A reader writes:
Excellent article about 6 string banjos. I' considering buying a 6 string banjo for $400 to $500 range. I see that you recommend the Dean Backwoods 6 Electric Banjo. I'm also considering the Luna Moonbird 6 String Banjo Acoustic/Electric because I like how it it looks. Is playability better on the Dean? Thank-you for your help.
What kind of music do you plan to play on the 6-string. The basic Dean Backwoods 6 is a "pop-top" banjo, with the pot (body, shell) made out of cast metal. It will be louder than the Luna or the black Dean 6-string with the magnetic pickup (unplugged), but will have a "tinnier" sound. Fingerpicked blues (Rev. Gary Hurt-style) would be fine. If you use it for strumming Dixieland-style parts (the reason I bought my first 6-string), you'll keep up volume-wise with small horn ensembles. Also, if you're playing in a Celtic ensemble and flat-pick one string at a time, either the melody (traditional) or arpeggios (like Mumford and Sons), that works well.
For general use, such as strumming and singing along, you would likely have to adjust your playing style - the metal pot keeps ringing even after you change chords, so you have to be careful not to create a cacophony in which all the notes blur together.
A 6-string banjo with a wooden pot and no tone ring (like the Luna) will not be as loud, but will have a more balanced tone. It would be more useful for general use, Folk songs and the like.
Neither the Dean nor the Luna (nor any other brand besides Deering) will be playable out of the box. If you're already used to adjusting guitar necks, you'll just have to learn how to appropriately tighten the head and set the bridge. You'll have to set the bridge with ANY banjo that is shipped to you.
I have instructions for all this stuff here:https://creekdontrise.com/tabs_instr/6_ ... _banjo.htm
On cheaper banjos, Jameson/Davison, Stagg, Savannah etc., you might also have to replace or tweak the nut, and I've seen a few that I doubt could have been made playable period.
Quality-wise, the Luna and Dean are on a par. Which doesn't say that much about either of them. My wooden-pot (electrified) Dean 6-string needed the head adjusted more often than I'm used to on my banjos, but maybe I never gave it a chance to settle in. (I replaced it with a professional instrument.)
More information than you wanted to know.
I currently have an Oscar Schmidt "pop-top" six-string that I got in trade from a guy who could never get it to do what he wanted it to do. Turned out the store he bought it from never set it up at all. I set it up and it was on a par with my "pop-top" Dean (which I had long since sold).
I also have a Davison (Jameson) wood-pot 6-string that I bought from a pawn shop to take the back off and use as a travel guitar. I had to do all the adjustments I describe in the article above, plus replacing the nut and bridge and tweaking the coordinating rod (not generally recommended for beginners). Now its quite playable. Not that I would order one online, sight unseen. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the BIGGEST factor in whether you'll be satisfied with an under-$1000 six-string banjo is whether you have someone who can set it up for you or whether you can set it up yourself.
Hope this helps; please let me know what you decide or if you have any followup questions.