A reader writes:
I'm very interested in learning the 6 string Banjo. Read your article and would like the best info on purchasing one to play Jazz with. I enjoy Bela Fleck's style but would like to create my own sound (and yes I do a nice rendition of "Nobody Knows You When your Down and Out") I play in different bands, Bass with a SRV band, Gypsy Swing with another guitarist and I back up a female Jazz and Blues singer, two to three nights a week. My favorite solo work is Bossa Nova.
My question is: Is it best to buy a banjo and add a pick-up or buy one with a pick-up built in and what do you recommend that won't break my bank account? Thanks again for the article on 6 string banjo's
I have a Rogue 6-string that someone set up very well. The only problem is they used the 4-string neck so the strings are too tight for fingerpicking. If you were going to flatpick and you set up your own guitars, that would be about as cheap as you can go. I use it for a drag-around, travel guitar sort of thing, because it has a wooden pot and I can take the resonator off without turning it into a medieval weapon - My Dean 6-string has the "pop bottle cap" solid aluminum pot with points all around. If you want to fingerpick, you'll probably want a Dean or better.
Pickups are a conundrum. Dean and several other manufacturers have a humbucker-style pickup near the bridge - it provides a sort of electric guitar output, too much sustain, but some of the plunk of a banjo. (Electric guitar pickups work by having little coils and magnets that pick up the frequencies when a nearby string vibrates. Top frequency response is usually around 10K and dynamics are more limited than with piezo or a mic.) For flatpicking, say Celtic arpeggios like the guy in Mumford & Sons, this would be fine. For strumming, the sustain would turn it into a muddy mess.
The $14-$90 piezoelectric pickups sound pick up higher frequencies, so they have a somewhat more realistic tone, but you'd probably want to use them with a preamp, maybe one with EQ abilities. Sustain isn't as bad as a guitar-style coil pickup but you might need to adjust your playing style. Taking the resonator off like I did on my Rogue helps reduce the sustain but also the volume. That said, I can strum my backless 6-string Rogue banjo like my guitar without having the deafening ring that you get strumming on banjos with resonators and tone rings.
In between is the Fischer (Fisher?) Rare earth pickup. It has a tiny metal plate that you attach to the inside of the head and a device you fasten to the screw(s) running from neck to tail piece. The pickup itself is a magnetic coil that picks up the frequency when the metal plate vibrates, but tends to have a little better frequency response than a typical magnetic coil pickup. These work best if your banjo has two bracing screws, though and the inexpensive ones we're discussing tend to have only one.
If you have the chance to try a mag-coil-equipped banjo with a good acoustic amp and you're satisfied with the sound, that's probably your lowest-maintenance bet.
Otherwise your best bet is to buy a banjo you like to play and can afford and retrofit it. I often feel silly putting a $14 piezo pickup on an expensive banjo, but you pretty much have to drill a hole through the pot anyway, no matter what you buy. Yes, you can buy things that you attach to the braces and hold the jack so you don't actually have to drill holes in your banjo, but the ones that actually work are way over priced.
Short version - try a pre-electrified banjo if you can. If you're not blown away with it, consider finding a banjo you like to play and retrofit it with a piezoelectric.