option to play this instrument open-backed if you’d like!
- Maple Rim
- Maple Neck
- Removable Maple Resonator
- Great Looking Instrument
- Cripple Creek is a well known, liked Instrument line
- Normally over $500
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Deering Goodtime 2 19-Fret Tenor Banjo
Yes. Another Deering Goodtime Tenor Banjo. They are simply that good.
Plus, if you prefer playing Dixieland or jazz to Irish/Celtic music the 19-fret design of this instrument will be more to your liking than the 17-fret we already listed.
Our top pick was the 17-fret version, but we easily could have chosen this one. We stuck with the other due to the price.
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The biggest difference other than the extra two frets is the resonator that comes with this instrument which helps with projecting the sound. It is made of maple just like the rim, neck and headstock!
- Maple Rim and Neck
- Maple Resonator
- Deering Goodtime quality
- Made for Dixieland and traditional Jazz musicians.
- Slender neck is easy for beginners
- Pricy for a Beginner, great for intermediates
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There you have our picks for the best 4 string banjo in the tenor size!
Up next, we’ll review our top four picks for the 4 string plectrum banjo!
Best 4 String Plectrum Banjo
Rover RB-20P Plectrum Open back 4 String Banjo
Similar to the tenor banjos we listed above, the Rover RB-20P is a great option for price sensitive beginners!
The composite 11in rim is the same you’ll find on the tenor version, and this one has a metallic grey finish that really stands out, especially when paired with the Vega style armrest.
The neck is also of similar construction, made from mahogany with a rosewood fretboard. This combination is found on a LOT of stringed instruments and works well!
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As we said with the Rover Tenor Banjo, this is a great option for someone looking for a good beginner instrument that is made with good quality. It is definitely the best budget plectrum banjo we’ve seen on the market!
- Mahogany Neck
- Rosewood Fretboard
- Guitar Style Tuners
- Great Value for a Good Plectrum Banjo
- Composite Rim
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Gold Tone CC-Plectrum Cripple Creek Plectrum Banjo
Another phenomenal option from the Cripple Creek lineup of banjos from Gold Tone, this is our pick for best 4 string banjo in the plectrum options.
The maple neck, rim and resonator can be found on this instrument with a black binding that really stands out on stage.
Same as the tenor version of this, the factory in Florida strings these banjos with low action which is perfect for beginner banjoists.
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The Rover is our pick if you are on a budget, but if you are simply looking for the best plectrum banjo for beginners, it is really, really hard to beat the Cripple Creek Plectrum Banjo!
- Maple Neck, Rim and Resonator
- Dual Coordinator Rods
- 2-way adjustable truss rod
- Low String action
- Proven Line of Banjos
- More expensive than some beginners will want
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Gold Tone PS-250 Plectrum Special
By far the most expensive banjo on our list, we wanted to include a banjo for the true intermediate players looking for an upgrade from their original strings!
Regardless of how many strings your last banjo was, if you are switching to a Plectrum Banjo and want a solid instrument the Gold Tone PS-250 has all the quality of the Cripple Creek plus bells and whistles.
The instrument comes with a multi ply maple rim, maple neck and a rosewood fingerboard that is assembled for the perfect tone.
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The PS-250 is a staple of the Gold Tone line, its exceptional tone, punch and sustain will make any banjo player smile. This is a serious instrument for anyone serious about picking 4 strings. Price not being an option, the best 4 string banjo on this list, hands down.
- Perfect Tone and Punch
- Maple Rim and Neck
- Vintage Design
- 14” Maple resonator
- Professional level Quality
- A few customers have had issues with shipping
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A note here. Deering makes a 4 string plectrum banjo that is a really good instrument. We did not include it because it was out of stock everywhere we looked. The Deering Plectrum Banjo is similar in quality and price to the Gold Tone CC-Plectrum Cripple Creek Plectrum Banjo that won the category. Both are great instruments that any beginner or intermediate player will love!
4 String Banjo Buying Guide
Now lets look at some of the factors that we used to choose these different banjos. Many of our readers prefer to shop locally so we want to give you guidelines and ideas that make a difference for sound, quality, and longevity of your instrument. We have given you our picks for the best 4 string banjo on the market today, but these factors will help you decide on your own!
If you love the 4 string instruments but are not sure that the tenor or plectrum banjo are for you, have you looked at a banjolele? This is a 4 string instrument that has the rim of a banjo combined with the neck of a ukulele!
Banjo Material and Components
The wood that your banjo is made out of will significantly effect the quality, sound and tone of your banjo. Traditionally the best rims and necks are made out of maple. Of all the hard wood options maple is the quintessential banjo material we look for.
Mahogany is a good alternate option, not only does it have good resonance qualities, it is cheaper than maple. In fact, most guitars of good quality and moderate price are made from solid mahogany!
Lower quality instruments will have cheap, laminated wood options, composite materials, or even metal rims. While theses all help you save on cost, the sound quality really suffers. There are exceptions to this rule, including the Rover brand of banjos. The composite material they use actually sounds pretty good for the price.
Another thing to check is an adjustable truss rod. This should more or less be a standard issue on banjos that are produced now, but when writing this article we found cheaper options without one.
Other components are not as important for beginner instruments, the difference they make in sound, playability, and quality is more subtle. We wrote a detailed guide on the parts of a banjo that you can look through to learn more!
Brand and Model of Banjo
There are brands that historically are simply known for making great banjos. In this article we mentioned both Deering and Gold Tone several times, both are brands that we know are made in America and stand by years of quality instruments.
On the same note, the Goodtime and Cripple Creek product lines are made with a newer banjoist in mind. The Cripple Creek line advertises they have over 7000 sales for beginner players and we looked around, negative reviews are few and far between!
If you shop around, you can find banjos for upwards of $4000 dollars. These are not instruments we recommend for beginners. These banjos have features that a beginner won’t understand or appreciate, and the nuances are lost simply due to inexperience.
Thanks to the good number of great banjo brands out there, you don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to buy an instrument that won’t make it harder to learn how to play banjo.
We also don’t recommend the $50 options you can find at department stores. Many times these instruments will break easily, refuse to stay in tune, have cheap strings, tuners and rims, or just plain and simple sound horrible. Learning to play banjo is hard enough without having to fight your instrument!
Final Thoughts on the Best 4 String Banjos
After careful consideration, our favorite 4 string tenor banjo is a Deering Goodtime 17-Fret Tenor Banjo and the the best 4 string plectrum banjo is the Gold Tone CC-Plectrum Cripple Creek Plectrum Banjo.
The banjos on this list aren’t the only good options for beginners, but sticking with this list will make sure you get a quality instrument that will be fun to learn on!
A ukulele player pretty much from birth, Edward has gone on to play banjo, lead guitar, and bass for a number of bands and solo projects! Edward loves talking, teaching and writing about music!