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|Written by Paul D. Race for , , and|
6-String Banjo Buyers' Guide - from Riverboat Music(tm)
First of all, you need to know that all of the manufacturer hype that anyone who knows how to play three chords on a guitar can automatically become a professional banjo player just by buying a six-string banjo is wrong. Six-string banjo is its own instrument with its own history, its own capabilities, and - frankly - its own limitations.
99% of the six-string banjos you will find today are essentially banjos with guitar necks. But most guitar players who want a banjo sound don't get quite the sound they want unless they adjust their style of playing. Some folks experiment with radically different tunings, etc., to achieve the sound they want. But you may avoid that by choosing the right kind of construction. Unfortunately there are a lot of terms to consider, so we'll take a look at the way the various pieces around the pot go together. After that we'll talk about what you need and don't need for certain kinds of playing.
Neck ConsiderationsFirst of all, you need to know that a banjo is all about the neck. And unfortunately, it's impossible to show photos of the differences between a world-class neck and a barely playable neck. But a good, straight, durable neck takes serious craftsmanship and quality control. In addition, the fancier the banjo, the more likely it is to be really heavy on the "pot" end, which places even more strain on the neck. Here's the irony - it's cheaper to make a banjo that looks fancy and has all the "bells and whistles" than it is to produce a really good neck. So while I'm discussing all the "bells and whistles" below, keep in mind that you can get a cheap but unplayable "wall decoration" with all the bells and whistles, and some of the most stripped-down models are among the most playable, the most durable, and the most expensive. In other words, bells and whistles do not equal quality. However, the bells and whistles do affect the banjo's volume and sustain. And that, in turn, affects how suitable a particular banjo will be for a particular kind of music or playing technique.
Sadly, many manufacturers at the low end lie about their banjos' construction and features, so if you're in the shallow end of the price pool, having information may help you sort out the misinformation.
Flat or Radiused Fingerboard? - If you're used to playing steel string or electric guitars, you're probably used to playing on a radiused fingerboard. That's a very slight curve that allows your hand to stay in a more natural position on many chords and makes bar chords much easier.
Most 6-string banjos have radiused necks, but a few don't - notably the Gretsch "Dixie 6," Deering's Goodtime Solana, and the Rogue 6-string banjo. Some folks who play fingerstyle on high-end steel-string guitars struggle to adapt to the Dixie 6. The Goodtime Solana is the perfect choice for classical guitar players wanting to come over, but it doesn't usually appeal that much to steel-string players, so that's not so much an issue. The Rogue 6-string's neck is so narrow, I'm not sure it would matter if it was radiused or not.
For more information on radiused fingerboards (especially on six-string banjos, click here.
Peg ConsiderationsBetter manufacturers use better tuning pegs. Unfortunately it's possible to get a $3 (wholesale) set of tuning pegs that looks just like a $60 set, so, like the neck, it's impossible to illustrate the quality. That said, with all the knock-offs available, if a banjo's tuning pegs look cheap, chances are they are. Of course, it is possible to replace cheap tuning pegs. But if a banjo starts out with cheap tuners, what does that say about the things you can't see?
Now we come to the bells and whistles part of our description. We'll start with a simple example and work our way to the most complex, but remember, more is not necessarily better. Plus I chose these examples because they illustrate the range of choices available, not because I am really trying to encourage you to start out, say, on a $4000 banjo.
Update for August, 2016 - Deering has been increasing their line of Good-Time 6-string steel-stringed banjos. They have a radiused, guitar-style neck and take metal guitar strings (the previous Solana 6-string takes nylon strings). They also have a banjo-length neck and are available with an 11" or 12" head, in case you want to emphasize the lower notes as the early Jazz 6-string banjo players did. They came out too late for most Christmas shoppers last year, but this year, the baseline model (shown in the chart below) is widely available, and it's not hard to track down the others.
Now that you've seen most of the various possible combinations of bells and whistles here's one more reminder that it's easier and cheaper to put a tone ring or whatever on a banjo than it is to build a high-quality neck. Within many lines, more features just mean more features, not necessarily better playing. But when you're going to Six-String banjo, especially if you're already an experienced guitar player, the absence or presence of those features may make a given instrument more or less useful for your purposes.
Of course, a lot of people just buy a cheap one at random, and then decide that Six-String banjo is a scam. It could be that they bought the wrong banjo for the type of music they wanted to play on it. Or it could be that they just bought a piece of junk (there are many out there). Or that they bought a midrange banjo that could be made playable with a little setup, but they didn't think they should have to work so hard to get a playable instrument.
Chances are any playable Six-String banjo can become a valuable addition if you don't mind adjusting or learning new playing styles. The point of the following list is to increase your chance of getting an appropriate instrument for your preferred musical styles and playing techniques - assuming that you're willing to accept the responsibility of putting the bridge on, adjusting the neck, changing the strings, and so on as required.
Why so much Detail?
When I write about Four-String or Five-String banjos, I recognize that people interested in either of those instruments have seen and heard the banjos played in various settings and musical styles, and have some idea what the basic choices are and what they're good for.
When it comes to Six-String banjos, all most folks have to go on is that they've seen some Country star holding one (with the volume turned down as often as not), and they've read all the lies about how buying one of these automatically turns you into a Real Banjo Player. Advice from guitar players is useless, and many Five-String players will unfriend you on Facebook if they learn you're even considering getting one of these. In fact, I bought my first Six-String banjo from an amateur guitarist whose Country band threatened to kick him out if he kept it.
My goal is to go beyond such silly resistance - I really want to give you a fighting chance of success with this instrument. That said, if you can't find a good one used in your neck of the woods and have to order one, please pay attention to all the caveats below - many of the dealers and even some of the "manufacturers" know very little about banjos, and you really need to buy from someone with a good return policy. Having a friend who knows how to set up banjos and guitars won't hurt you either. Our article on Setting Up Six-String Banjos should help you and/or your friend over most hurdles you're likely to encounter.
What brands should you buy? - I would recommend any brand on this page. Most of my personal experience, as noted above, has been with the Dean models and the Deering Boston. I have also owned a Rogue Six-string that I bought for a beach banjo, but the neck is too narrow for most of what I do. I have also tried about two dozen off-brand Six-String banjos and rated them "unsafe at any speed," so don't believe the reviews on ANY banjo you can get for under $300 (even if they quote a ridiculously high "list price."). (Some of the same scammers who tell you all you need is their banjo to become a REAL banjo player also pay wonkers to give their products good online reviews.)
As of July 2017, the Deering Goodtime steel-string on this page is the least likely to require serious adjustment and the one to which you will adjust to most quickly. It's the only one under $1000 that won't arrive needing a lot of setup. Whether you can afford a USA-built starter banjo versus a Chinese-built starter banjo is another question. By the way, Deering also has a Goodtime 6 with a 12-inch head for a gutsier sound - the low strings have the same kind of growl as a Dobro's low strings. And they are coming out with resonator versions. Sorry I don't have a link to those products yet, but they are also very nice. Personally I'm holding out for a tone-ring version, but that's not on the drawing boards yet, as far as I know. Since I own a Deering D-6, I can afford to wait. :-)
About the Deering Solana - Although I was aware of this addition to Deering's Goodtime line in late 2013, we have just now added it (spring of 2015) because enough of them are in the stores now to make it worth your while to check out. They are not cheap, as starter instruments go, and if you're used to steel strings, you might find them a little too quiet. But for guitar players who really want to play a banjo without making any adjustments at all, they will require less adjustment than anything else this side of the Deering professional models (B6 and D6). And the nylon strings aren't really a "copout," they're a tribute to the way the oldest six-string banjos were strung over a century ago. The same with the slotted head. This is essentially a "brand-new" vintage banjo, old-time "plunky" sound and all. A built-in piezo-electric pickup and 1/4" jack will also simplify your life when you play "out" or try to do home recordings in noisy environments. They're not for everybody, but the folks who love them really love them.
Examples - To give you a head start, here is a range of Six String banjos that are worth checking out. You'll see that you go up in cost as you go down the page. I'm not really recommending that you buy a high-end banjo online, unless you're in an area where they're hard to get otherwise - like I am.
When you do buy, please either:
Update for 2016 - I have added two low-end Chinese 6-strings that I don't necessarily recommend, but which can be made playable and don't cost that much. With these caveats:
If you can't get a steel-stringed GoodTime 6-string banjo, and with the understanding that anything cheaper than a Boston (except for the Solana) will need extensive setup, I would recommend that you don't go any cheaper than the Washburn B-6, unless you have substantial experience setting up banjos, or you know someone who does, or you don't mind paying a local shop $50-$100 to set it up for you, or you really like tinkering with things and want a learning experience.
If you follow any of the links below, you'll see a dozen more I didn't profile, but hopefully I've given you enough information to make an informed decision.
ConclusionHopefully you have a little better basis for comparison now than you did before you found this article.
I have a confession to make. Since I initially wrote this article, I came across a very well used Deering D6 banjo for a very appropriate price, considering the amount of work I knew I would have to do to restore it to playability.
One thing you should know about the Deering B 6 (Boston) and D 6 (Deluxe) 6-strings: their scale length is the same as their professional 5-string banjos - 26 1/4". Since I play 5-string as well as an Ovation long-neck with a 28 1/3" scale, this isn't a problem for me. But if you're coming over, say, from Classical guitar, you may find the extra reach takes some adjustment. Also the neck is fairly wide - they advertise a 1 3/4" distance between the outside strings at the nut but mine is more like 1 7/8". Again, having once owned a Mariachi 12-string classical with a 2.25" neck, I'm not having any real adustment issues there. But the short version is these are BIG banjos, and they weigh accordingly.
The other thing you need to know about Deering's professional 6-strings is HOLY ****! WHAT A BANJO!
That said, I plan to keep my Dean Acoustic/Electric for places I wouldn't want to drag a pro instrument. The Dean still does 90% of what I need it to do, but you can guess which one I'll be using in any recording sessions or real concerts from now on. :-)
Best of luck. And please get in touch if you have any questions or corrections or ???.
Note about Suppliers: While we try to help you find the instruments and other products you want by recommending suppliers with a good record of customer service, all transactions between you and the supplier you chose are governed by the published policies on the supplier's web site. So please print off any order confirmation screens and save copies of invoices, etc., so you can contact the appropriate supplier or invoke the product warranty should any problems occur.*
Note about Ordering Musical Instruments Online: Buy only from folks with a reasonable return policy and be sure to have any musical instrument you ordered online checked over by a professional as soon as you receive it. Every musical instrument has the potential for being damaged in shipment, even if the box looks fine when you get it. In addition, musical instruments shipped across the Pacific have a very high percentage of manufacturing defects. If you look at online reviews, a surprising percentage of the one-star reviews say something like "By the time I realized it was damaged (or had a critical manufacturing defect), the period for returns had run out, so now I'm stuck with a useless piece of . . . . " Yes, the manufacturer should have better quality control, and the store should pack things better. But in the end, you are responsible for making certain that an instrument or product will serve your needs while you still have time to return it.
Consider Buying Used: Before you spend $2000 on an instrument that will be worth $800 once you get it out of the store, check out the used market for that sort of instrument in your area. Depending on where you live, or what kind of instrument you're looking for, it may not be an option. But if you can get a used professional instrument for the same price as a new student instrument, it is often worth taking the risk. Especially if you have a knowledgeable friend who can go along and check it out for you. In fact, many of our pages include links to articles on how to shop for used instruments of various types. However, we recognize that many folks have limited access to good used instruments, and everyone needs to see what is available in the various price ranges. So we do list, when possible, live links to real vendors with a good return policy, in case they're your best choice for getting what you want. Again, once you buy something, your satisfaction is between you and the seller.
Note about Availability and Pricing: Although I try to keep an eye on things and to recommend products that are reasonably available, the musical instrument market does fluctuate, and any product on this page may change price or become unavailable without prior notice. If you "click through" to see details on a product, and nothing happens at all, or you are routed to a supplier's home page, please let me know and I will remove the product from the online listing until I can find a replacement or another supplier.
*Here's an irony: every year, I receive about a dozen complaints from folks who have never been to my sites before, angry that a deal between that person and a vendor or manufacturer I recommend went south (in their opinion). They "googled" the product, saw my recommendation or review, then e-mailed me to tell me they were going to sue me or report me to the Better Business Bureau for personally ripping them off by recommending a product they had bought from someone else. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the problem is really because the customer didn't read the whole ad, or ordered the wrong thing, or threw away his paperwork and doesn't know where he bought it from, etc. I'm always polite, and sometimes I can even help them get things straightened out with the vendor, but it's not, technically, my problem.
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