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String Tension Calculator & Banjos

Sunday, March 22, 2015

My String Tension Calculator has been around a couple of years in a much more basic / limited form, but I recently gave the code a complete overhaul.  So much has changed it's basically a new project: I've got support for a lot more gauges of steel string (plain and wound), as well as nylon strings.  I've also moved it over to the Chord Generator website.  The address is

To illustrate the functionality of the string tension calculator, here are a few examples of my own banjo setups:

5-String banjo #1

I most often use this banjo, which has a longer than average scale length and a bolt-on resonator, for plectrum and fingerstyle playing.  I tend to use open G tuning for accompaniment, although I also like tuning it to "Chicago" tuning, gDGBE, for playing British Isles folk music, since this gives me easy access to the high A note from first position, which is a useful for a lot of E minor / D major tunes.  Also, tuning gDGBE lets me play a fair amount of my guitar repertoire with familiar fingerings.

I also use the banjo for clawhammer in the standard range of tunings; it's the banjo I tend to travel with, since it's versatile and not old/valuable.  I might drop the gauge of the first string to a 0.009 soon, since it does break every so often after cranking it up and down to E due to the longer scale.

The scale length is an advantage for playing up the neck, however, since my fingers don't get too cramped south of the 12th fret, and the intonation is very good.

5-String banjo #2

This is my standard banjo for clawhammer.  It's got a standard scale length which makes it more comfortable for playing in tunings with wider intervals, like Double C.  It has no resonator, but a good volume and projection.  It's a Goodtime with a Renaissance head.  I consider it half Zep-ifed; I used a no-knot for a couple of years, but I think I prefer the clarity up the neck from the standard Deering presto-esque tailpiece.

Because the banjo has no truss rod, it throws the whole tuning out a bit if I take the top string back and forth to E, so I don't tend to do that much (and I wouldn't leave it like that.)  But that's why it's useful having more than one banjo!

5-String banjo #3

This one is an interesting old banjo.  I have no idea who the maker is; I suspect it may be English, but it doesn't exactly match any of the vintage designs I've seen.   I use nylon strings on it, because I like the tone and response of them, and they feel appropriate on this era of banjo. The banjo was definitely built for steel strings, though, since the nut slots were incredibly thin, and the neck, although obviously without a truss rod, is definitely sturdily built.

This is my go-to banjo for playing around the house, but I don't take it out to play that often since, although it's far from delicate, it is old and probably irreplaceable.  Also, its spun-over pot and thick neck make it quite heavy to lug around, although they don't tend to cause any problems, the skin head and friction tuners are not the best recipe for stable tuning in a variety of environments.

Because the banjo has a shorter than standard scale length (25", so approximately a G# scale), standard tension nylon strings (24s) feel a bit floppy on it for clawhammer.  I'm currently using the top of a set of classical guitar strings on it, which feel a little bit tight at standard pitch, but are an improvement over the lower gauges.

Next string change I'd like to try something from a light tension set of classical guitar strings.   I normally order my banjo strings from Andybanjo UK, which is a great shop for strings and other parts.  The only downside is that they don't sell that many different gauges of plain nylon strings, so there's nothing between 24 and 28, or between 28 and 32.

5-String Banjo #4

This is my home-made, fretless cello banjo.  In the early prototype, the body was originally a wooden fruit bowl with a tacked on head, but this presented too many obstacles with maintaining the skin tension, so I rebuilt the banjo with a 12" tunable hand drum for the body.  The larger than standard pot size gave me the idea that this banjo might take octave tunings, which is why it's now a cello banjo.

The three lowest strings are the bottom of a set of classical guitar strings which I had around, the top string is the bottom of a nylon banjo set.  The 5th string is a classical guitar G string, because a wound 24 like the top string was too prone to snapping (and a wound 5th feels odd anyway.)

Tenor Banjo

This has a fairly typical setup, I think.  I've only played tenor a couple of months - I got one for fairly obvious reasons, since I like banjos and I like the versatility of GDAE tuning (and a shorter scale) for playing in lots of keys.

I had to do a bit of setup for GDAE tuning (lowering and widening the nut slots), so I assume the banjo had only ever been used in CGDA.  I replaced the tailpiece (a cheaply made Elton-style "top-tension" tailpiece, which actually bent when I tried to apply top-tension with it) with a Waverly, and put a renaissance head on.  I'm quite pleased with the tone and playability now.

String gauges for Irish tuning seem to be a topic of much debate, so after reading a lot of discussions on the topic I decided to go with what felt right (which was also all available from what I had around.)  I'm undecided between a plain 17 or a wound 18 (which, due to the decreased mass of wound strings, are almost exactly the same weight.)  Plain seems more orthodox, but a I get a nasty overtone from the plain 17 string, which seems to be resolved by using the wound 18.

1 comment

Banjo Chord Generator

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 2 comments

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Playing Since: 2009

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Age: 31

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