A reader writes:
Since your article on making the best choice toward purchasing a six string banjo, two additional Deering Goodtime, steel string, open back, six string banjos are being offered, in addition to the Solana nylon string. I am sending this message to you to ask for your advice on the Deering Goodtime six string Jumbo banjo, with the Kovanjo pickup factory installed. I am 68 years old, and have played steel string guitar since I was 14 years old. I want to add a six string banjo to my instrument arsenal, and to use in my country - bluegrass band, since we do not have a banjo player. My guitar arsenal includes the following: Martin; 1922 0-21, 1992 D-45, 1998 HD-28 Custom, 2002 HPD-41, and my 2003 Andy Griffith Signature Edition D-18. I also own a 1964 Guild F-212, and a 1967 Gibson Heritage Brazilian Rosewood Dreadnought. Thank you very much.
Thanks for reminding me to add the Deering Goodtimes. The last time I visited that article, there weren't actually any in the store yet.
In a Bluegrass band, banjo typically adds a sort of sparkle in a high range, not many low notes. A Six string banjo lacks the high G note that plays ALL THE TIME and adds some of what people call the "ring" of the banjo, but a bigger issue is that it goes almost two octaves lower than a 5-string.
When six-strings were used for jazz a century ago, they were used to play the bass line as often as not, which meant that there was never more than one of the lower strings played at the same time. If you are in an ensemble of any kind and you play chords on your six string, the lower strings just muddy up the overall sound. If you flatpick individual notes on the low strings, though, they have a great growl, like the low strings of a Dobro. When I'm doing a solo gig with a six-string I usually either fingerpick it or do a flatpicking pattern that only plays the low strings one at a time. Think Mother Maybelle . . .
If you want to use the six-string to add the general impression of a banjo in a Bluegrass band, you need to think about playing mostly the top four strings, and playing them one at a time in say, arpeggios, whether you use a flatpick to play individual strings or fingerpick (wearing fingerpicks if you wish).
Now, personally, I love the whole range of the six-string, but you mentioned Bluegrass specifically, so that's my "caveat." For some people, a 4-string banjo tuned like the highest four strings of a guitar is a lot "safer" for ensemble playing than a 6-string.
Regarding the larger head, that will give more "guts" to the lower notes and make the top notes a little less bright. Again, I LOVE the gutsy low notes, and if I was in a "Stomp" band or pre-Bluegrass traditional band I wouldn't think twice about incorporating it. But that's not a traditional Bluegrass sound, if that makes any sense.
Not that I'm trying to talk you out of a six-string. It's become more acceptable in Country circles because of Keith Urban and other players, so you're less likely to get booed off most stages than you would have been a few years ago, unless you're in a "Real" Bluegrass jamboree or some such. Now if your band is mostly Bluegrass-influenced (NewGrass, Stomp, or some such), and you can figure out how to make it supplement and improve the overall sound, you'll enjoy the bejeebers out of it. As a Folk singer I have fewer fans who insist I sound just like Earl or some such, so I can get away with stuff you might not be able to in some of the more legalistic circles.
Hope that makes sense. Please let me know how things work out.