Review: 2013 Washburn B-7 Openback Banjo

As someone who's mostly focused on repair and sales of older instruments, I don't often have a lot of stuff hanging around for beginners or students and I often suggest newer instruments for folks to start out on at a budget and with the features they might be looking for. The owner of this banjo had previously been playing on an old 30s Kay 5-string which he'd gotten from me and liked a lot but he wanted to have a "scoop" at the end of the board for clawhammer playing. I was reluctant to modify an otherwise clean old banjo so I said, "hey, take a look at the new Saga products," and such and such as I knew there were nowadays plenty of options in the sub-$300 market for perfectly useful old-time banjos with scoops, geared pegs, and decent sound.

When he came back with this Washburn B-7 (roughly $200 brand new, shipped to your door) I knew it would need the usual stuff: a good setup as well as general "making-ship-shape" of the Asian-import banjo hardware. After that, though, it turned out just fine as a practical beginner's old time banjo. It now plays well, keeps in tune, and feels nice under the fingers.

I have no idea how stable the (truss-rodded) neck will be over time, but for the moment it's good and the fretting job was fairly precise. The wooden multi-ply rim (non-tonering model) also gives more of that tubby, warm old-banjo sound compared to the (almost always) aluminum rims of the vast majority of low-end import banjos that I'm familiar with. The finish is also a sprayed thin satin coat which feels a lot less grubby and low end compared to something like a thick glossy plastic coat of finish that I'm more used to with Chinese banjos. I've been noting that more Asian imports use satin these days and that's good for several reasons: less muck to hide poor construction with and also less of that dipped feel when you're playing it.

Let's be fair, though, and also say that the hardware all feels on the cheap side and the single coordinator rod system is still the aging, imperfect, 1950s/60s Kay-style unit that never worked all that well in the first place. It works, but it's no replacement for a decent Gibson-style single rod system which seems (to me) to be just as easy or easier to install and manufacture parts for.

All the tuners here are geared -- guitar style at the headstock and a 4:1 planet at the 5th peg.

Even though this banjo looks from afar like it might be the inheritor of the "cheap 70s Japanese import Aluminum rim 5-string" realm, modern production means that it's significantly upgraded and more of a real instrument right out of the factory. It just needs a bit of a nudge to be a "fine learner" or amateur instrument to plink around on.