Epiphone Masterbilt MB 500  Reviews

Epiphone Masterbilt MB 500

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Epiphone Masterbilt MB 500 Banjo: Luxury On A Budget

Nov 7, 2009 (Updated Nov 7, 2009)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:At it's current price point, it's a superior banjo for the money.

Cons:Competent but not ideal tailpiece. Some may prefer a traditional headstock.

The Bottom Line: At this price, try as many brands you can, but this one is worth considering over the others, especially at it's current price.


The Epiphone Masterbilt MB 500 banjo is described as "a luxury to play." Which is true. From a pure playing standpoint, it has one of the nicest neck and fretboard combinations I've ever seen. It isn't the slimmest neck, but as usual with Epiphones, it's a well designed one. It's very stable, and doesn't flex under playing pressure. Which is something you will notice happens on cheaper banjos. Add to that an ebony fretboard (on a banjo, the harder and smoother the better), and we have a banjo that will make you feel like you're playing twice as fast as usual.

This particular model has been discontinued, and the few internet sites that still have one to sell are pricing it around 980.00 without case, or 1100.00 with one. It was a pretty decent bluegrass style banjo at it's old price of around 1200.00-1400.00, but at it's closeout price, it's become a serious choice for any person looking at the "midprice" range. I'd pay extra and get the case. It's one the lightest, strongest, and most attractive banjo cases around.

The MB 500 has the reputation in some circles of being inferior to the equivalent Gold Star and other imports in it's price range, but always worth trying out when comparing. Faint praise. At it's current price range, and if you can get one at a lower price used, then it becomes a different matter entirely.

At about 1100.00 with case, it's really one of the true bargains on the market right now. It's feature set is impressive; solid non-recycled brass tone ring (even some Gibsons have pot aluminum ones), three ply hard maple rim with two coordinator rods, large classic cloud style inlay which makes the fretboard even faster, bound maple adjustable neck and resonator, and very nice gold hardware. If this banjo was American made, it'd cost at least 400.00 to 600.00 more.

The tuners are traditional planetary type. Purists may object to the non-traditional headstock which is essentially a miniature Epiphone type. This was intentional, as the lower line models have standard headstocks. A couple of years ago, I might have objected, but with every banjo down to the 200.00 level now featuring a traditional headstock, it's a nice and attractive departure. Might even have to revise my opinion on the Deering Goodtime version now.

From a tuning standpoint, the guitar type head is more stable anyway, and combined with the excellent low-ratio tuners, there's no worries in that department. In fact, the tuner ratio is perfect. There's enough turn to keep you from breaking the strings accidently and permit fine tuning, yet fast enough so you can change tunings quickly. For an intermediate or advanced player, which this banjo is designed for, it's perfect.

There are a lot of nice touches that aren't immediately apparent. For example, the brass tone ring is polished. Many cheap banjos, and even some so-called good ones will neglect anything that's out of sight. The armrest has some etching, which on one hand is mainly cosmetic, but it does reduce the amount of smear marks that can make shiny hardware look oily, which more than a few players find irritating. Me included. Smeared hardware makes me want to constantly polish it. 

The resonator mounts are made of brass, not wood, so theoretically it can be removed often without stripping the threads. In actual practice, a player should only remove the resonator when absolutely necessary as brass may be better than wood, but it's still a relatively soft metal and subject to stripped threads.
The bridge and tailpiece are above average in quality, although not outstanding. Good enough for this price range. The bridge is a standard wood type, a bit thick, but automatically putting a thinner one in isn't always good for every player anyway. It can always be thinned out with sandpaper later if you want more volume, and my rule of thumb is to always play an instrument for a couple of weeks before making fine adjustments.

The bridge is a copy of the clam type you see on old classic banjos, although it's not as solid, and oddly enough, you can't adjust the string edge down as far as I'd like. That downward pressure contributes a lot to the sound, and the stock tailpiece would be the first thing to upgrade later.

The one feature that might throw off a beginner is that it uses a "frosted" Remo all-weather head. Banjo heads differ, with the smooth clear type being the loudest, and the frosted as the other end of the spectrum. The Epi sounds fine with .10 gauge strings or higher, but if you want to put extra light .09 strings, the frosted head will cut the volume a bit, and make it just muddy enough to make you think it's a mediocre instrument. A bluegrass player won't notice, as heavier strings are the norm. Someone like me, who uses extra light strings and doesn't use metal fingerpick will notice the difference immediately.

I solved the problem by replacing it with a smoother head that has a more traditional skin head sound. I don't recommend this unless you've played it for a couple of weeks and really know what it sounds like.

I should explain that last statement. When you buy any new banjo, even after trying it out in the store, it will tend to sound subtly different after playing it for a couple of weeks. Sometimes sooner. This is due to a lot of variables. These include old strings that haven't been changed at time of purchase, the acoustics of the store being different than your living room, standard gauges being used instead of the one you personally use, brand of strings (I hate Martin strings, for example), not being used to the neck at the time, and other factors. These will all become apparent as you settle in with the instrument.

I've had a banjo (or guitar for that matter) sound awful in the store, but when trying it out a month later finding that it sounded better. This Epiphone sounded pretty good in the store, even though the strings were black with corrosion, and I got a flat out bargain price on it, so it came home with me. After changing to a lower gauge set of strings, it suddenly sounded flat. Even considered selling it off at that point.

However, I played it for a couple of weeks, and realized that the tone was in fact quite good, but it had the wrong type of head for my style. After changing it, it now sounds as good as any banjo I've ever owned, and even does old time stuff better than many open backs as the sustain due to the thick tone ring is superior.

Which is a good point to emphasize. Any banjo in this price range or above may sound perfect without modification, but most will require some adjustment on your part after getting fully acquainted with it. That's why recommendations you read on the internet need to be taken only as initial research. Most of the opinions I've read on various banjos don't always make sense for a new buyer. Many are based on extremely idiosyncratic tastes, or are based on a few minutes experience playing the model in a music store.

If I went by the advice on web sites like the Banjo Hangout, then this Epiphone is outclassed by Goldstars, and whatever brand you can think of. In other words, it's an Epiphone, and thus inferior. There are Gold Stars that sound a bit better in stock condition, but are more expensive. Plus, in some cases, I simply can't tell why this or that banjo was better than this Epiphone.

In the end, it comes down to your ears, and what you like.

In the case of the MB 500, what you are getting is a very good to excellent bluegrass style banjo. Beginners and intermediate players will find this one a revelation compared to the Goodtime and low cost Fenders. It's not as loud as a Fender, but the tone is superior, especially as you play notes up the neck. Cheap banjos start to "choke" on high notes, and sound tinny. This one stays resonant and full right up to the highest frets. That's where a high quality brass tone ring pays off.

One factor I should mention. A banjo head that is adjusted too tight will choke out the high notes, even on an expensive model. A head that is too loose will make a 3,000.00 banjo sound muddy with too much echo (like in a cave or something).

The reason I say "very good to excellent," is that it depends on how it's played. A good player will make a 100.00 banjo sound like a million dollars. Listen to any old classic banjo music from the 50's and a lot of the music will have been played on cheap banjos, especially in the clawhammer genre.

This banjo will make you sound as good as your skill level. Which is all you can ask of any banjo. This was a 1400.00 model at one time, and being Asian made, was cheaper to make and cheaper in cost. But the materials are first rate, the workmanship excellent, and like many Asian banjos now, an excellent value for the money.
Once you start going over 1500.00 dollars, it becomes a situation of diminishing returns because banjos are relatively simple instruments to manufacture and assemble. Most of the cost is in scale (less sold than guitars) and in materials (three layer rims instead of five, etc). After that, you do get some refinements like specialized bridges and tailpieces, more inlay, and other things, but not all of that contributes to the most important thing, which is tone. 

That's why the 60s and 70s Asian banjos looked so fancy. It was to offset mediocre tone, and it's a fact of life that we often buy by appearance, not performance.

Don't forget another important element. What kind of music you intend to play. If it's folk music, you're better off with an open back. For ensemble bluegrass, it's often about what the band likes. Which may sound odd, but some groups will prefer that you have a razor sharp sound that cuts through the music. This is the reason some players thin out the bridges, to get higher tone and volume.

This model may or may not be the perfect bluegrass banjo for you. Being essentially a copy of a Gibson, it will have a more traditional "dark" tone. Much like you hear on old Earl Scruggs records. There are bluegrass bands that don't want that sound, even though players like Bela Fleck are making it more popular again.

Personally, I think it's a more versatile banjo than some of the more acclaimed brands. With the change to a smoother skin type head, it's given me a sound closer to old time clawhammer players like Wade Ward, who used a resonator, yet with bluegrass style volume. Change to a clear head and you have a louder, sharper instrument. All this is possible because of the fine design and construction of this model. Most importantly, it has good tone and sustain.

If you get a banjo that has poor tone, it can be improved by upgrades, but it will always be what it is. That's why upgrading a cheap banjo only makes sense if you prefer to not go into the midprice (1000.00 or more) range. Such things improve the playing experience, improves the tone in some cases, but it will only be as good as it's basic materials and construction are, and how good you are as a player.

In this case, Epiphone has created a banjo with excellent sound. It can be refined, it's hardware upgraded, or modified to suit your taste. At this price range, that's what you should expect, and this model delivers it. Just as important, it plays well in stock condition thanks to a very finely designed neck and fretboard. It's too bad it's being discontinued, but it creates a bargain for the consumer.

After that, it's all up to you. Any true banjo player wouldn't want it any other way.


Recommend this product? Yes

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