Strings: The Wonderful World of Wire

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.

String Brands
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.

String Gauges
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.

Light Gauge
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
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”.

Heavy Gauge
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.

Wound strings
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.

String Life
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.

Order your new set of Deering banjo strings here:

18 Comments
  1. Hi: I believe you have a typo under “String Diameters.” You mention “fourteen thousands” and show 0.013.” A mil isn’t a big deal!

  2. Music wire used in banjo strings is made by two firms in Sweden , mostly by Sandvic. There is NO difference in alloys, as a study of the Chemical Handbook of Chemistry and Physics will show. The point is…..Deering strings are not really different than any other. Ask Amstek Metals….Your vendor.

    1. Hi Jan, Thanks for the feed back. It is interesting that string makers claim that they use different alloys from other brands. There are also treatments of strings like acid wash, cryogenic freezing, pre-stretching etc that makers claim do all sorts of wonderful things. It is interesting that strings do sound different if the alloys are all the same. But, in the end, we as players need to focus on what we like the sound of, and don’t worry too much about what brand it is or how it’s made. It’s the music and the sound we create that is what’s important. The main difference in Deering strings is our choice of gauging. However, we’ve recently started working with a new string supplier who says they are using a unique alloy and our R&D folks felt that the alloy is particularly nice. Thanks again Jan. Please keep in touch.

  3. What is the difference between nickel silver and stainless steel strings? Is one brighter than the other? More durable? Prettier? :-)

    1. Hi George, The nickel silver strings are the more traditional string. The stainless steel wrapped strings will definitely last longer. I found the stainless strings to be a little “brighter”. However, some of my picking friends say that the stainless are “mellower”. I don’t quite see that but I respect their background and opinion. I would say that nickel and stainless are similar in that they are both longer lasting than brass or bronze wound strings. I would try both and decide what you feel the difference is. I have used both and never quite made up my mind if I liked one better than the other. I did appreciate the durability of the stainless. Let me know what you discover.

  4. hello
    what a fascinating subject working with metals welding etc i was curious just how the strings were made and mechanically tested you tube as ever provided the answer so first off thank you for getting my little grey cells working and expanding my knowledge.next well being a beginner a lot of thought went into this process because inevitably everyone reckons there recommendations are best .so what to do got it go for the ones on special offer and treat it as an ongoing field trial till you know for definite which ones best suit .
    once again thanks good topic

    1. Hi Barry,
      We generally recommend tuning the head of most banjos to G sharp. That is not a law or “perfect tone spot” but rather a rule of thumb. Some players keep their heads tighter and some a little looser. Head tension is a personal choice and like changing string frequency, is determined by the player. Heads do stretch more when new and tend to stretch less as they get older. When a banjo is new, it is good to tighten the head in the first month and maybe six months after that. But the most important concept is to tune the head “as needed” and “as determined by the player’s desire for a certain sound.” Some players adjust their heads almost every week. Others don’t touch it for years. The late John Hartford had his banjos adjusted about once a year. Some other high profile banjoists, adjust their heads almost every week. We have instructions on how to adjust the head on our website and if you have any other questions, email or call Carolina 1-800-845-7791 or info@deeringbanjos.com and she will answer any questions. THanks Barry. Let us know if you have any other questions.

  5. I bought the Vega Old Time Wonder a few years ago and am getting back into playing. Definitely a noob and am wondering about nylon/nylgut strings. What is your opinion on those strings? Also I heard that the spike used for the fifth string will break a nylgut string. Is this true and is there a solution?
    Cheers,
    Drew

    1. Hi Drew,
      For nylon or gut strings, you would just need to have the fifth string spike removed, and have a fifth string nut installed. The slots in the existing string nut would need to be widened for thicker nylon strings. Usually, you can switch back to steel strings as well once you have changed over although the strings are a little sloppy in the nut slots. It is also possible that you would need to adjust your truss rod to accommodate the lighter tension of the nylon strings. Your Vega Old Time Wonder would be a great candidate for nylon string sound. Nylon strings are very plunky but very sweet and they have an entirely different character than steel. If you need to adjust your truss rod, please look at our website in the maintenance manual for simple instructions of how to do adjust it. Thanks Drew. Let me know how this goes.

    1. The majority of the Deering banjos, all the Goodtime banjos, and the Eagle II banjos are sent out with out light gauge strings; 10,11,13,21w,10.
      The Tenbrooks banjos are different gauges; 11,12,13,20,11. The Terry Baucom model is made with 11,11,13,20,11 because Terry likes these gauges.
      The tenors and plectrums have their own specific string gauges as well. Plectrums: 10,12,16,24.
      Irish tenor (17): 12,16,24,36; 19-fret tenor: 10,16,24,30.
      So…every model has its specific requirements with regard to string gauges but the manufacturer is the same.

  6. I don’t no how to tune a banjo head, do you need special equipment? I’m going to call CAROLINA Mon the 4th at Deering Co. does correct head tuning make it sound better Don

  7. Most interesting reading, I have been playing for a little over a year properly that is ,and its only now that I can tell the difference a gauge , and maker differ from one to another brand.
    I started out listening to others but found that lighter sets tensioned up nicely to a crisper, clear sound , medium or heavier gauges are harder work on your fingers when learning a new song to play.

    Very informative and thank you for the reading material in this.

    John Smart

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