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If you’re a banjo player who is getting serious about your music, you know that everything about your instrument is important–all the way down to the type and size of strings you use. Though it may sound trivial, the size and type of strings determine how your banjo will sound. If you’re new to the banjo or picking it back up after a long break, you may wonder which is right for you.
You can choose the perfect strings for your banjo if you know what sound you are going for and the type and size of strings which are best for that end. Types of banjo strings are distinguished by their size, the materials they are made of and the type of banjo they are made for. For these reasons there is no single best type of banjo string, rather what is best is contingent on what you need.
If you want to know the best types of strings and how to determine the size you need, this is the article for you. Below you will discover what the materials are that make up the different types of banjo strings and how their size affects your sound. You will also learn about what materials make a banjo head and how that can affect the sound as well. We will equip you with all you need to pick the best strings for the music you want to play!
Strings On The Banjo
The number of strings on a banjo can range from four to six, however, most banjos you find will have either four or five strings. It is important to note that the tunings for your banjo can be different depending on what kind of banjo you are using and what sound you are going for. Banjos come in many different types and sizes. However, the 5-string banjo is the most common in this day and age.
Below is the tuning that you would use on a standard 5-string banjo, tuned to standard G tuning. Note that string one refers to the string on the bottom as you are holding the banjo and looking down at it.
- String one: D.
- String two: B.
- String three: G.
- String four: D.
- String five: G.
See the following image for a visual representation of the tunings for each string of a 5-string banjo.
It is important to note that the tuning can differ depending on the type of banjo you are using. The above tuning is only considered standard because it is what you would use on most banjos. With smaller banjos like the ukulele banjo, your tuning will be much higher, whereas with bigger banjos your tuning will likely be much lower. Ukulele banjos are tuned with g-C-E-A tuning, whereas Baritone banjos are generally tuned to D-G-B-E tuning.
What Types of Banjo Strings Are There?
There are multiple types of banjo strings. As mentioned briefly above, they are distinguished mainly by the alloys they are made from. It’s important to know the different types of strings so you can pick the perfect ones and hone your craft. Below you will learn just how to do that very thing.
|Types of String
|One of the most common types of string is made of nickel-plated steel. Multiple brands ranging from Martin to D’Addario, all make this type of string. This is described as having a vibrant clear tone full of life.
|Stainless Steel Strings
|Stainless steel strings are perfect if you’re looking for durability. These strings have a distinctive bright sound, and they last for a very long time.
|Like the stainless steel strings, the coated strings are extremely durable and can last for quite a while. They are coated in a polymer that helps increase their lifespan. The only downside to these is that sometimes the coating can reduce how deep the tone can get.
|Phosphor bronze strings are good if you want a warmer sound with a deeper resonance. While the phosphor bronze strings don’t last as long as the coated or stainless steel strings, they make up for it by being high quality for a certain sound.
|Nylon strings are generally used on banjo ukulele and smaller banjos in general. These can give the banjo a higher tonality. (We discuss the ukulele banjo along with some other kinds of banjos in the following section.)
If you are unsure whether you want to use steel strings or nylon strings, you can read my post here about the differences.
What Sizes of Banjo Strings are There
Though there are many sizes of banjo strings, they are usually divided into three basic groups by their weight. There isn’t one best size of banjo string, however many pickers prefer a specific weight to achieve their own unique sound. Below is a list of the three basic categories of banjo string size along with the weights contained within them.
- Light: This is usually the lightest of all strings. There are also strings advertised as light plus that are just a little heavier. 095-.010-.013-.020-.095
- Medium Light: While not quite as light as the light strings, medium-light strings are a good option if you want a lighter sound. .010- .011-.012-.020-.010
- Medium: These are the biggest you’ll generally find, however there are some slightly lighter sometimes known as “almost medium”.010-.012-.016-.023-.010, 0.95-0.10
Bear in mind that these are not the only weights out there when you are trying to find the ones with the right sound for you. It’s great to experiment with many different sizes to find the right one for you.
Make sure to check the manual your banjo came with to see if there is a recommended weight. Older, antique banjos made need lighters strings. Additionally, beginners often start with light strings as they are more gentle on the fingertips.
What Kinds of Banjos Are There?
Before we take a look at the different types of strings, it can be helpful to have a good understanding of the kinds of banjos that exist. Though they are called by the same name, banjos can vary wildly in form and function. The best kind of banjo heavily depends on the genre of music you would like to play.
There are two basic types of banjo and several subgroups, which are all listed below.
- Open-back Banjos: This is probably the instrument most people picture when you say the word banjo. Like the name implies, the back of the banjo is hollow and open to help reverberate the sound. Originally all banjos were open-back. If you’re trying to play classic folk, these are the banjos for you.
- Resonator Banjos: Resonator banjos have a closed-back similar to a guitar. Because of the way the resonator projects the sound, they can get much louder than their classic open-back counterparts. If you want that old-time banjo sound with a modern twist a resonator banjo may be right for you. These are often found in bluegrass music.
- Plectrum Banjos: A plectrum banjo has four strings, 22 frets, and has a scale length that is usually between 26 to 28 inches. The lack of a short drone string is largely what distinguishes plectrum banjos from standard five-string banjos.
- Tenor Banjos: Sometimes these banjos are referred to as Irish tenor banjos due to their Irish origins. Tenor Banjos are shorter than plectrum banjos, coming in at 17 inches. Instead of 22 frets, tenor banjos have nineteen frets. The popularity of tenor banjos in Irish folk music during the 1920s makes them perfect for that kind of roots music, however they are also a good fit for jazz due to their tonality.
- Six-string banjos: There is an extra bass string on a six-string banjo. The extra string is usually placed between the drone string and the lowest string. Six-string banjos have a history of being used in bluegrass and classic country music.
- Low banjos: Similar to bass banjos, low banjos play at a lower range than most standard banjos. Interestingly low banjos were used in “banjo orchestras” during the late 19th and early 20th century and are a good ingredient if you want a classic bass sound from your banjo.
- Cello banjos: The tone of a cello banjo is about an octave lower than that of a tenor banjo. While you can find some with five strings, most cello banjos only have four. They are perfect for back bluegrass or classical music as well.
- Bass banjos: Bass banjos usually have three to four strings though they sometimes also have five. There are both upright and standard bass banjos. These banjos make a good bass backing for folk and country music.
- Ukulele banjos: Ukulele banjos are small semi-novelty banjos that are to a standard banjo what a ukulele is to a guitar. If you’re looking for an interesting sound for an experimental project, a ukulele banjo might just have the charm you are searching for. They can often have the same tunings as more standardized banjos but they have a unique sound.
- Electric banjos: Like an electric guitar, an electric banjo has knobs that allow you to adjust the sound to your liking. Electric banjos are the perfect instrument if you are looking to play southern rock or country and bluegrass with a bit more of an edge to it.
- Acoustic-electric banjos: Similar to an acoustic-electric guitar, an acoustic-electric banjo can be used both as an electric or an acoustic instrument as the name implies. Acoustic-electric banjos are great if you’re looking for more flexibility. You could use one of these banjos in anything from southern rock to folk music.
What is a Banjo Head?
The head of a banjo is the material that goes on the front of the banjo’s resonator, right behind the strings. They are quite similar to the heads you find for drums, except they tend to last longer. The head must be held firmly in place by the crown.
Picking the Right Head For Your Strings
Banjo Heads are made from several different materials. Each one is known to produce a different kind of sound when properly attached to the resonator. The most common materials that make up banjo heads are listed below:
- Clear Top: Clear top is most commonly used with four-string banjos. These heads generally are clear as their name implies and are known to give off a very bright and vibrant sound that goes well with higher notes. The sound of clear top banjo heads has been described as thin but radiant.
- Calf Skin: If you lived in the 1800s your banjo head was probably either made from calfskin or goatskin. Calf skin heads are known for the full warm sound they help to produce. This is a great material to use if you are trying to create folk or softer country and bluegrass. It also goes well with just about all types of roots music because of its association with that earlier era.
- Fiberskyn: Fiberskyn has the benefit of not being as susceptible to decay from humidity and moisture as some of the other types of banjo head. This kind of banjo head is good for any kind of music that is going for a quiet and warm atmospheric sound. The fibers on the head cause it to yield a much dampened yet smooth and warm sound. We could see this going well with soft country, folk, or even soft southern rock.
- Frosted Top: This top is called frosted because it is finished with a spray. Where clear tops were most commonly used with four-string banjos, the frosted tops are usually used with five-string banjos. They are known to have a distinctive bright sound that is best fit to bluegrass and some forms of folk and southern rock.
- Renaissance: A renaissance top is mostly known for the clarity and depth of sound it can help create. It’s also known for its foggy honey-colored look that appeals to any country western sensibility. We think this could go great with a polished country or folk tune.
- Smooth Top: The smooth top is similar to the frosted top, except with the tonal benefits that come with the spray of the later. Like the frosted top, you’ll get a bright sound that works well with bluegrass and some forms of folk and southern rock.
How to Find the Perfect String Sound With Your Banjo
There is only so much about finding the perfect sound that can be studied simply by reading. To find the perfect sound for you, you should experiment where you can. What follows here is a list of tips to help you get started experimenting with sound on your banjo today.
- Experiment with different types of banjos, before buying them at your local music store. Heads and strings can be bought and tried for a while, but when it comes to your banjo, you want to take all the time your retailer gives you to try the different kinds so you can buy the right one on your first try.
- Buy different types of strings and find the ones with that perfect sound you’re looking for. As we discussed in the string section of this article, the type of string you use will slightly alter the sound of your banjo. Different strings sound better with different genres so it’s not a bad idea to buy some you’ve never tried before and see how they sound. You may want to alternate between steel strings and nylon strings so that you can determine the sound that you like the best.
- Pick the right head for your sound, not the most expensive. Most of the time a head that is well suited to your banjo will already come attached. Still, if you want to be meticulous about your sound it isn’t a bad idea to try different types to get one that will work for you. When they find the right head, some pro banjo players will go years before they get a new one.
- Try different combinations. Just as each individual part of the banjo changes its sound, so do all the possible combinations. Don’t be afraid to spend a little extra time trying out different combinations of parts until you get the exact sound you want from your banjo.
- Try different styles of playing. There are many different styles that one can use when playing the banjo. You will get a different sound by using these different styles. Whether it’s fingerpicking, clawhammer, or another old-timey style, changing it up a bit can help you to find a sound that you are happy with.
Genres to Explore With Different Strings
Most people think of bluegrass, when they think of banjos, however banjos are actually used in a lot of different types of music, from jazz to traditional folk. Different string and head combinations may work better depending on what genre you’re excited for. Below is a list of genres you may wish to explore, with a brief description of their sound.
- Bluegrass: Undeniably the most well-known genre for the banjo, bluegrass often puts its pickers front and center. Having crisp bright sounds really helps bring the banjo to life.
- Jazz: Tenor banjos are often used in jazz for their tonal range. Jazz is a great genre to apply your banjo skills to if you are looking to experiment.
- Country: Country music seems like just another arm of bluegrass. The only difference is the banjo takes more of a supporting role in country and doesn’t lead as much as it does in bluegrass. If you just want to go with the flow, country music may be for you.
- Folk: Some classic folk singers such as Pete Seeger sometimes exclusively used banjos. Because of its intimate nature, you should look for warm sounds when trying to play folk.
- Southern Rock: Southern rock is a great vessel through which you could check out an electric banjo. Oftentimes sharper, jumpier sounds are best when it comes to southern rock.
These are but a few of the genres banjos often feature in. The truth is, though some genres use them more than others, banjos could fit into any of them. This list is supposed to get the gears turning, however if you come up with a totally different genre than any listed here, that’s okay.
Knowing when to change your banjo strings
The rate at which you change your banjo strings will depend on how much you play your banjo. Strings will last for quite a while so it isn’t something that you will need to do very often unless you play every day for long periods of time. Some people like the brighter sound of a new set of strings and this is understandable if you play in front of an audience on a regular basis. However, someone who plays in private most of the time will be just fine by using strings that have a little more age on them.
I don’t change my strings very often but then I don’t play in public, only in private. I try to get as much time out of the strings that I can possibly get. Sometimes a set of strings will stay on my banjo for more than a year at a time. The real way to know when it’s time to change your banjo strings is when you have noticed a degradation of sound. You may also notice that the strings have begun to corrode and feel different on your fingers. Once this happens, it may be a good time to go ahead and put a set of brand new strings on your banjo.
So, How Do You Really Choose Your Banjo Strings?
To choose the right strings for your banjo, you need to have a clear vision of what you want your music to sound like. Then you need a good understanding of what kinds of banjos there are and which is best for your vision. Finally, you should pick the compatible strings, heads, and other parts that bring your banjo to life and prepare you to express yourself through your music.
It may take some experimentation to find the right head and the perfect banjo strings for your purposes. Still, it is a good idea to know how the basic types and sizes of strings generally sound on the various kinds of banjos and banjo heads you may choose from. Now that you know what you’re doing you can get busy making the music that is right for you!