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Dean Backwoods 6 "Shootout"

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't RiseTM
and School Of The RockTM

Dean Backwoods 6 banjo.A couple of years ago, I bought my first six-string banjo to play for a faux-Dixieland local musical production (The Boy Friend). It was Dean's baseline Backwoods 6. I learned some advantages and disadvantages of the thing. One disadvantage to me was that I couldn't take the back off to get the authentic old-timey sound I wanted on occasion, because it has the one-piece body with all the sharp little points jutting out. (Many of my experiences with the thing are recorded in the article "Are Six-String Banjos for Real?")

Rogue 6-string banjo with resonatorI later bought a second six-string banjo, a Rogue, because I wanted to use it as a beach guitar, and it had a wooden pot so I could take the back off to practice quietly or get a pre-1900 sound without endangering anybody. But the Rogue's neck was much narrower than the Dean's and it was hard to fingerpick.

For a time I even toyed with the idea of taking the two apart and trying to get one good banjo. But my fear was that I'd just destroy both of them.

Then I noticed that the "upgrade" version of the Backwoods 6 has a wooden pot. It also has a built-in pickup but that's not such a big deal when I've already proven that I could get a decent sound out of a $20 piezoelectric on the baseline model.

Still, having two relatively low-end six-string banjos, neither one of which was exactly what I wanted, wasn't the answer. Then I saw that Dean had lowered the price on both models of the Backwoods 6. And then an eBay vendor offered the upgrade model with a couple tiny scratches for a very good price. They advertised it as a second, but the photos looked fine and they said it would have a Dean warranty. So I sprang for it. I put my original 6-string on Craigs List while I was at it, and found a likely home for the Rogue.

Dean's Backwoods Sixes, side by side.  Click for a bigger photo.The black one came before I got any calls on the other one. So here's a photo of the two side by side. I wanted the upgrade because I thought the wooden pot would give it a more authentic sound played backless. On the other hand, the thing doesn't have anything like a tone ring or resonator flange, so if you need the banjo to be loud without being plugged in, you might want the cheaper model with the big one-piece metal body.

The necks look identical except for the color of the binding. So do the headstocks, except for the color of the nut and the tuners.

Except for being black, the resonator didn't seem to be that much different than most other resonators on most inexpensive to mid-priced banjos. Theoretically a mahogany resonator should reflect sound a tad better than most other woods, but I can't tell where it makes a noticeable difference. It certainly doesn't make up for the lack of a tone ring. I guess the feeling was that if you were buying a banjo to plug in you wouldn't miss the tone ring. But you can tell . . . . More later.

As far as I can tell, the clear drumhead doesn't affect the sound one way or another. Maybe if you were into graphic arts you could put a design inside the resonator the way the Luna people do. For me, I would rather have a more authentic appearance. Though I do admit the dark chrome on black effect is cool. If I was a hipster trying to look cool and hold a banjo at the same time, this might be the one to buy.

One thing I was a little worried about was the possibility that the "humbucker" pickup would actually poke through the head, like they do on some electric banjos. You can't tell from the photos, because the head is transparent. As it was shipped, the magnetic "humbucker" pickup was right up against the head, but it didn't go through it. That way if I need to replace the head, I won't need to punch little holes into it or anything. I know why they put the thing as close to the strings as they could - for maximum pickup-to-RF (noise) ratio. So I don't blame them for screwing it in so tight. But a little testing later showed me that having it apply real pressure to the head deadened the thing unnecessarily, like the rubber clamp-on pads some drummers use to get a "tighter" sound.

There is no tone control, only volume. The output jack is above the tailpiece, rather than beneath it the way I usually install mine. I can't decide if that interferes with my right arm movement or if I'm just being paranoid.

Click to learn about our newsletter for acoustic, Americana, folk music and more.Setting Up

If you've read our other articles, you know that I never expect to get a banjo or guitar in ready-to-play condition. This was no exception.

Setting it up was a gradual process, since I had a dozen other projects going on at the same time. The head was so loose it was apparent that the thing had never been played, although it showed a few signs of being shopworn. I tightened the head a little bit at a time, going around giving each nut a quarter of a turn, except for the ones that weren't even a bit tight. Those I cranked until I felt they were as tight as the rest. I probably went around the head about six times this way. At that point the head had no give, although there is still a noticeable depression under the bridge, which isn't typical for my banjos. Rather than press the point, I figured I'd give the transparent head the benefit of the doubt for now.

Then I set the bridge, using the method described in this article. Usually I set a guitar or banjo up with the strings it came with, then change the strings. That way I don't put all that extra stress on the new set, tuning and de-tuning. As it turned out, the neck didn't need much adjustment. Though - like my baseline model - when I got to the point of "compromise" between fret buzz and action, I wound up with slightly higher action that I usually care for on my guitars and banjos. Playable, yes. Professional, no.

Then I took my fancy strap off my baseline Backwoods 6 to put on this one and I couldn't. I had the kind of strap with a leather loop that would hook around something and come back and get bolted to the base of the strap. I've used these before on lots of banjos. But almost every banjo I've ever owned, including the baseline Backwoods 6 had little rings for attaching the strap. This one didn't. Fine, I'd fasten it to a bracket, the way God intended. But the first bracket above the neck (in playing position) was so close to the neck that I couldn't get the tip end of the strap through. The second bracket was almost up against the volume knob, so I couldn't fasten the end of the strap there, either. So I went to my beach 5-string which had a cheapy strap that attached with something like shoe-strings and used that.

Who's "CP" and Why Are His Intials Stamped into the Fingerboard?

Dean's way of marking a banjo or guitar as a second is to stamp CP on the fingerboard.  You can only see it if you get real close, but it's there. Click for bigger photo.At this point, I still hadn't changed the strings, which usually entails oiling the fingerboard and some other prep work before I put a new set on. But while I was fiddling with the cheapo strap, I noticed the letters CP stamped into the fingerboard. Googling that phenomenon, I learned that the letters are Dean's way of saying that a guitar or banjo went out and came back "Certified Preowned." Now if someone had really tried to play that banjo with the head as sloppy as it was when I got it, it's no wonder it came back. But I hadn't signed up for a used banjo. Other folks said that Dean also marks their "seconds" that way. Why would a company stamp their "seconds" with a stamp that means "pre-owned"? I had expected a "2" on the back of the headstock or something, not a stamp on the fingerboard.

I contacted the vendor, explaining that I wasn't put off so much by the little stamp, as I was by the fact they hadn't mentioned it in the ad. Not there was anything I could do about it except return the banjo. I did get a good price after all, and if I'd tried the banjo in the store and seen that, I might have bought it anyway. As it is, I'll probably keep the thing. I decided to hold off on putting new strings on the thing until I heard back from the vendor.

When the vendor got back to me, they did not explain why they left out that little detail in their ad.* I was still within the window for sending it back, but the CP was the D'Addario's nickel-would strings have plenty of steel in them to make the pickup work.  Click for bigger photo.least of my concerns.

A bigger concern was how dead the thing sounded compared to all of my other banjos. So I decided to risk a set of new strings and give it a real try. I had nickel-wound guitar strings on-hand. They had the little brass pulley-shaped things on the end, so they weren't, technically, banjo strings, but they work just fine.

Strings and Things

The Dean electric-acoustic Backwoods 6 banjo's pickup from inside.  Click for bigger photo.I also opened the back again and backed the pickup away from the head about a sixteenth of an inch, on the off chance that the thing's contact with the head was also deadening the sound. Turns out the pickup is attached to a metal brace and can be adjusted by loosening two thumbscrews, moving the head and tightening them again.

I wiped the fingerboard down with a household polish I'd used before (sorry, I'm out of the name brand stuff I prefer to use, and I'm not going to name the stuff I did use, because it may not work on all raw tropical woods). It soaked right in. So I did it again. And again. Then I used a soft cloth to buff it. It never got anything like a shine on it, but it now looks less "flat" than it did before, and it feels a lot smoother. In fact, the wood itself reminds me of a rosewood Telecaster fingerboard, though the action isn't as smooth.

With the strings off, I also checked for fret wear to see if it had any sign of being played before it came my way. There was nothing there but a few scratches that I very well may have put there myself.

More About Resonators

While I had the back off the thing for the second time, I figured I'd compare the resonators to the resonators on my other banjos, including the Rogue 6-string and my Samick 5-string, both of which I kept the backs off by habit.

The resonators from both current models of Backwoods Six banjo.  Click for bigger photo.How Deep is Your Back? The deepest resonator was my "baseline" Backwoods 6, whose resonator was 1 7/8" deep, quite possibly another feature that added to the volume of the thing. The "upgrade" Backwoods 6 had a resonator that was 1 1/2" deep, the same as my cheapest banjo, the Rogue 6-string. My Samick 5-string had the shallowest resonator, about 1 1/4". (I can't measure my vintage Kay because it's in South Dakota as we speak, but my guess is it's closer to the baseline Backwoods 6, because it uses the same "pop-top" metal body construction.)

Next I looked at the hardware by which the thumb screws which hold the banjo and resonator together screw in. The "upgrade" Dean banjo had the same kind of screw-in connections as my cheapest banjo, the Rogue 6-string. The Samick had another cheap solution, blocks of wood glued in with a sort of molly-bolt nut drilled into it (you see this on a lot of really cheap banjos). On my Samick, the nuts almost missed the block of wood a couple times, so that's not exactly a precision solution. On the other hand, the little wood blocks let the Samick's wooden pot fit into the head fairly snugly so that's not a bad thing.Resonators from my two cheapest banjos.  
<P>Ironically, the Rogue's was almost a match for the resonator on the 'better' Dean Backwoods 6. Click for bigger photo Ironically the most elegant solution appeared on my "baseline" Backwoods 6 - molded plastic pieces that the nut was centered in. Do you see why I say that the "upgrade" version is not so much "better" than the baseline as it is different? None of this affects the relative usefulness of the banjos, or even the sound (very much), but it's interesting to note.

Together Again

Once I got the strings on and tuned, the humbacker pulled away from the head, and the resonator back on, I tried it out again, and A/B tested it with the "baseline" model. The baseline unit still sounded more like a banjo and was much louder, but the "upgrade" unit sounded better. In fact, I think it will suit my style of playing better, because all the extra ringing from the baseline unit muddied the sound a little when the thing was strummed. But if someone invited me to an acoustic jam where I would not be allowed to bring an amp, there is no question the baseline unit would win out. (No, I'm not going to keep them both.)

Going Electric

Crate XT65R amp, which I used to A B test the electric output of the banjos.  Click for bigger photo.My baseline Backwoods 6 is equipped with a cheap piezoelectric pickup, so I thought I would test that solution against the more elegant custom magnetic pickup of the upgrade banjo. I brought in my little Crate XT65R guitar combo amp, which I've already used in large halls with baseline banjo.

The aftermarket piezo in the cheaper unit doesn't put out much volume, which is why some of the better piezo-based solutions come with preamps. So I had to crank the amp pretty high to get volume high enough for my test. Fortunately my Crate has a separate "gain" knob. You wouldn't get much volume out of a cheapy amp. By cranking the amp up very high (and due to the natural characteristics of any piezoelectric setup) I wound up being able to hear more handling noise than I did with the better banjo. The thing didn't sound as much like a banjo as I would have liked, but if I played banjo-style parts on it, that helped.

The upgrade banjo has far less handling noise, and a lot more sound coming out. I could get pretty loud with a third the volume setting I needed for the piezo. That said, it sounded a lot more like a guitar than the banjo with the piezoelectric pickup did. When I played banjo-style parts on it, it sounded a lot like I was playin banjo-style parts on a guitar. That makes sense given the characteristics of the two pickups.

When banjo and guitar play the same note, the strings vibrate at the same frequency. But there are other vibrations embedded in the main vibration. These "hitchhiker" vibrations are called "overtones." On stringed instruments, the first overtone is an octave higher than the "root" frequency. The second overtone is a half-octave above that, and the third overtone is two octaves above the root position. On most most instruments, once you get past that second octave, a lot of other notes come into play. And the overtones, especially the higher ones, are what give banjos and guitars distinctive sounds, because certain overtones are more prominent on a banjo than on a guitar and vice versa.

So if you could filter the sound to keep out the higher overtones, you'd have trouble telling a guitar from a banjo. This is true of many instruments - once a violinist friend was playing through a really bad PA and when I first heard it, I thought I was hearing saxoophone. The PA couldn't reproduce the high frequencies where the overtones that distinguish saxophone from violin live.

Magnetic guitar pickups do the same thing. One of the reviews I read of the upgrade Backwoods 6 was that it sounded like a guitar when he plugged it into his amp. Well, maybe it was the amp. I tried my A/B test again with the treble turned up quite a bit. The base Backwoods 6 sounded a lot more like a banjo than it had with the controls set "flat" (not emphasizing one frequency or another). Now that I think about it, that's how I had that amp set up for the faux-Dixieland gig I used it for two years ago. If I'd brought in an "acoustic" amp - one made for acoustic guitar players, I might have been able to get an even more realistic sound, but the point is that the piezoelectric pickup, as quiet as it is by comparison, had some high frequencies for the amp to work with.

When I went back to the upgrade banjo with the treble turned up, it no longer sounded just like "a guitar." It sounded like a cheap electric guitar. Cranking the treble up just made the thing sound tinny. The magnetic pickup just didn't give the amp anything to work with in the upper frequencies. Now it is possible that you could adjust for that with a BBE or something, but I'm not convinced you could get it as close to a real banjo sound as the piezo-equipped cheaper model. In fact, if I was planning on playing the upgrade banjo in a real working band, I would consider adding a piezo/preamp solution to it, running both outputs to an amp so the sound guy or me could adjust mix some of those crisp high frequences in with the magnetic pickup. Or maybe a Fishman rare earth pickup, which is sort of between the two in terms of features and capabilities. (See our article on "banjo pickups" for more information on your aftermarket options.) Yes, I know that adding a cheap pickup to a banjo with an expensive pickup built in would seem self-defeating. If there weren't other things I liked about the upgrade banjo, it would be.


The "specs" from the 2014 catalog are in the photo to the right. They quietly leave out that the baseline model is half metal. But they make it apparent that, except for cosmetics, the headstock, tuners, and neck are the same. So what are you really buying if you upgrade? If you're like me and you want to be able to take the back off for certain gigs, the black one is your only choice. But it is, frankly, not as loud as its cheaper brother with all that metal to ring and sustain.

If you know from the start that you want a built-in mag pickup, because you're used to playing at high volumes in feedback-prone rooms, the upgrade instrument is your logical choice - the pickup setup is a very clean installation that would cost you real money if you paid someone else to do it as an aftermarket addition. But if you don't need amplification right now and you'd like to play a banjo that is loud all by itself, the cheaper instrument might be your choice. You can always add a $20 piezoelectric pickup later if you get into a band where you need to "plug in" all the time.

In other words, the "upgrade" banjo is cooler looking, and comes with a built-in pickup, but the cheaper one will serve most people starting out just as well.

By the way, although I tend toward pro guitars and 5-strings, Dean has given me great service so far on the banjos and bases I have bought from them. Unlike a dozen other brand names that sell 6-string banjos that list under $600, they have a sales office, a custom shop, and a repair/parts department that is actually helpful. So when I tell you that the differences between their six-string banjos have more to do with what you need them for than any difference in quality, I don't mean to imply that the dozen or so off-brands that have been flooding the market lately are just as good. Far from it.

If you're still thinking of starting out with a cheapo to see "how it works out," you should also know that:

  • Unless you're a very determined player and know a good technician, a $150 banjo won't really give you any idea of what it is to play a "real" banjo (and that goes for all banjos, not just six-strings).

  • Even a $600 banjo won't take you any farther than a $600 guitar. If you buy one and decide you really want to make it part of your musical future, you'll have to buy a better one eventually. (That said, either Dean Backwoods Six will at least give you a "run for the money" which is much more than I can say about some cheaper brands.)

If you've already bought a cheapo - Take it to a technician to see if it's worth "setting up." If he/she says "no," and you have time to return it, return it. If it's too late to return it, have him/her do what they can with it, and do your best. Be sure to keep in mind that a "real" 6-string banjo will play easier, so anything you can accomplish with your cheapie will go that much better if you upgrade later.

For my part, I'm keeping the upgrade banjo and selling the base-line unit and the Rogue. The electrified Backwoods Six does not have the brightness, the volume, or the ring of the base unit. But I was looking for something with a tad less ring anyway for pre-1900s music. And the built-in pickup will be nice for opportunities where all I have with me is the banjo and I have to plug into whatever's already there.

In a sense, the Rogue was good as an open-back banjo, though the neck was too narrow for me. The baseline Backwoods Six was good as a resonator banjo, but it had a little too much ring for most of the songs I wanted a six-string banjo for. So the upgrade Backwoods Six is a nice compromise that will allow me to replace two banjos with one and simplify my life a bit. But that is my decision. Your mileage will vary. And who knows, a week after I write this, I may come across another reasonably-priced 6-string banjo. If I do, I'll tell you about it, but I won't be changing instruments any time soon. As an example, the Washburn six-string banjo looks promising, but their low- and mid-range 5 strings don't exactly break any new ground for quality and price, so we'll see.

And keep in touch so we know how the 6-string banjo is faring in your part of the world.

Best of luck, all, enjoy your music, and support the arts.

Paul Race

*The reply about the CP goes:

    Sorry the CP is an issue for you. This is Deans symbol which designates the banjo b-stock and was sold with a discount. Every manufacturer has their own stamp to designate which of their instruments was sold as b-stock at a discount and each puts them in a different placement. Epiphone stamps the back of the headstock with a USED stamp. Dean stamps the fretboards with CP which was to represent "certified playable". If instrument manufacturers didn't put these designations on the discounted instruments, then less than honest dealers would just sell them at full price and the customers would not know better. As for resale, it is all relative, and honestly in my experience the resale price of these instruments is really not affected by this.

Again, my issue wasn't with the banjo being a second - they said that up front. My issue was with them not telling me that CP was stamped on the fretboard, an issue they didn't address. I decided to keep the thing anyway, but I do prefer truth in advertising.

For More Comments

If you want to see a bunch more reviews of these banjos, just follow the links below and see what Amazon customers have said about the. Two warnings:
  1. Ignore the 1-star reviews from people who know nothing about banjos and never got the bridge set right and are sure it's not their fault. Nearly every banjo is shipped without the bridge installed, and every banjo that lists under $600 needs set up when it arrives, so don't let ignoramuses steer you away from a solution that would work for normal people.

  2. Ignore the 5-star reviews from people who nothing about banjos and just like the fact that it's shiny.

Dean Backwoods 6 Banjo - "Base" Model
Dean Backwoods 6 'base' model six-string banjo.  Click to go to the Amazon listing.

Dean Backwoods 6 Electric Acoustic Banjo
Dean Backwoods 6 Electric Acoustic Model. Click to see the Amazon listing.

Rogue 6-String Banjo
The Rogue 6-string banjo has a narrow neck so it might be best for people used to playing electric guitar.  Click to see the listing on Amazon.

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