How to Choose the Right Strings for Your Banjo

How to Choose the Right Strings for Your Banjo

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Confused by all the choices? We’ll help you pinpoint the right set of strings for your banjo and playing style.

The strings on your banjo have a big influence on your instrument’s sound and playability. If you’ve explored Musician’s Friend’s dozens of different banjo string choices, you’ve likely realized there’s plenty to think about when choosing the right ones. In this guide we’ll walk you through those choices to find the strings that’ll help you produce the banjo sound you’re after while enjoying great playability.

Table of Contents

How Many Strings?
What Gauges Do I Need?
Who Makes the Best Banjo Strings?
String Materials and Coatings

How Many Strings?

As you probably know, aside from the standard 5-string banjos beloved by bluegrass players, banjos come in several other configurations. The world of 4-string banjos has been enjoying a revival thanks to their featured role in bands like Mumford and Sons and The Dropkick Murphys.

Ernie Ball Medium Gauge Tenor Banjo Strings

Ernie Ball Medium Gauge Tenor Banjo Strings have the right response to bring out the best in flatpicking techniques.

At Musician’s Friend you’ll find a wide selection of strings designed for 4-string Irish tenor and plectrum banjos as well as the 6-string models so popular with guitarists as a crossover instrument.

Shop Musician’s Friend’s complete selection of banjo strings.

Shopping is easy since you can sort by:

  • Number of strings
  • String gauge
  • String materials
  • Coated or uncoated strings
  • Type of winding material

What Gauges Do I Need?

If you’ve hung out on web banjo forums or talked to fellow banjo players, you already know that there’s no one answer to the question of what gauges are right for you. Some players swear by light-gauge strings; others insist that for full-bodied tone and strong midrange response, medium-gauge strings are the way to go. Because banjos vary greatly in their native tone and design, and players use all kinds of picking techniques and have very different attacks, experimentation is the key.

It’s generally felt that heavier gauges are somewhat harder to play. Though lighter strings can’t produce their depth or volume, techniques such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, chokes, and slides are easier to perform using lighter gauges. They also deliver crisper, clearer tone. One drawback to lighter gauges are their tendency to break, especially the first and fifth strings.

Players with a strong pick attack may find light strings lacking the tension they need to dig into their notes. Because they offer more projection, heavier gauges can help prevent feedback during live amplified performances since mics don’t need to be turned up as high. On the other hand, lighter strings can bring out subtle tonal nuances and playing techniques that make them popular for recording.

Another factor to consider is the construction of your banjo, especially the strength of its neck. Heavier strings exert more tension that can result in the neck shifting or bowing. It’s often advised that vintage banjos be strung with lighter gauges to minimize these risks. In the case of newer banjos, it’s a good idea to check the manufacturer’s recommendations as a starting point.

The same gauge is often used on the first and fifth strings. Though manufacturers don’t always agree on the specific numbers, here are typical gauges based on the nominal weight of the string set:

  • Light: .095-.010-.013-.020-.095
  • Medium Light: .010- .011-.012-.020-.010
  • Medium: .010-.012-.016-.023-.010

You’ll see other gauge designations such “Light Plus” and “Almost Medium” that offer slightly different gauge options. Since banjo strings are inexpensive, experimentation in finding what works for you isn’t a costly proposition.

If you’re new to the banjo, it’s probably best to stick with light gauge strings for the first year or so, until you have developed some skill. At that point you may want to buy several different gauge sets and begin experimenting with them. Note the date you installed the new strings on the string package and keep it your case as a reference. Also keeping notes on what you do and don’t like about the strings can help you zero in on your preferred set.

Who Makes the Best Banjo Strings?

As with the question about best gauges, there is no pat answer. Because each manufacturer uses slightly different alloys and manufacturing processes, strings from two different makers with the same nominal gauge and alloy may feel and sound different to your ears and fingers. Many banjo players find the greatest difference in the plain rather than wound strings.

With so many other variables involved in banjo designs, if you own multiple instruments, you may well find you you prefer different gauges and brands for each banjo.

D’Addario Nickel Plated Steel Banjo Strings

Lots of bright projection coupled with playing tension comfort make D’Addario Nickel Plated Steel Banjo Strings a perennial favorite.

String Materials and Coatings

Only the 4th or B string on 5-string banjos is usually wound. (Long-neck 5-string banjos often have wound 3rd and 4th strings as do tenor and plectrum banjo string sets due to the greater tension needed for the flatpicking style used on them.) Wound strings may have either a round or a hex-shaped steel core and are almost invariably roundwound. The wound string(s) in a set are indicated by a small “w” following the gauge number.

Here are the characteristics of the most popular alloys used in banjo strings:

  • Nickel-plated Steel: Bright tone with strong projection and smooth feel.
  • Phosphor Bronze: Used on wound 4th strings, it produces a warmer tone.
  • Stainless Steel: Balanced tone and projection with smooth feel and corrosion resistance.
  • Coated Strings: A polymer coating over the string wire reduces corrosion and extends life. Tonal characteristics vary depending on the manufacturer.

Elixir Polyweb Banjo Strings

Elixir Polyweb Banjo Strings have a tubular poly coating that extends their life while delivering tonally rich sound.

After reading this guide, if you’re still unsure which strings are right for you, we invite you to call our friendly, knowledgeable Gear Heads at (877) 880-5907.

If you’ve been thinking about a new banjo, Musician’s Friend offers an extensive selection ranging from affordable starter instruments to professional banjos worthy of the accomplished player. Explore our complete assortment of banjos.

To learn more about banjos, read our in-depth Banjo Buying Guide.

Tags: Banjos Strings

Comments  

# Bob Feuer 2017-01-30 12:32
What string gauges are recommended for a 26.25 scale plectrum, if one want to set the tuning to newer Tenor Guitar tuning - D,G,B,E.
Reply
# Bill 2016-10-31 11:42
What gauge strings are best on a B&D Montana Silver Bell with guitar tuning DGBE
Reply
# Bill 2016-10-31 11:38
Wondering what gauge strings are best on a B & D Plectrum Banjo (Guitar Tuning) DGBE
Its a #3 Montana Silver Bell
Reply
# Sharon 2016-09-12 17:21
Hi I have a Tenor 4 string , 19 fret Banjo... as I am learning I can,t seem to get the top 2 strings to sound right. Have been learning duelling banjo,s but dosn,t sound right.
Currently on Banjo is A stainless steel 009 inch . 0.23mm/, D Stainless steel 016inch, 0.41mm- G coated copper alloy wound .023mm ,0.56mm and same for C .030 inch and 0.76mm.
Reply
# James 2016-09-06 10:34
Any one have information on what strings,would be good soon a five string banjo ,gadgets an the best brand.I'm a guitar player an usually use bigger Gage strings,while playing my resonator guitars.New to the banjo.
Reply
# Bill Grossberndt 2016-11-02 13:59
Can I use a .009 electric guitar string in place of a .009 banjo fifth or first string?

Descriptions make them sound to be alike!
Reply
# Ron 2016-07-02 17:13
I bought an old Harmony banjo and bought some new Martin strings for it. I have never played banjo, I do play a little on the guitar. The old strings came off with the same slot anchors that I am familiar with on guitars but the new strings appear to be made to loop on a post. No posts on the tail piece of my banjo. What kind of strings can I use?
Reply
# Ben 2016-09-01 08:56
I have been trying out different strings lately and I think I know the problem.

Strings are generally sold as "Loop-End" or "Ball-End." My acoustic and electric guitar are both ball-end so I suppose it's more common for guitars. But my mandolin and banjo are both loop-end. It sounds like the Martin strings you got are ball-end, but your banjo tailpiece (like mine) was designed for loop-end strings.

Most of the strings I've used are sold in both varieties.

If you still want to get some mileage out of those Martin strings, you can convert ball-end into loop-end. The "ball" is just a notched little piece of plastic or metal sitting in a loop like on loop-ends. If you can widen the loop just a little and push the ball out, you'll be left with a loop-end string. If you're worried that the loop will break you can cut the ball end off and twist one end around to make a loop. Make sure to wind it back around itself in a knot so it doesn't come undone when you tune it!
Reply
# Marcie 2016-04-26 22:44
What size strings do you recommend for a 17-fret tenor tuned CGDA?
I use light gauge on my 19-fret tenors and mainly play single-string melody.
Reply
# Jeff 2016-03-28 06:49
Wanting to tune my 4-string with Irish tuning, i.e. GDAE. What are the right gauges? Looking for a bright sound as well. Materials?
Thank you.
Reply
# Dan 2015-12-20 08:40
Light gauge string set:
1st and 5th string should read .0095, not .095.
In reality, I would wager to guess that the set is actually .009, .010, ,011, .020, .009. No wire manufacturer will hold 1/2 a thousandth tolerance on an instrument string - it is not required.
Reply
# Ben 2016-09-01 09:21
A quick Google says you're right about light gauge being .009 rather than .0095, for D'Addario at least.

But I want to say that string manufacturers DO offer strings in half-thousanth tolerances, and though it might not be required for most tunings it can be very useful. If you want to try an open tuning where a few of the strings are tuned further apart than usual, you might need to buy single strings rather than a set. On the thinner end (.008 up to .013 at least), a slight change in string thickness has a pretty big effect on tension and thus which notes it can be comfortably tuned to. I have experimented with this on my Mandolin by tuning it to an open D chord (A D A F# from low to high), and I had to use .0095 for F# -- .009 was too thin and broke when I brought it to tune, where .010 was kind of thick, sounded and felt wrong compared with the other strings.
Reply
# Anya 2015-11-23 13:08
What strings would be recommended for someone who primarily uses the picking method.
Reply
# Barrie 2016-05-11 18:14
The second string is tuned to a d note on 5string banjo but when you play the strings the d note string sounds horrible. I use a tuner but it still sounds off all other strings tune ok.is this usual.thankyou.
Reply
# larry 2015-06-03 04:35
Hi,Im new at this so when I buy a set of banjo strings,are they lettered or numbered as how to installed them on my 5 string banjo? Thanks...
Reply
# Wayno 2015-06-06 02:53
Yes Larry, each string is generally in a numbered bag.
Reply
# gary johnson 2015-04-23 14:57
again what size strings used on the five string short neck banjo =one thru five
Reply
# gary johnson 2015-04-23 14:53
what thickness strings are used on short neck five string banjo?
Reply
# tee 2015-03-12 18:23
The B string is the 2nd string, not 4th string which is a D in open G standard tuning. So the D is the one that is wound.

Also, you guys need to read your articles before posting. Errors.
Reply
# to doubleD 2015-04-13 16:24
B is the fourth string on a long neck banjo regularly tuned in the key of E.
Reply
# jos 2014-09-10 07:16
hi , what gauges banjo strings are the best for a 4-string plectrum banjo with a scale length of 26.250"
just for strumming chords . Thank you.
Jos.
Reply
# Tony 2015-11-22 15:14
Plectrum string gauges for 26-27" scale length
1st or D-string: .011 plain
2nd or B-string: .014 plain
3rd or G-string: .020 wound
4th or C-string: .028 wound
Reply

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