This might actually be appropriate for the "Classic banjo... the continuing story" thread, but I wasn't quite certain and didn't want to derail that thread, so a new one seemed in order.  Presumably a moderator can fix this, if necessary.

Anyway... I just kind of jumped into the forum with my ragtime question, and not much background information on myself other than that I'm a composer & multi-instrumentalist.  My first instrument was actually piano, at which I began formal lessons at the tender (and, I now think, much too early) age of four.  My next was clarinet, taken up in the 4th grade and played with various degrees of dedication through grad school.  At 12 I picked up guitar, and went so deeply into it that I have long since considered it my primary instrument.  I've studied jazz, classical, and folk instruments formally, and delved into most styles at one time or another, from playing Visee and Bach in chamber ensembles to once actually taking an axe to an electric guitar on stage. :)

I first got the notion to play banjo at age 18, in college; I had just seen a live Roy Clark concert, and Roy is no slouch as a multi-instrumentalist himself.  After seeing that, I had to have a banjo, so I found someone selling a generic no-name 5-string at a price a starving student could afford.  I noodled around with that banjo for a couple of years on my own, trying to play bluegrass, mostly by ear.  I got to where I could play up to a pretty good bluegrass speed, and get melodies in there with the rolls, but somehow what I was doing felt awkward and never really sounded like "bluegrass".

Then I picked up Pete Wernick's "Bluegrass Banjo" book and discovered why. 

Essentially I had brought folk and classical guitar three-finger technique -- T/1/2/3 -- to the banjo.  Everything in Pete's book was two-finger technique -- T/1/2.  No wonder I always felt like I was tripping over my own fingers:  I was; I was using too many fingers for the style.  So, I set out to change my technique, and as with most habits it turned out to be harder to unlearn what I was doing than it probablay would have been to learn it the right way from the beginning.  Oy.  (Since then I have made it policy when I take up a new instrument to always at least try to seek out a qualified teacher, if only for a few months, to get the flavor of how the pros are doing things...)

Classic banjo is something I first encountered several years later when I had a banjoist roommate for a while who was actually playing classical banjo -- banjo arrangements of Visee, Sor, Guiliani, Bach, Beethoven, etc.  He used a regular bluegrass instrument -- a nice old Mastertone he inhereted from his dad -- with metal strings.  I was intrigued enough to dabble a little myself, off and on, but other things were happening in my life at the time, and I never really spent the time to delve very deeply into this style.  In grad school I was spending most of my time writing and practicing classical guitar, so although I was getting exposed to a whole new world of banjos -- wooden tops, gut strings, monster bass instruments, etc. -- they were kind of at the periphery of my musical insterest at the time.  If I needed a banjo part played, I knew plenty of people who could play them, so I didn't have to play them myself.

But all obsessions come back around to haunt us,  I think, and here I find myself once again l looking at classic banjo and wondering, "so what the heck is this thing?"  The ragtime connection alone is enough to keep me around for a while, and I am intrigued with trying nylon strings.  Which raises a number of questions for me:


First off, can any banjo be converted to nylon strings?  I have some spares I'm willing to experiment with, both with and without tone ring. 

Is there, perhaps, a different kind of head preferred than the stock Remo "Weatherking"? 

Does one tune the head to the same relative pitch for nylon as for steel?

Resonator or open back?

What is the prefered way to use the 5th string in this style?

And perhaps most critically for me right now, what kind of right-hand technique is most appropriate?  Is it still the T/1/2 of bluegrass playing, or is classic banjo, perhaps, the place to bring in my classical guitar T/1/2/3/ technique again?  Or even the T/1/2/3/4 of flamenco playing?

Well, I've droned on for far too long in one post, but I do expect I'll see at least a few interesting answers. :)



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I've been using Nylguts on banjos for years. They do stretch crazily but I haven't had trouble with them breaking. They are exceptionally sensitive to nicks and cuts...any sharp edge (fret end, tailpiece, tuner, etc) will be a problem.

Like Jody sez, standard guitar strings do well on longer scale instruments, esp. if they're tuned low. If you want excellent banjo-specific sets of nylon, try the Chris Sands sets. The "heavy" set is especially good.

I just changed strings last night. I had one of the Nylgut "red" sets on since April of 2013. I liked them a lot. I put a set of Clifford Essex guts on this time. These are pricy strings @ £17 but since they'll last another year (likely), I don't think they're too bad. I have used them before and really like them...but this set has turned out to be 'squeaky'. I might have to take some fine sandpaper to the playing zone.

I should add that Aquila nylgut strings on a banjo and tuned to the usual banjo tunings of gCGBD or gDGBD are under a lot less tension then nylgut stings on a guitar. I have never had a nylgut string on a banjo break except one time. In that case there was a breakage at the tailpiece but that was because of friction at a rough spot on the tailpiece. So long as there are no rough spots on the tailpiece, nut, bridge or on the tuning posts I think you are safe with Nylgut tuned normally on a banjo of normal scale length.  Whether nylgut or nylon or gut or a combination will sound best on your banjo is something to be discovered.

Nylgut stretching isn't much of an issue on a banjo. Tune the banjo and leave the banjo out of the case. Re-tune several times during the first 2 days. After that it's fine.

Whoops, looks like Trapdoor and I were composing similar replies at the same moment. Marc, all the CE gut sets squeak but they don't squeak at all times. I found that if I wash my hands before playing the squeaks are gone.  Sandpaper, although recommended in the 19th century, might put your  cylindrical and polished gut strings "out of round", in which case they might vibrate eccentrically and not be in tune. You can sand your fingertips if you like!  I found soap and water to be a better approach.

Well, I have to admit that I did some std. maint. on the banjo prior to mounting the new strings...part of which was oiling the fingerboard. In my defense, I gotta say that I do that kind of maint. every time I change strings. I think the last time I mounted a set of CE guts they were squeeky. It goes away after a while...but I'm going to wipe 'em down with a little alcohol (and wash my greasy paws) tonight and see if there is some improvement.

I'm with you on the nylguts, I've only had one or two break and that was easily traced to a sharp corner on the banjo. I use the old "pull to stretch, retune, pull, retune, etc." method of stretching them in and after about 4 or 5 iterations, they'll hold their tuning long enough to get thru a tune. Usually takes just a few days to really settle down though.

Jody Stecher said:

For standard gCGBD banjo tuning you can use a guitar 1st string for the banjo second string (B). For the banjo middle G string, the third string, you can use a guitar 2nd string. For the banjo bass string you will want a guitar wound string of about .30".  I don't think there are guitar strings narrow enough for the banjo first and fifth. You'll want it to be about .022".  It can go a bit thinner or thicker depending on the scale length of the banjo.  Typical gauge for a banjo B/2nd string is about .028. The third string (G) should be about .30 or .29. 

Banjo needs lighter gauge strings than guitar. If you were to use DGBD guitar gauges on banjo you would have to tune about a minor third lower or even a fourth lower. I do this with a banjo of mine that has a "scale" (vibrating length) of 28.5 inches. It sounds great that way. 

Hmm... guess I'll have to order a couple of sets for the banjo, then.   I've got some lighter gauge nylon strings for the charango, but I don't think any of them are long enough to fit on the banjo.


BTW... The low C/D string:  wound or unwound?

Most of the sets I've looked at have a wound string for this one, but in many of the pictures I've looked at the string seems to be plain.


Definitely wound. Wound 4th strings have been used since the late 1800s and provide the "regulation" banjo with a very useful second voice that is distinct from the "trebles" and which is used to great effect in many pieces with bass string solo parts (esp. Morley pieces).

Try the nylguts and see if you like them (I've had bad experiences with them, but your mileage may vary). Otherwise you could try ordering some of the excellent Clifford Essex nylon sets -- they are ground nylon, which is better for Classic style than clear nylon, and I think Clem offers a cheap flat worldwide shipping rate.

Wound fourths were used from the beginning.  

Briggs' of 1855 even tells you to use one.

The only packaged set I am aware of that offers an unwound fourth is an optional variant of the nylgut set, which normally has an excellent wound fourth.  In my opinion the unwound option is unsuitable in both sound and in how it feels to the hands of the player.  I use unwound spring phosphor bronze for my fourth string on a steel strung fretless banjo. It's better for sliding. But that's one banjo in a million.  Where have you seen pictures of five string banjos with an unwound fourth? 

The Aquila "Red" sets were designed to feature a solid 4th (unwound). I believe Mimmo (owner of Aquilacorde) had problems with his wound 4ths wearing out too quickly. I was going thru two wound 4ths for every set. I think his silver wire was too soft or something.

Anyway, the 'solid 4th' provided in the "Red" set is infused with copper to give it the correct mass for use as a 4th. I didn't like it at all...sound was acceptable but the feel was rubbery and uncomfortable.

I solved that by substituting a  wound CE "Weaver 4th" (0.028", I believe) and off I went.

Jody Stecher said:

.  Where have you seen pictures of five string banjos with an unwound fourth? 



Most recently, right here:


The close-up in the 3rd picture looks to me like five plain white nylon strings.

Look on the right side, near the thumb and index. You can see the windings. On the left side of the photo there *is* the illusion of a plain string. But note that it is thinner than the third string. For a lower-tuned string that's a dead giveaway that the thinner string must be wound. the wound fourth string is always thinner than the unwound third. An unwound fourth would have to be a thicker string than the unwound third.

Have a look at the videos of what I think is the same banjo as in the stills. You can clearly see the windings. For instance:

Dr H said:

Jody Stecher said:

.  Where have you seen pictures of five string banjos with an unwound fourth? 



Most recently, right here:




The close-up in the 3rd picture looks to me like five plain white nylon strings.


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