So! I bought a Greenop banjo last year (yes, "Skeleton Dance" Greenop). Almost identical to this one at ZitherBanjo.org. My question: steel or nylon strings? The several spare strings in the case were metal, and the one at the link is strung with metal. I have it strung with metal now, but I obviously want to do right by it. His patent for this design was dated 1926, so it could go either way.

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Comment by Mike Moss on October 22, 2012 at 21:11
Comment by Mike Moss on October 22, 2012 at 21:13

That hybrid stringing is what makes the z-b special. You can hear the unique tone and the contrast between the trebles and the 3rd and 4th in Derek Lillywhite's recordings.

Comment by SWCooper on October 22, 2012 at 22:06

I bought a proper Clifford Essex ZB set to go on my first zither banjo and not sure I loved it. Perhaps because I don't play real Classic Banjo (at least, I don't know any yet), but something that's more like fingerstyle guitar (which is my background). It sounded kinda ting-ting-clunk-tang-ting to me.

I'm mostly concerned that I don't mess up the neck...the action is already high, and I don't want to try to adjust it because of the way the neck attaches to the body (it's a pretty piece of joinery, but not obviously movable).

Comment by Mike Moss on October 22, 2012 at 22:23

Yeah, the z-b has a technique of its own, which is different from "standard" Classic Banjo. David Wade is the expert here, you might also want to look into the Cammeyer/Sheaff texts to find out more on this instrument. I've never played the z-b and I don't think I'd get good tone from it since my style (forceful picking w/ bare fingertips) is more suited to the standard 'jo. However, Ollie Oakley played his zither-banjo quite hard and got a very strident tone from it, so it isn't a universal rule.

Here's a BMG article on the subject: http://www.zither-banjo.org/pages/white1.htm

Comment by Jody Stecher on October 22, 2012 at 23:43

A z-bee can sound godawful if not strung exactly right.  SW, Your onomatopoeia is right on the money for a mis-strung zb. The three trebles must be steel and they must be as light as possible. Clifford Essex sells two sets which correspond to longer and shorter scale. In my opinion the 4th course on both sets  is too heavy for most zither-banjos. It would be ok for a very short scale. But on most it produces too much thud and sounds choked. See recent posts here about this issue.  I recommend an Aquila #108 string (copper wound on nylgut). Also the bridge is crucial. The various types of two footed bridges that were originally used on zee-bees, either original or in replica, can be just right in some cases. But on one Cammeyer I've seen and on one JE Dallas, a three footed ebony tipped standard "murcan" bluegrass/old time Tennessee style bridge (but shorter) brings out the sweetest sound. Heresy, I know, but that's what my ears tell me.  With any bridge at all, a zeebee strung entirely with steel sounds like a swarm of bees who just drank battery acid. A zeebee strung entirely with nylon sounds like cold mashed potatoes. Once you get the right combo of strings for each particular zither-banjo (combined with the right bridge) you have a gorgeous and uniquely expressive musical instrument. 

Comment by Trapdoor2 on October 23, 2012 at 1:40

On my Windsor #1, I originally went with the common ZB formula. Really light gauge 1st, 2nd and 5th, nylon 3rd and wound silk 4th. I had an original Windsor 2-footed bridge, very short (like 3/8"). Essentially, it sounded awful no matter what I did. I hated the feel of the light wire strings and just found it to have no redeeming features.

So...I tried a "medium" set of ZB style mixed set of strings. Better...but still really annoying. If you have heard the playing of Bert and Myrtle (Torrance?), that's the sound I got...it is "correct" but enough to drive an OT and BG player to drink. It currently wears a standard set of Aquila nylguts...and has a very pleasant tone, very tame and not tink-a-tink or 'shimmery' at all.

No, it ain't "that ZB sound"...but it doesn't set my teeth on edge either. ;-)

Comment by David Wade on October 23, 2012 at 8:09

Jody has got it right, you need to use a heavy maple bridge - completely the opposite of what you would use for an open-back. Another crticial thing is the angle of the strings coming from the tailpiece to the back of the bridge - the steeper the better (greater down bearing). Are you using nails or nai;/fingertips?

Comment by SWCooper on October 23, 2012 at 10:57

Thanks for the responses, everyone. The Greenop isn't a standard ZB; it's one of those delightfully nutty one-offs typical of British makers. It has a self-contained shiny metal pot that fits into a wooden frame. Strung with steel, it has a soft, tinkly sound that I like very much. But then, I also like xylophones, circus music and klezmer, so I guess you could say my tastes are questionable.

Comment by Jody Stecher on October 23, 2012 at 15:47

We all saw the reference to the zither-banjo website and assumed that the Greenop was a zb even though you never said it was. I've had a look over at Dave's site, and I'd say your hybrid banjo is an attempt to move a standard banjo in a zb direction and not an attempt to make a zb less zee-bee-ish. The maker wanted a banjo to sound more metalic without using steel strings. The type of tuners used do not suggest steel string use.  I would string this with nylon or gut or nylgut, with a 2 footed bridge, and I'd let the banjo do the rest.

Comment by SWCooper on October 23, 2012 at 17:45

The only photo I've seen of Stanley Greenop, he was playing a standard zither banjo. The patent for this hybrid thingie was dated 1926 and he died in 1930 (after playing at a dance), so who knows what he was getting at. It's a neat instrument. I think I will string it with nylgut, though, just for the sake of the neck. And the pegs; it's an absolute booger to keep in tune with steel strings.


Jody Stecher -- gosh! I had a bootleg of Snake Baked a Hoecake...oh, a thousand years ago. *And* the bootlegger spelled your name wrong on the cassette. So I guess I owe you several times over now.

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