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There are a few different types of strings that can be used on a banjo, including ones made from Nylon or Steel. If you are new to playing the banjo, these options can be confusing, and you may have no clue as to which you should get. Even if you are a veteran player, you may want to change it up a bit and try out a different type of string, just to see how they differ.
The biggest difference between these two string types is the kind of sound that they will produce. Nylon strings give that fuller and deeper tone, giving you a more classic banjo sound. On the other hand, steel strings will typically give you a bright tone. These different tones can work for (or against) you, depending on what type of music you are playing.
Although you can put either type of these strings on a banjo, there are some factors in deciding which ones to use. Strings are cheap to purchase and easy to change so it is a great way to change up your style or get you out of a rut. A different sound can bring back the fun of playing the banjo if you happen to be bored with your current setup. Let’s look at the difference between these two popular types of strings.
Nylon Strings and Steel Strings
In the following video, creator Clifton Hicks displays the differences between Steel and Nylon strings and talks a bit about his preferences.
In the video, he plays two banjos back to back, the first has nylon strings, and the second has steel strings. From his playing, it is very easy to tell the difference between the two sounds. The Nylon strings have a deeper, grungier tone. If the American South had a sound, that would be it. The steel strings, on the other hand, have a lighter, crisper, and brighter tone. It sounds more modern than classic.
Nylon Strings, What Should I Know About Them?
Many people prefer Nylon strings because they give a more classic banjo sound. Most banjo players who seek a traditional sound will probably go for nylon strings.
Back in the day, gut strings were most prevalent. Unsurprisingly, as we have become more nature-conscious, they have waned in popularity, and they are often not as high quality as they used to be. Nylon strings are pretty similar in sound to gut strings, though, and this is why many banjo players who are looking for a classic sound choose nylon.
Fender has an article on the difference between steel strings and nylon strings. Although the article focuses on Guitar strings, it is still applicable since banjo, and guitar strings will generally have similar construction.
(Unless you absolutely need to use guitar strings, stick with banjo strings. Fitting guitar strings to a banjo does require a bit of finessing to the stringing and tuning since the gauges will differ. If you are in a pinch and need to use guitar strings on your banjo, this video will show you how to do this).
Nylon strings will be easier on your fingers than steel strings will be, and they will not cause the same amount of finger pain or callouses, which is a great advantage, especially for a beginner.
However, it is more difficult to keep Nylon strings in tune because of their softer nature. This makes them more sensitive to factors such as temperature and humidity.
Steel Strings, What Should I Know About Them?
Steel strings are for those looking to have a more modern sound. Their bright, clear sound offers the tone and power that you need for these more modern sounds. These are commonly used on modern banjos and are what you generally hear in bluegrass banjo sounds.
A disadvantage for some, especially beginners, is that the steel strings are harder to press down because the tension they create is stronger than that of nylon strings. As a result, your fingers will be sore. The more you play, though, the less it will hurt because the callouses you build up will “protect” your fingers.
An advantage of steel strings is the fact that it is harder for them to go out of tune. Their stronger material is less sensitive to humidity and temperature changes. As a result, you will have to tune it a lot less than you would have to tune a banjo with nylon strings.
How to Decide?
So, what kind of strings should you go for? Well, there really is no scientific, definitive answer to this. Nor is there is a singular answer that most people will agree on.
Instead, the decision on which strings you choose to buy is really up to you and your own preferences. But, just to help you out, here are some summarized “rules” you can quickly glance at while shopping for banjo strings.
- Your Genre: If you want to have a more classic sound such as old school jazz, then buy Nylon strings. But, if you want to have a contemporary sound such as bluegrass or rock, then choose steel strings.
- Your Patience: Although tuning can be done in a matter of seconds, you should think about how much you are going to want to tune. If you don’t want to tune often, then choose steel strings. If you are ok with tuning often and are sold on nylon strings, then go for those
- Sore fingers: Remember that nylon strings will be a lot easier to play on and won’t make your fingers as sore. But, steel strings are tighter and can make your fingers sore and calloused.
So that you know, most would say that it is most important to choose the strings based on the sound that you want to achieve. Sure, lots of tuning or sore fingers could be annoying. But, it will be infinitely more annoying if you can’t achieve the sound that you want to create. Again though, the decision is up to you and what you feel will be best.
Eww! Did You Say Gut Strings?
Yep. I said gut strings. Back in the day, strings were made out of the fiber from the walls of animal intestines. Guitars, banjos, violins, and more use this type of string. These were called Catgut strings, although they were not literally made from cat’s guts. According to Wikipedia, they were made of sheep or goat intestines, and sometimes cattle, hog, horse, mule, or donkey intestines.
The term catgut is thought to either be derived from the term “cattlegut” or kitgut, since “kit” is fiddle in Welsh.
Many began to move away from the use of catgut strings during the 20th century in favor of alternatives like nylon and steel strings.
But, catgut does give that deep classical sound that many musicians desire. While nylon is a great alternative that many use, it does not hit the tone that some seek. As a result, catgut is still manufactured by companies and used by many musicians.
Most often, catgut strings are used by people who play classical music. They are especially common in orchestras. Catgut strings help preserve the classic sound that orchestras have had for centuries.
Many do have understandable objections to them, though, with the sustainability and morality of their usage being something that many people do question.
Other Important Factors to Consider Before Buying Strings
You probably know what kind of strings you want to buy now, but do not go out and purchase any strings for your banjo yet! There are some other very important factors to consider! As I said earlier, whether you buy nylon or steel strings comes down to preference, with the biggest difference being the sound you get.
These other factors though are a bit more important. One other factor to consider is the gauge of string that you should purchase. Another thing that is important to consider is the string count of the package. Both of these factors can make a difference in whether or not the strings will work with your banjo.
Getting the Right Gauge for You and Your Banjo
There are three major types of gauges: Light, Medium Light, and Medium. Less common are the Light Plus and Almost Medium gauges. Each of these will have a different gauge weight that can affect your playing in different ways. I prefer the play with a light gauge but that suits me and style that I play. Your preference may be different.
The heavier the gauges are, the harder the strings are going to be to play. So, if you get medium steel gauges, and you are a beginner, then you may be in for a more challenging learning experience. They will be hard to press down on and just to play in general.
Because of this, I would recommend starting with light strings. Once you get a handle on the instrument, then it is good to graduate to heavier strings if you feel the need to. It is encouraged that you eventually try out different strings because they can give you different sound profiles.
For example, heavier strings give a deeper and stronger tone, especially when using techniques such as hammer-ons and slides. They are great for the player that strums hard. Whereas lighter strings are great for those that want to bring out the small but beautiful subtleties of their playing.
If you are a beginner and have not bought your first banjo yet, you do not have to worry too much about string gauges when buying your first banjo. The reason for this is because most banjo’s (and other stringed instruments in general) will come with light strings.
One thing you should be aware of is how heavy of a gauge your banjo can handle. Some banjos will not handle medium gauges well. The tension they create could cause damage to your instrument. So, if you plan on buying a heavier gauge, make sure your banjo can handle the higher tension first.
Are You Buying The Right String Count?
As you may or may not know, there are several different varieties of banjos that each have a different number of strings. Typically, banjos will come in the 4-string, 5-string, 6-string, and tenor banjo variety. The 5-string banjo is the most popular.
So, when you go to buy strings, make sure that you are buying a pack that has the correct amount of strings for your instrument. Check, and double-check before you buy. Trust me; you don’t want to purchase the wrong pack of strings without knowing it. Opening up a package of strings and finding out that you got four strings in the package when you needed five is not a great feeling.
Where Should I Get Strings For My Banjo?
There are a plethora of places that you can get your banjo strings. And where you choose to buy them is really up to you. If you are new to playing, though, here are some places that you should consider buying strings from.
Support Local Stores
Above all else, I would say that buying local is best. With the rise of online conglomerates, corporations, brick and mortar stores need all the business they can get. Giving back to the community is always a great thing!
An advantage of buying from a mom and pop music store is that lots of the time, you will get the VIP experience. Since the store is smaller, they will able to focus more time on you and your musical needs. They also will oftentimes offer music lessons, so you won’t get lost if you are first learning how to play.
One downside to smaller stores is that they can be a bit more pricey due to their limited inventory. Just make sure that the inventory they sell isn’t exorbitantly overpriced and that you aren’t being cheated out of your money.
Depending on where you live, your local music store might not even carry banjo strings. You may have no other option than buying them from online retailers.
Buying from the Big-Name Retailers
Even though it is nice to buy local, not every town has a mom and pop music store to buy from. If this is the case, there are plenty of major retailers, both brick and mortar and online, that are reliable.
One of the best, hands down, is Sweetwater. Their retail store is in Fort Wayne, Indiana, USA. But, they do lots of their business online. The great thing about Sweetwater is that you get the VIP experience even when you buy online. Sometimes, with your package, they will send extra goodies like bumper stickers and candy. Everything I have ever purchased came with a little variety bag of candy. It’s not much but it does make a difference and makes them stand out a bit more than the competition. Also, they usually give you a call to make sure that everything you order arrived, and that it is in good condition!
Another place to buy your banjo strings from is Guitar Center, which has stores nationwide and a popular online retail option. Despite the name, they sell a lot more than just guitars. If it has to do with music, you will find it at Guitar Center. Guitar center is reliable, and you can rest assured that they will deliver a good product. They also offer lessons for those looking to learn!
Also, if you have not bought a banjo yet and are looking to buy one, any of the options above would be a great choice. You will, without a doubt, find a banjo you like from Sweetwater, or Guitar Center. I recently purchased an Epiphone banjo from Sweetwater and the experience was great.
It may be harder to find a selection of banjos at a mom and pop store, but it never hurts to look and give them the business if they have something you like.
So, What Brand of Banjo Strings is the Best?
The brand you choose depends on your preference. Some people even use different brands for different banjos they own. It may take you a while of playing to figure out which strings you like the best. I generally use D’Addario and have never had a problem with them. They sound and feel great and last a decent amount of time depending on the amount of time you spend playing.
Here is a list of some other banjo strings that you might want to try out:
- D’Addario EJ60 Nickel 5-String Light Banjo Strings
- D’Addario Nickel EJ61 5-String Banjo Strings (Medium)
- Elixir Light Banjo Strings w Polyweb Coating
- Martin Vega V700 Light Banjo Strings
Now You Are Ready to Get Your Strings
When you were first looking at strings to buy, you probably were confused, especially if you are new to playing the banjo.
But, the biggest difference between steel and nylon is the type of sound you are going to get out of them. So, the strings you buy, whether nylon or steel, should really just be determined by the type of music you want to play.
When it comes to factors such as string gauge and pack count, just make sure you get the right one for your banjo.
And, with the plethora of stores, and the dozens of string brands, with a bit of experimentation, you should easily be able to find the ones that work best for you!