A reader writes:
Thanks for the extremely helpful article on 6-string banjos. I'm a novice guitar player (6 yrs. experience, started at age 62) who mainly plays fingerstyle acoustic rural blues. I'm interested in a 6-string banjo so I don't have to learn a new instrument (learning the guitar is a big enough mountain to climb at my age)and I'm interested mainly in playing blues on the banjo, a la Taj Mahal on his Giant Step/De Old Folks at Home album. Can you recommend a quality 6-string banjo model that is modestly priced (under $1,000)and well-adapted to fingerstyle blues? Thanks much in advance.
thanks for getting in touch. There are a few issues. One is that to play fingerstyle 6-string banjo you need a neck that is as wide as the neck on your guitar. I like a LONG neck on a 6-string, with a scale length of 26", 2" longer than the neck on a guitar, but many 6-strings banjos have a 24" scale so that might be worth considering.
You'll also probably want either a resonator or a tone ring (or both). You can't STRUM a 6-string with a resonator and tone ring - they're too %^&*()_ loud that way and the notes ring on after you've changed the chords. But you can fingerpick a 6 string with both.
My six-strings currently include a Deering D6, with a tone ring and resonator and a guitar-width neck. I have seen Taj Mahal playing one of these in photos, but he plays a lot of other banjos, so I won't swear it's his go-to instrument. That would be the best for you if you can find one - since they've discontinued them, the used price has gone through the roof.
The Deering Boston B6 has a brighter tone and is favored by Country pickers. It would work if you could find one in your price range. Again, since the D6 was discontinued the price for used B6s has gone up.
I also have a custom Deering 6-string Artisan special, but that had to be special ordered and would be out of your price range as well. This has a shallower neck than I'm used to, more like a Les Paul than, say, a Martin, but it plays VERY nicely.
The standard Goodtime 6 with a resonator would work for you, especially if you use fingerpicks. Here's one on e-bay, though you should try to get it from the dealer if you can: https://www.ebay.com/itm/Deering-Goodti ... SwLbJdA85c
If you want to try a Japanese banjo with more features and less quality control, the GoldTone in this add would be worth a try.https://www.ebay.com/itm/Gold-Tone-GT50 ... SwKb5dS0nb
The big problem with Gold Tones, for me, is that they're never "set up" when they get to your front porch, and folks who don't know how to set them up can wind up spending another $100 to get them set up right - if they can even find someone who can do it. That said, if it's sound and you can set it up yourself, this should be a good choice, having both a resonator and tone ring. Instructions for setup are here: https://creekdontrise.com/tabs_instr/6_ ... _banjo.htm
At the cheap end, Musician's friend's "Rogue" 6-strings have too narrow a neck for any kind of fingerpicking. Jameson's 6-string banjos, also called "Davison" can be set up to play okay and they have a relatively wide neck - I use one for my travel guitar. I had to tweak the nut on mine to get the action right.
Dean's 6-strings are okay, a step down from Gold Tone, a step up from Jameson/Davison, etc. They also require a lot of setup when you first get them. Dean's entry level is a "pop-top" banjo that is a little tinny but pretty loud. If you don't mind a sound that borders on steel guitar. . . . .
Stagg, Savannah, most other brands in that price range are just cheap guitar necks slapped on cheap banjo bodies. But if you don't mind taking on a project and you can get one really cheap. . . . .
Measure the nut width on your guitar and try to get a banjo with the same nut width, or at least close.
Look for a banjo with either a resonator or a tone ring or both.
After that, it's a question of quality and or quality control.
Best of luck,