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My New/Old Deering Deluxe 6

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

The Deering Deluxe 6 as I received it. So far most of my experience with 6-string banjos has been with lower-end to mid-range instruments. That said, my very first encounter with a 6-string was with a high-end Deering back in the 1990s. It was love at first sight, then I saw the price tag and we experienced a brutal separation.

Recently I've been working hard to practice up a concert's worth of material on both 5 and 6 string banjo - you'd be surprised how going back and forth can give you new ideas. And I am coming to the conclusion that I have "pushed" my Dean Backwoods 6 electric/acoustic about as far as it will go. For one thing, there are a lot of complex fingerpicking parts that I can do "in my sleep" on my guitars, that I just can't do on either Dean.

Historically, I'm inclined to blame myself for not being able to play something as "clean" as I like. But in this case, I'm beginning to blame the neck for not being as true as it needs to be to meet my needs. Come on, Dean, the rest of the thing is plastic, metal, and plywood, you really ought to be able to put an exceptional neck on these.

I have been considering dropping it off for a fret dressing and other things.

Then, while looking for something else on eBay, I came across a 1999-ish Deering Deluxe 6-string for a VERY reasonable starting bid. It was strung for left hand, but that can be changed a lot more easily on a 6-string than on a 5-string. I made a bid, was outbid once, then bid again a couple hours before the end of the auction. To my surprise, I won the bid. No, it wasn't REAL cheap, but it was about $2900 cheaper than the list price for a new one (and about $2000 less than the cheapest discount Internet price). So I figured I could afford to put a little time and extra $$$ into getting it playable for me.

True, the new Deering Deluxe 6 banjos have a lot fancier inlays, but I doubt there's much difference in the sound, since the construction and materials are very similar.

It needed a good cleaning, too. But I figured on ordering a replacement nut and bridge, which would give me time to clean it up.

BTW, It came with a hardshell (wood-ish) case with a VERY heavy-duty leather handle. Which is a good thing because it's the heaviest banjo I've ever owned, and the case adds several more pounds.

The Deering Deluxe 6 between my Dean 6-strings.

When I got it home, I did a quick comparison to my Deans and discovered that it's bigger in every direction.

The strings are farther apart. Although the nuts of both brands are ostensibly 1.75", the outside strings on the Deering are 1/16" farther apart at the nut. More tellingly, the Deering's strings are 5/16" farther apart at the bridge than the Deans'. This is great for fingerpicking, which is almost the only way I ever play these.

It turns out that the neck is longer, too. I had actually been wishing I could find a 6-string with a neck as long as my 5-strings', and now I have one.

The neck is also 22 frets long, the same as most 5-strings. This might seem a little long for some people but if you "cut your teeth" on 5-string, this will feel about right.

In other words, the Deering Deluxe 6 is one BHB - Big Honking Banjo. It WAS hard having it in the room and not being able to play it yet (because it was strung for a lefty and was going to stay that way until I got a replacement nut), but I lived.

Here's a little table of measurements for comparison:

Banjo
Scale Length
# Frets
String Width at Nut
String Width at Bridge
Head Diameter
Pot
Tone Ring
Resonator Flange
Resonator
# of
Coordinating Rods
Deering Deluxe
26.25"
22
1 7/16"
2 1/16"
11"
3-ply Maple
-06- Bell Bronze
Nickel-Plated Cast Zinc
Walnut
2
Dean Backwoods 6 Acoustic/Electric
25.5"
21
1 3/8"
1 3/4"
11"
Wood plys
None
None
Mahogany
1
Dean Backwoods 6 Basic (metal pot)
25.5"
21
1 3/8"
1 3/4"
11"
One piece of metal serves as pot, tone ring, and flange.
Mahogany
1

About Personal Hygiene and Banjos

BTW, the dull gold color in the photographs is misleading. Those parts are chrome-plated, but the banjo has been "rode hard and put up wet" so often that the fingerprints of the former owner have actually engraved themselves into the finish and I'm having to buff them out. The parts were sort of a dirty yellow-gray to start with. If the discoloration had been consistent and just a sign of age, I wouldn't have worried so much about it. But when you get up close, you really can see the fingerprints.

When the owner's manual tells you to wash your hands to get the oils and acids off BEFORE you play, and they tell you to wipe down your banjo AFTER you play, they're not just trying to make work for you.

In addition, when you're dragging your banjo around hot festival grounds, etc. try to handle it by the resonator more than by the brackets and flange.

After I posted the photos above, I buffed out most of the chrome with dry cloths. But the places that were really bad looked even worse since the banjo hardware was more shiny everywhere else.

At any rate, it was time to order a new nut and maybe bridge and maybe schedule a trip to the luthier. . . . and maybe track down one of the brass or chrome polishes that Deering recommended.

"Turning" a Six-String Banjo

I tried to order a new "right-handed" bridge and nut from Deering, but they said that the new B6's were slightly different and I would need to have the bridge customized. They also said they could send me a "blank" to make a new nut. Or if I wanted, I could send them the banjo and have them do the work. That way I would know it would be optimum. The Deering people were very helpful, don't get me wrong, but I started hearing "cha-chings" in the background.

Then I took it to my local guitar shop and asked the guy if he could replace the nut for me. He pointed out that the clearcoat (varnish/shellac, whatever) not only wrapped around the sides of the fingerboard; it also went into the cracks around the nut - the varnish had gone on AFTER the nut, and had soaked in around it. He said he would be nervous about trying to take the nut out, because it was so well anchored in the varnish that he was afraid it could damage the varnish on the peghead and neck as well. If anyone was going to remove that nut, it should be the Deering factory - that way if they screwed it up, they'd probably take responsibility for it.

He also suggested I try just widening the slots where the low E and A strings would have to go and restringing it before I went to the time and expense of having Deering do the work.

I contacted Deering again, and they said they were willing to send me a Return Authorization so I could send it down there and get them to redo it. So that was my plan for a while. But that plan included cleaning it up first, and there was still a lot of cleanup to do.

In the meantime, I also sold my first 6-string banjo (the "pop-top" Backwoods 6) to a fellow from Columbus, who drove out to meet me on my lunch hour. $200 isn't a lot of money, but it was a fair price. At the time, I was hoping it would go some distance toward covering further repairs on the Deering.

Cleanup

After a lot if internet research, including the very helpful Deering site, I went to our neighborhood motorcycle shop to get some Simichrome polish, which several folks recommended.

Here's an irony, forty years ago, no one at Competition Accessories would ever have mistaken me for a motorcyclist. Now, graying and paunchy, I look like a good percentage of their clientele - old ^&*%$ who can finally afford the motorcycle they wanted as kids.

Come to think of it, I can finally afford the banjos I wanted as a kid, so maybe I'm not so different after all.

Then one afternoon, while I was waiting for some programs to run on my computer, I got out the Simichrome and some rags and cotton swabs and went to work. And worked, and worked, and worked. The Simichrome worked like a charm where things were just weathered or lightly tarnished, but there were several places that were very heavily tarnished. Finally, I got things to the point where the banjo looked very shiny and nobody else but me would ever know where there were still traces of the previous owner's fingerprints.

Prepping for Restringing

I thought I had a set of silver-colored guitar strings somewhere, so I figured I'd go ahead and try the local guy's recommendation about just tweaking the nut and restringing it. As it turns out, I only had a set of Martin Marquis light bronze - my "go-to" strings for most of my Ovations. Well, I figured I'd probably wear them out quickly trying to get the thing set up, so I'd have time to get to the store and get some more banjoish-looking strings before I played the thing out anywhere.

I took off the strings and:

  • Took a triangular file very lightly to the nut where the low E and low A would be crossing.

  • Scrubbed off the drum head with Fantastic (not recommended, but it was a mess).

  • Put some high-grade furniture polish on the fingerboard, then wiped it after an hour. I'd have used Tung oil or something like that if I had it, but I didn't have it onhand.

String Issues

Then I started to put the strings on. I've done this on guitars, mandolins, and banjos with 4, 5, and 6 strings. What could go wrong?

Because the tailpiece on this will go cockeyed if you start with the outside strings, I figured I'd start with the D string. Guess what? It wasn't long enough. Technically, the core wire did reach the peg, but I prefer to have the wrapped part of the wire go all the way. So I did what I haven't done since high school - put an old set of strings back on an instrument.

Turns out the previous owner was using medium strings. I prefer light, so the neck would probably need adjustment after I swapped out the strings, but I could actually play it. The action wasn't too bad at all. That said the old strings were deader than dead, so I had to get to the store before long. :-)

Or maybe order the Deering 6-string banjo strings. I'm sure THEY'd be long enough.

About the Bridge

Also, Deering hadn't been convinced that just turning the bridge around would do the job - that's one reason I was considering a new bridge. But turning the bridge around seems to have worked. The very top edge of the bridge has a slight S curve. So turning it 180 degrees kept the basic shape of the thing.

Intonation is very good across the board. So there didn't seem to be as much point to sending it back to the factory for a couple hundred $$$ worth of work as there did a week earlier.

Before I put the resonator back on, I thought I'd try installing the Barcus Berry pickup that the fellow had thrown in. THEN I realized that the little screws that fasten the magnetic pickup to the bracket were stripped out. So I might have to get little nuts or something to do the job. But not today.

At any rate, here's a picture of the thing cleaned up and restrung for right-handers.

Early Deering Deluxe 6 Banjo

Stringing Me Along

When I started looking for strings long enough to use on this banjo, I discovered only two brands that publish information about how long the wound portion of the strings is, GHS and Deering. It's one thing to want a 6-string banjo with a standard banjo-length neck (22 frets, 26.25"). It's another thing to realize that most guitar strings you're used to using - even on other 6-string banjos - aren't long enough. The strings that were on the banjo were plenty long, but they were "medium" strings by guitar standards, and I wanted something a little lighter. Overall the GHS PF-120 set was slightly lighter than the Deering, so I figured I'd start with those. Though a lot of companies list them as available, not many have them in stock, so I wound up ordering from "Just Strings." They charge more for shipping ($6.95) than they do for the strings ($4.89). So I went ahead and ordered two sets. Even if I decide they're too flimsy and try the Deering strings next, this would give me a backup set.

We'll see. . . . BTW Fender, and all you other companies that CLAIM to make 6-string banjo sets, publish some specs, why don't you?

Soon, I got my GHS PF-120 sets of strings in the mail. Ooops - they were loop-ended and my Deering D6 takes ball-end strings. Still, they were highly recommended, so I wanted to give them a try.

Well, I pulled off the old strings, put the little balls from them into the new strings, and retuned the banjo. Almost. The A string broke - apparently I had been too "ambitious" when I tightened the wire around the little ball. So I stole the A string out of my Martin Marquis light set after all. The way those are gauged, the A string from the Martin guitar set is the same weight as the E string from the GHS set. (But the D string was too light for my taste.) The wound part of the string was just long enough to reach the peg and go around one turn, so that wasn't too bad. But a bigger problem is that the bronze looks very silly on a banjo with all silverish strings.

As I expected, the lighter strings made several of my favorite songs much easier to play. And the GHS strings sound GREAT! If you have a 6-string banjo that can take loop-end strings, you have to try them. That said, I'll save the second set for my Electric/Acoustic Dean, which can take loop-end strings. I needed some stuff from Elderly, so I went ahead and ordered three Deering sets.

I would really like a set with a wound third string, but nobody sells those in a ball-end banjo-length set to my knowledge. (Gold-Tone advertises a "banjitar" loop-end set that has a wound third string, but I don't have any "banjitar's," just guitars, basses, mandolins, and five- and six-string banjos, so I'm not going there. If they sold six-string banjo sets, I might be interested.)

I might wind up assembling my own sets eventually. But for now I have a rather mismatched 11-14-18-24w-42w-42W set, on a banjo that KICKS. :-)

Putting it Through Its Paces

I confess, I had to make a little adjustment to the combination of a longer neck than most of my guitars and a wider neck than most of my banjos. But's fun learning to make that adjustment. :-)

The action is great and smooth. I love the frets. It's capable of some great tone. I usually fingerpick and do a tiny bit of frailing on my 5-strings, but I don't use picks - I just let my right-hand callouses build up. That transfers well to this banjo, which is plenty loud for my purposes without picks.

In addition, I seldom "clawhammer" on my 5-string, but, since a flatpick on a 6-string is problematic, I have been experimenting with clawhammering songs that I would usually flatpick on guitar. The effect is very nice.

That said, I'm still dragging the Dean Electric/Acoustic Backwoods six to places that don't justify exposing a high-end instrument to possible theft or abuse. I may take the back off the Dean, replace the silly clear head, and use it as a vacation/beach 6-string banjo as well. (I tried using a Rogue for that but the neck was too narrow.)

Conclusion

When it rains, it pours. Just before I posted this article, a fellow about 20 minutes from my house listed a Deering B-6 (Boston 6-string) for sale only $200 more than I paid for this one. Technically the D-6 is a better banjo, but there is something to be said for having something that doesn't require quite as much work as mine did.

Once again, you can't play six-string banjo exactly the way you play guitar and expect it to sound good. But something else to think about if you're a guitar player contemplating a move to 6-string banjo is that a good 6-string banjo that is as playable as your best guitar will cost real money, potentially several times as much as your guitar cost. Why? Because the market for high-end 6-string banjos is still very small and most of the rest come from China to your home uninspected, badly needing setup, and quite possibly with manufacturing defects and shipping damage.

Since I was a "poor, starving college student" in the 1970s, I've learned to make instruments that were barely more than wall decorations playable for my students or my "bumming around on vacation" use. So there are several instruments in my arsenal that I wouldn't necessarily wish on my worst enemy without proper setup.

But if you're an experienced acoustic guitar finger-picker and you discover that you can't get a decent sound out of a $300 or $600 or $900 6-string banjo, please get your hands on a professional instrument such as a Deering B6 or D6 before you "write off" the entire instrument family.

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

90 Days on

I found some nuts that would allow me to install the Barcus Berry. That account is here. Unfortunately I haven't had a lot of time to test it so I don't have a final opinion on the thing yet.

Also, the low E string is sitting an imperceptible amount too low, so there is fret buz when I play it open an nowhere else on any string on the banjo. Which tells me, I did one extra stroke too many when I filed the slot in the nut to take a fatter string. OOOPS. I could loosen the neck's adjustment rod a half-turn, "fixing the problem" at the expense of otherwise exquisite action. Or I could get a bit of epoxy and fill in the slot, then re-notch it. Currently, I plan to do the latter. Mea culpa.

And we haven't seen how the whole thing will react to a signficant drop in humidity as the weather gets cooler, yet. My Dean 6-string reacts more to seasonal changes in the weather than all of my 5-strings put together. I'm sure some of that disparity relates to the fact that the 6-string has two heavy strings that the 5-strings don't have, so there's more real pressure on the neck. It shouldn't be as bad on the Deering, but I'll keep you posted, regardless.

Note: For more information about the Dean Backwoods Six banjos, including a detailed comparison between the two models, please check out our article Dean Backwoods Six Shootout.

Also, for examples of other six-string banjos and what they "bring to the table," check out the Six-String Banjo Buyers' Guide on the new RiverboatMusic.com site.

Deering Deluxe 6-string getting a little epoxy in the nut to raise the sixth string .02 inches.  Click for bigger photo.Update for May, 2016

While working on another banjo (placing a Kavanjo head on a rescue Deering Sierra 5-string), I took a break and squirted some epoxy into the slot for the low E-string. Then I wiped off the excess and waited 24 hours before I put the string back in the slot and tried it. The epoxy actually shrank way down, so it only added a tiny bit to the height of the slot (.02"?). But it was enough to make a difference. I can still get low E string to buzz if I wang it too hard, but it's not as bad as it was.

Later that week, I set up a tripod and camera to record some 5-string banjo lessons, and thought I would add at least one 6-string banjo song. This is an old prison song that Jorma of Jefferson Airplane wrote a new tune for. In the following track, I use my thumb to pick the bass strings (no thumbpick, just a big callous), and I alternate between classical-style fingerpicking and "frailing" on strings 1-3 (no fingerpicks, just callouses - this thing is almost too loud to sing with anyway).

Most people who go "wrong" with six-string banjos do so by strumming all six strings with a flatpick, then complaining that the low strings ringing on and on make it sound "muddy." I wanted to show that, picked individually, the bass strings add a nice gutsy growl without muddying things up.

BTW, turn the volume down before you click "play," especially if you're at work. :-)



Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.


All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is copyrighted © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,
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