For a musician who loves their banjo and loves practicing and playing, enjoys the nuances of technique and the magic of the emotional communication in playing music in general, it’s kind of a romantic disappointment to think of banjo strings as “music wire.” On the positive side, music wire, by definition does have alloy parameters that define the general properties of strings. Music wire is tough, hard, and resilient with great tensile strength. Each manufacturer of strings chooses music wire alloys to create a certain tone, or to reduce the cost of string manufacturing or to increase life, volume, and other sound or performance related goals.
The gauge of the strings, like light, medium or heavy, also has a big effect on banjo tone. First, let’s talk about brands of strings.
I think it’s fair to make this statement: “There is no best string brand.” What is probably a more accurate statement is: “Each brand of strings has its own favorable characteristics that make it a perfect choice for certain players.” In other words, you might try several different brands of strings and find one brand that “feels right” or “sounds right” or gives you a general feeling of satisfaction, more than any other brand of strings.
Because string makers might use subtly different alloys, and or might treat the wire in certain ways, each brand of strings can sound and feel unique. Because banjo strings generally have only one string that is wound, (sometimes the third string is wound on plectrum, tenor or some very heavy five string sets, but many commercial sets have just the fourth string wound.) the plain steel strings are where most of the difference is in banjo strings. Because of these variations, and the variations in each player’s technique, it really is best to try different string brands to develop your own sense of how each string brand sounds and feels. You may find you prefer certain brands for certain banjos or you like one brand for every banjo.
Deering has always chosen strings that we think make our banjos sound their best for most players. But, when we hear a brand that we think feels and sounds better, we change to that brand. Though we are very picky (no pun intended) about choosing strings to bring out the best in our banjos, we have thousands of customers who buy our banjos and put their favorite strings on their new banjos and proclaim it the best combination ever.
Trust your ears, hands and musical sense when judging strings for your banjo. Allow your sense to change because as your musical taste changes, your string needs might change with it.
The string gauge is measure of the diameter of the strings. Light gauge are the thinnest strings and medium gauge are thicker than light. However, manufacturers do not agree on definitions of what is light gauge and what is medium. Some manufacturers medium gauge are considered light or medium light by other manufacturers. The best way to determine what is right for you, is to look at the individual string diameters.
String diameters are measured in thousandths of an inch. So, it is common to see ten thousandths ( .010”) or fourteen thousandths (.013”), etc. Strings that have a smaller wire wrapped around them are called wound strings and sometimes wound strings will have a “w” after the number to show that that particular string has winding around it.
These diameters are usually listed on the package label of the strings so you can see exactly what diameters are used in the set. For example, a Deering light gauge five string set of strings have diameters of, from first to fifth string, .010”, .011”, .013”, .021”w, .010”. However, another nationally distributed brand has a light gauge set with diameters of .009”, .010”, .013”, .020”w, .009”. These numbers may not look very different, but the difference in how the banjo feels and sounds can be dramatic to some players.
For many years, light gauge has been the most popular gauge as judged by sales numbers. Light gauge strings tend to have excellent brightness with good bass response. The thin diameters put less tension on the banjo neck, bridge and head. Light gauge strings can only be played to a certain level of volume and intensity, and no more. Their softer feeling nature does not allow them to be played hard. If played to hard they start to feel like “limp spaghetti” that looses it’s definition and power.
Players with a very strong attack usually cannot tolerate the loose feel of light gauges. Players with a light attack get a beautiful, full range of tone colors from light gauge strings. Light gauge are still preferred by many top professionals as well as beginners and intermediate players. The delicate sparkle of the light gauge strings with a moderate to soft attack records well and is “the banjo sound” that has inspired millions of banjo enthusiasts around the world.
Medium gauge strings are thicker in diameter than light gauge strings. They tend to feel “stiffer” or “tighter” when fretting and picking. The thicker string gives the banjo a more “mid-range” sound. That is, there is less bass response in relation to brightness. The sound is more even from string to string. This combination is preferred by players who want more volume, who play without amplification and who enjoy a hard driving banjo sound. Clawhammer players, who use their wrist and arm to play, often prefer medium gauges to enhance the mid-range sound that is preferred by old time players. Plectrum and tenor players tend to prefer a more “medium-ish” gauging because their flat picking style uses the big muscles of wrist and arm.
For the player who wants more “resistance” on the string, or more “string tension” the medium gauge is a good choice. In some amplified applications, the mid-range character and greater volume/power of the medium gauge strings can help reduce feed back when using a microphone and a P.A. system.
Deering medium gauges are somewhat typical and the individual string diameters are from first to fifth string: .010”, .012”, .016”, .024”w, .010”.
In the banjo world, there are not many “heavy gauge” strings. Or to be more precise, there are not many string sets “labeled” heavy. There are medium gauge sets that are heavier than others, but the banjo world doesn’t seem too interested in “heavy” gauge strings.
However, the late John Hartford used a very heavy set of strings, but he tuned his banjo way down to E flat to give him a lower tuned banjo to accompany his singing and keep the string tension tight enough for his playing comfort. I do not know the exact gauges that he used, but I know he used either a .016”wound or .018”wound for the third string.
Many Irish tenor banjo players tune their four string tenor banjos to one octave below a mandolin. This puts the notes of the tenor banjo in the same range as a guitar so the string diameters need to be a bit thicker so the strings are not too soft, or “floppy”. Some Irish tenor players use “Octave Mandolin” strings that are gauged something like .012” through .044”. These are heavy, but in the low tuning of an octave mandolin, they have good tension and sound great. Our low Irish strings, that we install on our banjos when requested are gauged (from first to fourth) .012”, .016”, .024” w, .036”w.
Not every banjo is designed to safely handle heavy strings. We recommend nothing heavier than light gauge for our Goodtime banjos. But you can used light, medium or heavy gauge on any four or five string Deering, Vega, Eagle II or Tenbrooks banjo. These banjos all have the same truss rod that is in our 12-string banjo and will hold up just fine.
Generally, strings that are very heavy, are not chosen by many five-string banjoists except for down tuning the banjo. The heavier strings lose their “sparkling brilliance” and become even more “mid range” as the diameters increase. So, experiment to your heart’s content but the lack of interest in super heavy banjo strings clearly indicates that light and medium gauge strings are the most popular by the most players.
Most string sets have nickel wound fourth strings. Occasionally you will see a fourth string wound with “phosphor bronze” or “bronze” or “brass”. The nickel wound strings are not quite as bright as the bronze or brass wound fourth strings, but the nickel definitely lasts longer. The bronze wounds and brass wounds are a little warmer in tone and brighter when new, but because they are softer metals and are more quickly worn my finger picks and flat picks, they don’t last as long. (Remember, if you have an electric pickup that is an electro-magnetic coil pickup like our Kavanjo, always use a nickel silver wound string because brass and bronze are not magnetic and will not “activate” the pickup.)
Tenor strings and many sets of plectrum strings have wound third strings as well as fourth strings. These are necessary because of the increased tension needed because of the flat picked technique used on these banjos. Players with a flat pick or “plectrum” on banjos usually like a little stiffer feel on the string. Not too many five string, finger picking players use a wound third string. Not too many clawhammer players use wound third strings.
We generally recommend that banjo enthusiasts change their strings once a month. Professionals that I know change their strings every day, and sometimes after every hour of performance. Many of us let our strings stay on our banjos for years. This doesn’t hurt the banjo, but sometimes it will hurt our “perception” of our banjo. When the strings are old, it is harder to hear when our banjo is out of adjustment…it just sounds bad. So, keeping the strings changed will help keep a good perspective and will help you diagnose problems with your banjo more easily.
What should I buy for my banjo?
The single best thing for any banjoist is to try different brands and different diameters (gauges). There is no right or wrong decision with these experiments. Here is a suggested procedure to try first:
1. If you are a beginner, stick with light gauge and don’t worry about experimenting with strings until you’ve practiced for six months to a year.
2. When you have played or taken lessons for about a year, buy several different gauges of a brand of strings that you like or perhaps that your teacher or a friend recommends. Determine from that whether you have any tendencies to like lighter gauges or more medium gauges or medium/light, etc.
3. Once you feel confident that you like a certain gauge, or you generally like “lighter” gauges or more “medium” gauges, then try several different brands with string diameters or “gauges” that are similar to the one you’ve liked. It’s ok to try a new set of strings every month. It’s also ok to put on a set of strings and just decide in minutes that they are not for you. As your skill increases, your choice will become clearer.
4. If you can’t tell any difference in the strings, just go back to your original set that was on your banjo, or something similar, and leave the “string experimenting” alone until your technique develops further.
As your playing technique grows and changes, you may find that your taste in strings changes. Also, some players have virtually NO preferences in strings and some have extremely strong preferences. Both points of view are completely valid and you are not missing anything by being part of either group. Don ‘t feel that you “are not discerning” if string choices are no big deal to you. By the same token, don’t feel you are being “fussy” if you must have a certain brand or gauge.
String choices can be very individual and always remember that the music is the focus of your playing. These mechanical issues can be a lot of fun, as long as they are viewed as fun, and not obstacles. It’s all about making music; and enhancing the music you make.