In my YouTube ukulele video travels, I kept running across banjo ukulele videos that had me very intrigued about this hybrid instrument. Most banjos have 5 strings and are not tuned like a ukulele (GCEA). Since I have always wanted to learn to play banjo, and am now also learning to play the ukulele, I figured it would be a no-brainer to get a banjo uke too.
A quick search on google yielded a company called The Bean Sprout Banjo Ukulele Company. Their instruments look wonderful, but are a bit over my budget right now, since I have two regular ukuleles on order. So I decided to wait awhile… But that didn’t last long before I spied the Woodstock Banjo-Tam on eBay one day. With a price tag of only $24.95, I was pretty sure it would not be high quality instrument, but hey, people buy Mahalo ukes for about the same price and I see people playing them on YouTube all the time. So I clicked the Buy-it-now button and waited for it to arrive in my mailbox.
The box that it arrived in was somewhat impressive. If they put that much effort into the packaging, it had to be a decent instrument right?
Included with the Banjo-Tam is a sheet that explains the story of how the instrument was invented. Frank Abrams invented it in his kitchen and has a US patent on it. It has a Made in China sticker on the back though… Also included is a plastic pick, instructions on how to tune it and even a few chord diagrams and songs to play.
The instrument itself is very small. From end to end, it’s only 17 inches long. That makes it shorter than a typical soprano sized ukulele, which are usually around 21 inches long. It does have 12 frets, but they are spaced very closely together. The distance from the nut to the 12th fret is 5.125 inches, with the distance between the first few frets only being about .5 inches each. Very cramped.
I’m not sure of the type of wood that this instrument is made with, but my guess would be Pine. Turning the Banjo-Tam over, you can see that it is open backed and has a wooden rod that is screwed into the end and inserted into the neck.
The tambourine part of this instrument is 6 inches in diameter and has four sets of two jingles (metal discs). A couple of my jingles have some rust on them.
The banjo head looks and feels like skin. I’m sure it’s synthetic though… Without destroying the instrument, I can’t be sure, but I think the head is just glued on. A fabric band is glued over the seam.
Friction tuning pegs are used and according to the included instruction sheet, the first thing you’re supposed to do is to tighten them. Unfortunately, the peg heads on my Banjo-Tam were already tight and a couple of the screwheads look to be almost stripped out.
Tuning this instrument proved to be a bit challenging. I used my favorite chromatic tuner, the Intelli IMT-500, which works great with my Pono uke, but for the Banjo-Tam, not so much. I’m not going to blame the tuner though… I blame the friction tuners and the fact that I can’t tighten the screws in them.
Once I was able to get this instrument into an almost tuned condition, I attempted to play one of the very few songs I know so far: Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (quit laughing, we have to all start somewhere 😉 ). My first try at forming a chord was a rude awakening though…
Check out the action on this thing! Can you say ouch?! At the nut, the strings are about 1/8th of an inch from the fretboard. This makes it pretty much impossible to fret chords. You can fret single notes, with some effort, but that’s about all you can do. Disappointing… Strumming the open strings does yield a surprisingly loud banjo-like sound.
I may try my hand at adjusting the action by lowering the nut height, but I’m not sure if this instrument is really worth the effort though. With the less than decent construction and lack of any semblance of playability, I suggest that anyone else that may have thoughts of buying this instrument, to think twice. Save your $24.95 ($34.95 when you tack on the extra $10 for shipping) and spend it on something else, or put it towards the purchase of a real banjo ukulele. That’s what I should have done. Oh well, it might look cute hanging on the wall somewhere in my house.