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Guitars and banjos are similar in many ways; both stringed instruments have a body, a neck, frets, and a method of tuning with pegs or keys. However, while they are alike in many ways, they sound very different. The difference in sound is due to many factors and strings just happen to be one of them. Each of these instruments has unique strings that are tuned differently.
Despite their different sounds, are banjo strings the same as guitar strings? In a way, they are. Most strings for banjos and guitars are made with steel. However, the type of strings used, such as a specific gauge or material, and the tension and number of strings used, will differ between these two instruments.
In the remainder of this article, we will discuss these distinct similarities and differences in greater detail, so you know what kind of strings are best to purchase for your guitar or banjo.
Key Differences Between Guitars & Banjos
Because guitars and banjos are both stringed instruments, it is easy to assume that they are similar enough to use the same types of strings. However, their key difference lies in their sound, which can be affected by the kind of strings used. The vibration of the strings is what causes the sound, which is then echoed off the head of the banjo or through the soundhole in an acoustic guitar (or in the case of an electric guitar, amplified through a speaker).
This difference in sound makes it easy to distinguish a banjo sound from a guitar.
Differences in How Strings Are Played
Banjos sound a little more twangy, and this is the result of how the banjo is constructed and how it’s played. The sound is much different bouncing off of a banjo head made of stretched skin or plastic versus the sound the resonates from the wood of a guitar.
Banjo players have a technique called “clawhammer” which uses their fingers bent at the knuckles to hammer on the strings.
Banjo strings are also, as previously stated, typically of lower tension than guitar strings. This allows more resonance in the strings and leaves the listener with a softer, more rustic sound. Banjos also have a higher pitch tone (affected by the strings’ material).
The guitar, on the other hand, typically sounds deeper and more melodic. Classical and acoustic guitars, especially, offer a richer, lower-pitched sound for listeners. Guitars are also able to produce darker and heavier sounds because they can handle thicker (heavier gauge) strings.
Differences in String Materials
Most stringed instruments, guitars and banjos included, were originally made with animal products. Today, only traditional banjo or classical guitar players use animal-based strings. These strings offer a richer sound but lack the volume and clarity of modern strings made from metal or nylon.
Are guitar and banjo strings interchangeable?
Although guitar and banjo strings are made from the same materials, each type of guitar or banjo will warrant different kinds.
In some instances, you may be able to use guitar strings on a banjo, or banjo strings on a guitar, depending on the type of instrument and type of strings used. However, this is not always the case, as you can’t just use any set of strings on either instrument. There are a few factors that should be considered when it comes to determining whether a set of guitar strings may or may not work on a banjo or vice versa:
String Attachment Method
For both instruments, the strings stretch over the bridge and across the body and then are wound on on tuning pegs to tighten and tune. Banjo strings have either loop ends or ball-ends, while guitar strings can have ball ends or ends you must tie.
The material of the string affects the sound and the tension. It is possible to interchange strings of different materials, but this could result in uncharacteristic or undesirable sounds from your instrument.
The gauge, or thickness, of the string, affects the volume and how notes are sustained. It also affects how easy it is for players to perform; even a professional musician will not be able to play effectively if they use strings with different gauges than they are used to.
Furthermore, the guitars and banjos require different tensions in their strings. The tension is a measure of the strength of strings pulling from a stringed instrument’s body to its neck. A string’s material and gauge can both affect it.
Strings can be interchanged between the two instruments, as long as the tension is appropriate for the instrument. Low tension strings are more comfortable to play, but do not produce as high a volume and often leave the player with buzzing on the strings. High tension offers more projection and is excellent for experienced musicians playing energetic rhythms.
Note: tuning the instrument changes the tension and thus changes the string pitches which make the notes.
Because of the differences in instruments and specifications, it is most likely that a full set of guitar strings will not be useable on a banjo. It is, therefore, necessary to individually select guitar strings to match the required material, tension, gauge, and attachment type of your banjo, and vice versa.
Specifications for Strings: Guitars vs. Banjos
|Specifications||Use on Guitars||Use on Banjos|
|Typical Set of Gauges||Extra light: .010 .014 .023|
.030 .039 .047
Custom light: .011 .015
.023 .032 .042 .052
Light: .012 .016 .025 .032
Medium: .013 .017 .026
.035 .045 .056
Heavy: .014 .018 .027 .039
|Light: .095 .010 .013 .020 .095|
Medium Light: .010 .011 .012 .020 .010
Medium: .010 .012 .016 .023 .010
Heavy gauge is not recommended.
|Common Materials||80/20 Bronze, Silver Plated Copper, Titanium, Nylon, Composite||Nickel-Plated Steel, Bronze, Stainless Steel, Nylon, Animal Byproducts|
|Coating||Polymer Coating Available for Metal Strings||Polymer Coating Available for Metal Strings|
|Tension, Affected by Gauge & Wind||Low, Normal, and High||In general, low tension is best for banjos due to their construction.|
|Number of Strings||Standard: 6|
Where to Find the Right Strings for Your Instrument
As you can see, there are many variations of strings, and the strings you choose are very important for the longevity of your instrument and the sound of your music. Some widely available and trusted brands for strings are:
- D’Addario offers strings for all types of instruments.
- Gibson specializes in guitar strings, but as you have seen, banjos can take guitar strings as long as the gauge, material, and attachments are correct.
- Deering specializes in banjo strings.
- Elixir specializes in coated metal strings.
- Martin & Co. makes their strings by hand in the US of the highest quality.
It is highly recommended that aspiring musicians learn how to detach old strings and attach new ones, because strings wear out after about 100 hours of playing, before needing replacement.
Ultimately, banjo strings and guitar strings can be interchangeable, but they’re not exactly the same. Different variables of each instrument require specific strings, which may or may not be achievable with strings intended for a different instrument.
In order to be compatible with a guitar or banjo and produce great sound and music, the strings should be made with the appropriate material, have the right gauge and tension, and of course, should attach to the instrument. As long as you know your instrument and its needs well, however, finding the right string or set of strings should pose no problem at all.
So, next time you see someone strumming—or plucking—consider the types of strings they’re using, and how they may benefit an instrument of a different kind.