The best clawhammer banjo is a thing of beauty. It’s one of the more expressive instruments you can buy, and for good reason! It’s got a bright, clear tone with lively projection. The workmanship is top-notch, and the attention to detail is amazing.
Many beginner banjo players, or even ones looking for their second or third instrument, don’t know what separates a good banjo from a bad one and can easily be duped into purchasing something they won’t be happy with.
My friends and I played a ton of banjos to come up with our four best clawhammer banjo choices for you. We picked our favorite, but all of the ones on this list are great choices depending on your skill level, budget, and experience!
The Best Clawhammer Banjo
After reviewing, playing, and handling quite a few open-back banjos we’ve narrowed down our picks for the best clawhammer banjo to four. From there, you’ll have to pick through the pros and cons of each to find the instrument for you!
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Deering Goodtime 5-String Banjo
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If there were an old faithful of the banjo world for beginner and intermediate players, the Deering Goodtime banjo would be it! This banjo plays like a much more expensive instrument and sounds amazing.
The low-profile neck is also good while you get your feel for the fretboard, and the 11-inch maple rim and steel tension hoop are a setup you find on banjos that cost three times what the Goodtime does.
Sealed, Gearing Tuning Pegs
- Maple Rim and Neck
- Goodtime Bridge and Deering Tailpiece
- Extremely Lightweight
- Due to weight, it won’t project as much as heavier models
Gold Tone AC-1 5 String Banjo
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The best budget clawhammer banjo goes to the Gold Tone AC-1, and it wasn’t even close. You can find quite a few models on Amazon for less than $250, but most of them have plastic rims, poor neck setups, and just don’t play or sound right.
The AC-1 pairs a mahogany back with a composite rim that actually sounds really good together. The composite is something that Gold Tone uses even on some of their nicer models, so you really aren’t sacrificing much by going that route.
While the other banjos on this list all have something going for them the Gold Tone doesn’t, you will not find a better banjo for clawhammer at a similar price! If you like the Gold Tone setup but want to invest in a better instrument, they do make much better models tuned for intermediate and advanced players!
- Mahogany Body
- Ultra-Light at just over 1lbs
- Gold Tone 12-pt Set up
- Best Budget Option
- Composite Rim
Washburn Americana Series B7-A 5-String Open Back Banjo
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There are few companies who have been building banjos as long as Washburn, and their experience and expertise shows! The Americana series is equipped with a nice Remo head and mahogany body and backing.
This instrument is quite a bit louder than the Goodtime and is about 5 lbs heavier which plays a huge part in that. A full-grown adult won’t notice the weight difference much between the two instruments, but this could be too much instrument for children.
Authentic Remo Head
- Mahogany Back
- Great, Loud Projection
- Great Value
- Heavier than other options
Recording King RK-OT25 Madison Open Back Banjo
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While this is the most expensive instrument on the list, it is the only one specifically designed for old-time, better known as clawhammer, banjo playing style. The scooped fretboard, the Presto tailpiece, and the Remo FiberSkyn head all scream clawhammer!
The 3-ply Maple Rim is paired with a maple neck and a rosewood scooped fretboard for high-quality construction, material, and build. If you know that you won’t be playing any Scruggs-style banjo anytime soon, this is a clear winner! If you may fall into bluegrass at some point then the Deering is probably a better bet!
- Maple Neck w/ Truss Rod
- Scooped Rosewood Fretboard
- Remo FiberSkyn Head
- 3-Ply Maple Rim
- Great Intermediate Banjo
- Might be out of some beginners price range
What is Clawhammer Banjo?
Before buying a clawhammer banjo, it probably would help to understand exactly what is clawhammer banjo? Clawhammer actually refers to a style of playing the banjo, rather than a type of instrument. That being said, open-back banjos are almost always used for clawhammer. The other option is bluegrass or Scruggs-style banjo. We discuss clawhammer vs bluegrass in more detail in the article linked!
Clawhammer Banjo Buying Guide
While these four banjos are a great starting point, there are plenty out there that we didn’t test or we didn’t choose for this list for one reason or another. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good-quality instruments.
To help you pick out the best clawhammer banjo for you, we’ve put together this guide for many of the things that we look for when buying a banjo!
Most of the best clawhammer banjos have rims that are made from 3-ply maple. This isn’t the only construction, but it is often the most cost-effective and quality-minded. 3-ply is still a big name, and it’s clear that you’re paying more for quality.
The more plies you have an instrument, the thicker the rim will be. For an instrument to be lightweight, you probably won’t see more than 5 layers.
Some composite materials are being used for rims and backings nowadays. The Gold Tone is a great example of this. That being said, if it’s not real wood then we’d test it out and check the sound quality before buying!
Neck and Wood Material
Maple has always been the choice wood for Banjos. The projection and durability are what give the instrument its characteristic sound. That being said, some other woods, like mahogany, can be a great substitution depending on your style and what you’re looking for.
Necks can be made from maple or mahogany as well. Mahogany necks have a very different feel than maple necks, but it depends on your personal preference!
This will really come down to personal preference. Rosewood is a common wood, but mahogany and ebony are quite common as well. This comes down to the sound and feel of the instrument, so you’ll have to test them out yourself!
Bridge and Tailpiece
A banjo’s bridge supports the weight of strings and produces the sound you’re looking for. You can purchase some cheap bridges that will do the job at first, but they won’t last long!
The tailpiece is a little bit different. This is what connects the strings to the head of the banjo. It’s a very important piece because it can make or break the sound of your instrument.
Even models that have a good bridge could have a bad tailpiece and vice versa! The good news is that you can replace and upgrade these two pieces fairly easily and inexpensively!
Geared tuning pegs are pretty much the top-of-the-line option for tuning. They make tuning your banjo a breeze, they last a long time, and they are highly reliable in comparison to others!
If you see a banjo that has friction pegs, be prepared to spend more time learning how to tune it and keeping it tuned!
The Final Note
There you have it, the Deering Goodtime Open Back Banjo is our top pick for the best clawhammer banjo! We think that it offers a good combination of value and quality for beginner to intermediate players. If you’re looking for a more experienced or advanced player, then our higher-end pick will be a better choice!
Ruby has spent much of the last 20 years touring both North America and Europe in a number of Orchestras, playing lead chair for several. More recently, she has started to teach kids and young adults both the fiddle and violin, with interest in spreading the love for both bluegrass and classical music.