I recently heard from a customer who was concerned to learn that our Goodtime Six 6 string banjo was designed for ball end strings. His concern was that loop end strings gave more of a “banjo sound” than the ball end strings. Since our Goodtime Six was designed for ball and strings he felt he could never get a true banjo sound.
The Wire is the Same
The wire that is used to make banjo strings is the same wire that is used in making guitar strings, electric guitar strings, mandolin strings, piano strings, harp strings, etc. The difference is in the diameters of the strings or, how the strings are “gauged” and also how the strings are wound.
Music wire that is made of steel, is a specific formula and while alloys can vary a little, the alloys are generally not the determining factor between a guitar string, a banjo string, or a piano string.
Generally, one brand of guitar string that also makes banjo strings will use the same wire in both. The wire might be slightly different alloy, tensile strength etc. than another brand of strings, but not within the same brand generally speaking.
What Is the Difference?
Compared to many other stringed instruments, banjo strings tend to be a bit thinner or of a lighter gauge. For example, an acoustic guitar set that is called “light gauge” will commonly have a first string that is .012” of an inch and a sixth string that is .052” of an inch.
A light gauge five string banjo string set will commonly have a first string that is .009” of an inch and a wound fourth string that is .020” of an inch. (Many five string sets have a fifth string that is the same diameter as the first)
Both of these sets are considered “light” and while manufacturers have various gauges that they consider to be light or medium, you can see the banjo strings are much lighter, or thinner, than guitar strings.
Because a banjo head is a thin membrane (typical plastic head is made of .010” mylar sometimes with a coating sprayed on the head) it responds differently to a string plucking than an acoustic guitar top that has a spruce would top that is a full .10” thick. Plus, there are spruce braces glued to the underside of the guitar top to make it stiffer and direct vibration etc.
The loop end of the banjo string and the ball end of a guitar string only function to fasten the string to the body of the instrument. There is nothing intrinsic in a ball end string or a loop end string that affects the sound of the instrument.
As an example, pianos, mountain dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, bouzouki’s, mandolins, mandocellos, or mandolas all use loop end strings, but none of them sound anything like a banjo.
As another example, many harps both Celtic and classical have ball end steel strings and sound nothing like an acoustic guitar. Dobros and resophonic guitars use standard acoustic guitar strings but don’t sound like a spruce topped acoustic guitar at all.
So, it is clear that there is more to the sound of the banjo then whether the strings have a ball fastener on the end or a loop fastener on the end. The method of fastening is purely mechanical and has no effect on the sound of the instrument.
Advantages of Ball End or Loop End
My customer who was concerned about the Goodtime Six banjo said that it was easier to find loop end strings than it was to find ball and strings for banjos.
The interesting thing here is that the market for guitars is a much, much larger market than the market for banjos and so the availability of ball end strings in any form is universally more readily available.
It is certainly possible that my customer lives in an area where banjos were more popular and the availability of sets of banjo strings was very prominent.
From a standpoint of availability, most music stores carry guitar string sets and electric guitar string sets as compared to many stores that do not carry banjo string sets in the same quantity that they do guitar string sets. From an availability point of view there is every advantage to an instrument using a ball end to anchor the string.
Realistically however, other than greater availability, there is really no advantage to either system.
Will the new Goodtime Six work with loop end strings?
The tailpiece on the new good time six string banjo will work equally well with ball end or Loop end strings.
We designed the tailpiece to use ball end strings mostly as we felt this banjo would appeal to many guitar players who are familiar with ball end strings and who might better relate to learning how to change strings if they worked with ball end as opposed to loop end.
The tailpiece has six notches for the ball end of the string to catch and hold the end of the string. In between the notches are five narrow “protrusions” that are perfectly adaptable to hold the loop of a loop end string. Since there are only five of these protrusions, it is very common to loop the first and second string over a single stud or protrusion. This new tailpiece is plenty strong enough to handle this and is a design feature to accommodate virtually any type of string.
Creating the Banjo Sound
Deering makes more banjo models and styles and designs than any banjo maker in the world. If there was ever a a single standard of sound or that is to say, if a banjo was supposed to “sound like this” or “sound like that”, we would have found it by now.
The truth is, there are many beautiful banjo tones and many more beautiful styles of banjo music and even more beautiful banjo playing techniques to the point that it’s impossible to label one type of banjo tone as superior to any of the others.
Every artist, both professional and nonprofessional, develops ideas of what sound they wish to create. Between the myriad of styles of banjo playing, there are so many definitions of what is beautiful that we have found it is better to build many designs and encourage as much individual uniqueness as we can. As listeners, we all benefit from these many beautiful voices.
Having said this, when my customer said that he was trying to re-create the “banjo” sound with a six string banjo, I think I know what he was referring to, but because of the lack of clearly defined standards of banjo tone, I was really just assuming that he was trying to imitate fingerpicked, 5 string banjo tone.
Ironically, a very easy way to accomplish that on the six string banjo is to use electric guitar strings that start with the first string of .009”. These have wonderful sparkle on a banjo and do not get very thick on the sixth string.
But, this was just an assumption on my part.
Make It Your Own
Every famous artist who played the banjo has developed their own approach both in musical technique, choice of the banjo and choice of tools like picks, strings, etc. Whether it was a four string plectrum, four string tenor, five string open back, five string resonator, six string, or 12 string banjo, every artist develops a feel for what they are trying to accomplish. The late, great John Hartford once commented in an interview something to the effect of “… If I could only get what’s in my head out of my instruments…”
Every artist searches to find the core of who they are in their art. The new good time Goodtime Six banjo is a wonderful tool for any musician to search for their music.
Like any good tool, you can “tweak” it to become more of what you want and thereby expressing more of who you are. Instead of focusing on sounding like someone else or sounding like something else.
Make it your own. That’s what we all want to hear. The core of you.