The first thing you must have in order to play the banjo is...a banjo! I'd like to share my thoughts on how to purchase your first instrument. Most people start with some kind of budget. Banjos sell for anything from $100 to many, many thousands. There are no guarantees that you'll succeed in becoming the next Earl Scruggs so buying a $5000 banjo may not be the best choice. On the other hand who wants to play something that sounds bad and plays worse?
There are several things to look for in a student banjo. First it should play easily. The strings should be easy to push down, both right in front of the nut (the white piece at the top of the fingerboard that holds up the strings) and farther "up" the neck closer to the round part of the banjo. You don't want to have to slice your fingers like a piece of cheese in order to play a fretted note!
Secondly, the banjo should be easy to play with the right hand. You should be able to pick a string lightly near the bridge and hear a clear note. If you have to really pound on the strings with your right hand to hear anything that sounds remotely like a banjo you will quickly get frustrated. There's no point in trying to learn on an instrument that can't produce a pleasing sound and is painful to play at the same time.
Most student instruments today are quite adequate for starting out on. You should be able to hear a difference in sound as you progress as a student. Otherwise you won't have an incentive to continue. I'm going to concentrate on buying a student quality instrument that you'll be able to learn on and won't hold you back too much or cost a lot of money.
The first thing to know is that most student instruments you'll see are made in Korea, China, or another country in Asia. This has been true for many years. In fact, many of these instruments are made in the same factory even though they have different brand names and have different finishes, inlays, etc. If you wanted to order some banjos with your name on it you could easily do so since that's the business these companies are in.
The bottom line is that there are a limited number of structurally different banjos out there and the main difference is in price. At the bottom end are banjos that sell around $150.00 If you looked a several in the same price range you would see that the parts of the banjo that make sound, the rim, head, resonator, etc., are identical in most if not all of these brands. This means they will also sound more or less the same. Differences in sound or ease of playing will usually be caused by setup issues. The head may need tightening, the neck may need adjusting, etc. Some music stores will be able to adjust these things before you pickup the instrument and others won't.
If a banjo seems to play OK (of course you won't be able to play it if you're a total beginner) and sounds OK it probably is OK. If the one you're looking at has strings that are hard to push down, or it sounds like a tambourine when you strum the strings, try a different one. My experience has been that most of these imported instruments sound and play OK right out the box. If you are buying it from a music store be sure they will stand behind it if there are any immediate problems.
Banjos in the second price level, $250-300, will have better hardware and better sound than the less expensive models. The banjos I talk about in the last paragraph usually have very little actual wood in them and the metal parts used are inexpensive alloys. The next level up will usually have more wood and the metal parts will be heavier. Cosmetically they will look nicer as well. The same variations in setup and support from the dealer apply to this level of instrument. Try to buy from someone who has been in business for awhile and will stand behind their product.
There are many more expensive banjos that are made abroad and sold under different brand names. I don't plan to talk about any of these specifically. They usually come through the same manufacturing pipeline as the cheaper models and generally, the more you pay the more you get. Be wary of banjos that look REALLY fancy. All of the fake gold plating, machine done engraving, and fancy inlays don't make a banjo sound any better! You can probably buy the same thing without the extra cosmetic stuff for substantially less money. If you can't play anything yourself try to find someone in the store who can demonstrate the banjo before spending big bucks on this type of instrument.
I haven't mentioned any American made banjos that are within a student budget. This is because there aren't many out there. This is especially true at the bottom end. The only major US banjo maker that has student banjos (that I know of) is Deering with their GoodTime line starting out around $300 for a model with no resonator and around $400 with one. These are well made, simple banjos that are fine to start on. A second brand, Gold Tone, sell banjo for which they design the parts and then have them manufactured in Asia after which they are assembled in this country. They offer a complete line that are good values.
Gold Tone also offers banjo kits that are a way to get a better instrument for less money. Banjos are the ideal instrument to build from a kit since they bolt together and are almost impossible to screw up. The most complicated part of building a kit is putting on some kind of finish. I've seen people who built kits and never finished them. They sound the same as if they had a beautiful hand-rubbed finish. If you like to put things together the banjo is the instrument for you!
Saga is another company that has instruments and parts manufactured to their specifications in Asia. They offer a wide spectrum of banjos as well as making kits starting around $180. Saga has been in business for many years and has a very solid reputation.
Finally, no matter which banjo you choose you'll need a few other things to get started. Some kind of case is a good idea for protecting your new banjo. You'll also need some way to tune it. Most people today use electronic tuners that tell you the pitch of each string and indicate if it is high or low or in tune. These are inexpensive and easy to use. You won't be sorry you bought one. You'll also need picks if you plan to play bluegrass (see my Picks Page for more info). This means a minimum of 2 metal finger picks and one plastic (or metal) thumb pick. There are many options for these in terms of size, shape, and material used. Remember that they are cheap so it's good to try several different types and sizes. Also, you WILL lose one at least so buy a spare or two. Last, you might want to buy and extra set of strings in case on breaks.
I hope this advice is helpful. It seems like there are so many choices when you are starting out, but I hope I've made things less complicated. The main thing is get started with something that works and look into a better instrument as you progress. Before you know it that $5000 banjo won't look so bad!