You wouldn't paint a picture with dirty brushes. You wouldn't chisel a sculpture with blunted tools. So why play a banjo with worn out strings?
If you've never changed your banjo strings before, the thought of doing it yourself can be a daunting one. So much so that you may be tempted to keep putting it off. However, if you want your instrument to stay in top condition, and keep on producing a quality sound, it's important to change the strings with some regularity.
There's no exact formula for how often you should do this. Professional musicians will put on new strings before every gig, but most of us need only do it when the old ones start to show their age.
Here are a few telltale signs that your banjo strings might be past their best.
When inspecting your strings, this one is the easiest to spot. Old strings are dull and will start to turn an unpleasant blackish color when left on too long. This happens as a result of the natural oils and dead skin collected from your fingers while you play - no matter how clean your hands are!
The wound 4th string on a 5 string banjo - a low D in standard tuning - is often a good measure of the overall condition of your strings. The minuscule spaces in between the windings collect a lot of residue, and the windings themselves may begin to fray after continued use.
New banjo strings practically sparkle by comparison, stand out against the fretboard and will make your instrument look ten times brighter.
You might have noticed that sliding up and down the neck becomes harder as you wear in your strings. Friction between your fingertips and the strings degrades their surfaces, making them rougher and more resistant to movements from your fretting hand.
Brand new strings are smooth and create a more responsive playing experience. Aged strings, on the other hand, can feel slightly gritty to the touch. Under a good light, you may even be able to see where each string has turned rough.
You can test how smooth yours are by running a finger up and down one of the unwound strings. If you sense your finger start to snag, this a good sign that they are in poor condition and in need of replacement.
Quality of tone is the most important factor when it comes to string condition, but, unfortunately, one of the hardest things to detect. This is especially true if you play the same instrument every day. It's likely that you will simply become accustomed to the sound of degraded strings as they deteriorate over time.
Learning what a worn out string sounds like is something you will pick up after changing yours a few times over. By comparison, a set of new banjo strings sounds brighter, resonates better against the head, and will be able to hold on longer to each note.
One way to judge the tonal quality of your strings is to compare them against an audio recording of someone else playing a similar banjo model. Even better; record yourself playing a few simple tunes next time you put on fresh strings - then use this as a reference point when considering new ones in the future.
Do you find that your strings are suddenly falling out of tune each time you pick your banjo up, even after holding their pitch for weeks? Your instrument is trying to tell you that it's desperate for a brand new set.
Banjo strings are wound incredibly tight in order to get them up to pitch. This places a lot of tension on them, which coupled with general wear and tear from being played makes slippage inevitable at some point.
Banjo players often end up contributing to this process, as the variety of tunings which we use mean strings are being loosened and retightened more regularly than for other instruments.
Replacing yours before they reach a slackened state saves you the annoyance of having to consult a tuner constantly. Fellow musicians at your next jam session will no doubt thank you for it!
Time To Make a Change?
Of all the things you can do to improve your banjo's sound, playability, and lifespan, regularly putting on new strings is by far the cheapest and the easiest. Once you take the plunge and change your first set, you'll wonder how you ever went so long just putting up with dull, degraded ones.
Deering produces a variety of strings for 5-string, 6-string, Tenor, and Plectrum banjos. With multiple gauge types and special edition sets, there are strings to match practically any style or sound you could need.