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Play an MP3 clip of 'If the Creek Don't Rise' as arranged for banjo.

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Dean Backwoods 6 "Shootout"

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™
and School Of The Rock™

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 thi