The art of choosing a banjo, like any musical instrument, or come to that almost any substantial purchase, is all about balancing the investment required against quality, performance, enjoyment, longevity of service, and that hard to define factor you might call 'desirability'. Putting it simply, it's what the Americans call "bang for your buck".
So on that measure, how do Shackleton banjos stack up? How much bang do you get with a Shackleton?
Let's get the price issue out of the way, right off the bat. Yes, as you'll have noticed, Shackleton banjos are more expensive than most of the banjos you can buy on the High Street or online.
Our entry level model, the Shackleton Original, is £600. And some of our instruments cost over £2,000.
Let's talk about the 'why' first, and then about 'what you get for your money'.
The 'why' is simple. Unlike virtually every other banjo sold in the UK or elsewhere, our Shackleton banjos are handmade: and what's more they're handmade in Britain (in the UK's first and only banjo factory for more than sixty years).
To define handmade: our banjos start life in our Norwich, Norfolk factory (small factory or large workshop – call it what you will) as boards or billets of seasoned timber. The wood we use doesn't come to us shaped like banjos: it comes shaped like blocks of timber. We use timber only from FSC certified suppliers, so we know our wood comes from sustainably managed forestry, both in the USA and in Europe.
From that timber we shape every wooden part of every instrument. We use all the hand tools you'd expect wood craftsmen to use, plus we use powered machine tools of course (lathes, drills, sanders, routers, spindle moulders, planers, and saws), combined with old-fashioned jigs to guide our tools, to shape the necks, headstocks, heels and pots of all our instruments.
We hand carve the detailing of every neck and headstock, and we apply every veneer, purfling, binding, and inlay by hand too. We fret the necks by hand. We glue by hand. We build our block pots by hand. We turn them by hand. We sand and lacquer and sand again, by hand.
Each instrument has about a week's worth of superbly skilled labour invested in it. In many models much more.
So, instead of being mass produced in the Far East, in huge factories offering poor worker conditions, poor quality control and poor components, our instruments are made by hand in England, by skilled craftsmen who are passionate about their work, using the best materials.
A note on components. We don't make metal parts in our factory, or the specialist parts (like tuners). Instead, we use the best components available from around the world. Most of our 'hardware' is imported from the USA from the world's leading banjo parts supplier. Our tuners are either American, Swiss, or Japanese (depending on the model). Even our entry level Shackleton Original model has superb USA-made Grover tuners. The entry model!
Our banjo skins are made by Remo in California, because they're the best. Our strings are made by D'Addario in USA, because they're the best.
But why does this matter? How does all this craft and top quality stuff benefit you?
There are three very simple answers to that question.
Big claims? Let's take each in turn.
Shackleton banjos sound better
Now 'sounding better' is a subjective claim of course. We can't prove it to you scientifically. But we can tell you that over 250 customers have been very happy with the sound of their Shackletons since we launched in Spring 2014, and many, many of them have written to tell us just how much they love the sound of their Shacks.
But why should they sound better? It's a function both of materials and care of construction. Because we select the hardest, densest quality woods, we get the best starting point for brighter, louder, richer-sounding instrument.
But from then on it's all about the handcrafting. The care, the precision, the tightness of the joints, the straightness of the necks, the levelness of the fretting.
The result? We think it's an objectively better sounding banjo.
Shackleton banjos look and handle better
Instead of the bling you find on so many imported banjos (plastic inlays, great thick layers of wet-look varnish, acres of chrome hardware) we tend to understate the trimmings. Where we use binding on a neck or a pot, it's hand applied so it's a wee bit finer, a wee bit more subtle and stylish than the imported instruments.
When we inlay a fret dot or a design on the headstock, we do it by hand. And you only have to glance at it to see the care.
But it's not just the details that make the difference. We've designed our instruments to have a visual appeal as a whole shape, which we like to think of as a 'modest friendliness'. Our banjos never shout at you from across the room. They just speak quietly to you. Approachable. Genuine.
And when you pick it up you'll notice two things about a Shackleton. First is the weight. Compared to imported banjos, ours are lighter right across the range. The Shackleton Original weighs less than 2kg! That's because we don't throw metal at our banjos for the sake of it, or make our pots quite as brutally thick as some (so many overseas makers think that more weight and more metalwork is somehow more impressive). We use just the right amount of hardware that we need, and we cut our pots to exactly the right thickness to achieve the best sound.
Second, you'll notice how well balanced our instruments are, and how comfortably the neck profile fits into your hand. They just sit right.
Shackleton banjos last longer!
Buy an ordinary banjo in an ordinary store, online or off, and you'll get a one year guarantee. And good luck if something goes wrong and you want to get your instrument fixed or replaced. It's what the word 'quibble' was invented for! And outside of a year? No chance.
That's not the way we do things.
We're putting the next bit in caps: it's that important!
EVERY SHACKLETON BANJO HAS A TRANSFERABLE SIX-YEAR WARRANTY!
That means that for six years from the date you buy a Shackleton, we guarantee to fix anything that goes wrong. Anything at all. If something breaks, fails, falls off or otherwise lets you down... we will collect your banjo from you and fix it. Simple as that.
Nobody else does this. Nobody. Anywhere.
Oh yes, and remember the warranty is transferable! So if you get bored with your banjo (you won't, but if you did) and want to sell your Shack, then the balance of your warranty can be passed to your buyer (v reassuring for them and an easier sell for you).
So is it worth paying our prices? Is it worth stretching to a Shackleton?
Only you can decide. But we'd say that it's not really about the difference between buying a cheap banjo or an expensive banjo.
It's about the difference between buying a far-eastern, mass-produced, thin-sounding, blingy covered, faux-American thing – or a hand-crafted, beautifully designed, English-made, superb quality musical instrument that will give you potentially decades of pleasure of ownership, and which is protected by a completely unrivalled 6-year warranty.
There are ordinary banjos. And then there are Shackleton banjos. They're worth the stretch.