What Makes a Good Banjo String?

by Barry Hunn

The “wire” for instruments is called music wire.  This name does have industrial meaning because it denotes the alloy, temper, hardness, resilience, and tensile strength of the wire, as compared to electrical wire, copper wire, etc.

The wire for banjo strings is the same wire used in acoustic guitars, mandolins, pianos, dulcimers ,electric guitars, pedal steel guitars, violins, etc. 

As buyers of banjo strings, we don’t usually care about the metallurgical content of our strings so we’ll talk about strings from a musical perspective.

Let’s look at a few basics about strings, and then some of the myths about string brands.

Plain Steel vs Wound Strings:

Five string banjo sets, usually have four plain steel string and one wound string. 

Plain strings are music wire with a loop on one end to secure the string.  They are single strands of wire of varying diameters and are smooth to the touch.

The wound string is made from a core of plain steel, and then wrapped with wire.  The thin core keeps the string flexible and the tension on the string low, but increases the low frequency response of the string and that’s why the wound strings are always used for bass (lower pitched) strings. 

Wound strings are wrapped with a variety of metals: brass, bronze, nickel, nickel plated steel, stainless steel, etc.  The brass and bronze alloys vary in copper and tin content and some have other elements like phosphorous, etc. to warm or cool the tone color. 

Some tenor and plectrum string sets have two plain strings and two wound strings.   

Wound strings make a squeaky sound when you drag your finger over its length.  This is caused by your fingers “rippling” over the ribs of string windings.

What makes a “Good” String?:

The most important quality of a string is consistent diameter over the length of the string.  If the string has “thick spots” or “thin spots”, it doesn’t vibrate as uniformly and the clarity of the string’s tone and pitch become hard to hear.   It is hard to tune strings that have too much variation in diameter…. You can’t “hear” the note.

A string that is completely uniform in diameter over its length makes a clear, very well defined tone.  This is sought after by all players whether they are conscious of it or not.   

This diameter uniformity is just as important in a plain steel string as it is in a wound string. 

The alloy of the wire in a plain steel string can affect the “color” of the sound or the basic tone of the string.  The only way to determine what the “best” tone is, is to try different brands of strings. Trust your ears and buy the brand that gives you the tone color you like.  Think of alloy choice like choosing a pecan pie vs. a cherry pie vs. a coconut cream pie etc.   They all taste different but all taste great to the people who like them.   

Banjo string brands are EXACTLY like pies…. they are all wonderful and different. 

The same is true for wound strings.  While the core of the string is solid steel, the windings might be brass, phosphor bronze, or nickel, etc.     

As a general rule of thumb:

Brass wound strings are bright with warmth.

Phosphor bronze strings are almost as bright but have a “cooler” tone that is not as warm as brass.

Nickel are not as bright as brass and maybe a little warmer than phosphor bronze. 

Nickel wound fourth strings are probably the most commonly used by five string banjoists.   I think the same could be said for plectrum and tenor players too.   Nickel is a little harder than brass or bronze and therefore lasts a little longer under the attack of finger picks or flat picks.

String Gauges: what does it mean?

String gauge refers to the diameter of the strings.  Typical light gauge banjo strings can have diameters like .009, .011, .013, 020wound, .009.  There are many variations like using .010 instead of .009 or .0095.  Some lights have .014 third strings etc.

Typical medium gauges are something like .011, .012, .015, .023, .011.  Some have .010 instead of .011, .022 instead of .023 etc.

These are just samples of some “generalized” string diameters to give you a sense of what a “light” gauge string is vs a “medium” gauge.

The gauges feel and sound different.

Light gauge strings:   Known for pronounced brightness and bass and soft mid-range response.  They cannot be played hard without distorting or over-driving the string. 

Medium Gauge strings:  Known for strong mid range and clean bass.  Less brightness.  Works best for players who play with a hard attack.  Who pluck the strings harder.

Heavy gauge Strings:   Not common.  Definitely mostly midrange.  Less brightness and less bass than medium gauge.  Needed by some players who play very hard and who need to be heard without amplification.

String gauges can make a big difference to individual players. 

String gauges, like brands, must ultimately be determined by YOU, as an individual.   Anyone that TELLS you what you should use might be well intentioned but is working from their own preference… not yours.

For example: Jens Kruger plays on string sets that would be considered in the medium category.  Larry McNeely (from the old Glen Campbell show) played with the lightest string gauges I’ve ever heard of.   The late Doug Dillard played on light strings. Tony Trishka plays on more of a medium gauge.  The late Earl Scruggs played on light gauge for many years and then moved to heavier strings in his later years. 

All of these master players used what THEY liked. 

Having said all of this, let’s dispel a few myths:

Banjo strings are all made by the same company.  COMPLETELY FALSE

Some “brands” of strings are made by string manufacturers and sold under names that have nothing to do with actually manufacturing  strings or wire.  Likewise, some brands are actually made by companies that have string winding and wire making machines.   Most string makers buy their wire from industrial wire manufacturers.  Not many string makers actually manufacturer their own wire.

All steel strings are the same and brand makes no difference.  COMPLETELY FALSE!

String makers use wire from different manufacturers.  Alloys from each wire manufacturer have their own unique sound.  The technique of winding the strings definitely affects the sound of wound strings.   If the string wraps are pulled tighter, or not pulled as tight, this has a profound effect on the strings sound character.

Each string brand is a recipe of alloys, diameters and winding techniques.

The Best Brand of Strings is Brand X

Completely Subjective and irrelevant to you!

While I could present you with a brand of string that uses a particular kind of wire and certain style of wound strings and tell you why they are the best, it is still my own taste telling you what I like. 

Even if I proved it using sophisticated electronic measuring equipment, it only proves what’s important to me!

There are wire makers who have a reputation for making wire that is the most consistent and many professionals prefer strings made with this wire.   But there are many other professionals who don’t care what brand they use as long as they have the gauges they want.    

When someone tells you that brand X is the best and only the best players use his brand, just remember that he might as well tell you that pecan pie is the only pie eaten by the most discerning professionals!   

It makes about as much sense.

How Can String Choice be SO Relative?

It is true that consistent wire diameter is a matter of quality manufacturing. 

It is also true that alloy choice, winding design, and gauge selection are all a matter of taste.

Having spent a little over 45 years in music performance, teaching, retailing, and manufacturing, I’ve heard almost every kind of prejudice, rationalization, excuse, and opinion out there.

Having met quite a few world famous banjoists has shown me first hand that there is a huge variety of styles and ALL of them are beautiful in their own way. 

String choice is just that….. YOUR choice.

Pete Wernick says, “if it sounds good, it must be good.”

Good words to choose by.

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