Tenor Banjo Strings

by Jim Groulx

Recently, there have been reports of rust on new strings being sold. I have seen a few of these. The cause is apparently the paper material used to package them. More than one company has this problem, and is trying to correct it. New strings come with different problems at times. The 19 fret tenor banjo A string is probably the worst banjo string sold. Many of the new A strings break when installing them. One reason is the winding at the tailpiece end starts to unravel, and the string lets go. You can usually detect the unraveling because the string keeps going flat while tuning. Sometimes the A string breaks at the tuner. The sound the string makes when breaking is pretty awful. The 09 gauge string is the most likely to break. The 10 gauge breaks a lot less. The 11 gauge seems to be much tougher to break, although it has a more stiff sound, and is harder on the fingers when fretting. I try to avoid the .09 gauge strings, and recently have been happy with the 11 gauges.On several occasions I have installed strings that are defective slightly. They have a slight buzz, or do not sound in tune even after carefully tuning them. All other methods to make them sound O.K do not work, such as re-setting the tailpiece, changing or re-setting the bridge, checking the head, checking for loose parts, and re-installing the string. I re-install the string because it is possible the string twists very slightly when installing, which seems to affect the sound. Finally, they are usually replaced.

Some of my tenor banjos like light strings, and some like heavier strings. But of course, that is my preference, and other players may have different preferences. A good set of light strings would be 09,14, 22, 28. Notice that troublesome 09 A string!

A good medium set would be 10, 14, 23, 30.

A good heavy set would be 11, 16, 23, 32.

I have tried installing a perfectly balanced set which would be 10, 16, 22, 28 which are exactly six gauges apart mathematically. It did not seem to improve the sound in any way.

Some old banjos will not take the ball end strings, which can be a problem when buying strings.

The Phosphor Bronze wound strings are a bit brighter than the White Bronze or Nickel Wound strings, but they wear out faster. I prefer the White Bronze, or Nickel Wound strings. They have more power when being pushed harder. How often to change strings is a personal preference, but you would be surprised how fast they lose their sound.

The best way to buy strings is to buy individual strings, if they are available. Of course, Long & McQuade in Ontario sells them. Surprisingly, they are cheaper than buying them in a set. Maybe you are paying for the packaging? Check each string package because some strings are phosphor bronze and some are nickel, or white bronze. I once bought .22 gauge strings which were not wound, and they sounded awful .Guitar strings can be used as well, if banjo strings are unavailable.
Although the tuning of the Plectrum banjo is different, many of the above thoughts would apply.

So much for strings! Jim