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Jul 20, 2019 - 3:29:46 AM
207 posts since 11/22/2009

Pre-war banjo's seem to have thinner fretwire (mandolin size) to today's fretwire (guitar size) banjo's. Do you think that the wider fretwire is easier to play and the wider fret gives more volume and tone?

Your experiences on stainless steel fretwire?

Look forward to your thoughts on fretwire.

Jul 20, 2019 - 4:50:09 AM

11943 posts since 6/29/2005

From what I have read, thinner fretwire makes for more precicse intonation and wider fretwire doesn't wear out as quickly but when it starts to wear down, you have a wider surface that can affect intonation.  Some guitar players say you can bend notes better with wider fretwire.  You see wide wire on electric guitars where they use flat wound strings, and narrow wire on mandolins.  Banjos are somewhere in between and nobody uses flat wound strings on banjos or mandolins.  I'd say that precise intonation is more important on a banjo than note bending.

On my PW Granada, I have the narrow kind in the .050" range because it looks more in keeping with a vintage banjo.

On all other banjos I make, I now use EVO medium medium, which has a .080" width and .037" crown height.  I find that the EVO lasts a lot longer than the traditional nickel silver kind, so the harder, longer wearing fret allows you to use narrower widths without the danger of the frets wearing out

I can't detect any difference in playability between the old Gibson with the narrow frets and a modern one with medium frets.

I have no experience with the stainless steel kind, having never used it— apparently it is very long lasting but somewhat hard to work with.

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 07/20/2019 04:54:52

Jul 20, 2019 - 5:05:59 AM

3518 posts since 5/12/2010

I generally use medium wire, have never used the mandolin wire, but on some banjos I build the "customer" requests a 20" radius board with Jumbo guitar wire, which is a combination that works well for bending strings, but with that taller wire the player has to have a light touch to avoid pulling notes sharp. I have come to like this setup myself.

I tried some stainless wire, but found it difficult to work with, especially on a radius board. I have started using the EVO which, as Ken says, will last longer than the nickle silver wire which is basically like soft brass.

Jul 20, 2019 - 5:33:51 AM
Players Union Member



14263 posts since 3/27/2004

Pretty much ditto on Ken's post.

As far as width goes I wouldn't use anything more than .080".  I've seen banjos done with jumbo wire and the proportions between wire width and fretboard size look odd to me.  

Some purists prefer the smaller wire (listed as mandolin-vintage banjo size), but guitar-size is my preference.  I also use EVO exclusively.  It does have a slight gold cast to it that some folks object to, but in truth the coloration is minimal enough that few notice it.  I usually have to point the color out and sometimes have to pull out a piece of nickel-silver before someone can see the difference.

EVO is exactly half way between NS and stainless wire as far as hardness, but from a practical standpoint an EVO fretted instrument may never need re-fretting for the average player.  It wears exceedingly well.  I love the look of it, especially because I use raw brass hardware.  I use the slightly taller wire, the same .080" as Ken uses, but .042" in height.  There's not a lot of difference between medium and large for EVO but I think the slightly taller wire works well for banjo.

I've used stainless a few times and it's generally a PITA to work with.  The fretwork needs to be more precise with stainless as it's subject to pulling back out of the slot if you use conventional techniques like over-radiusing the wire and counting on tang barbs to hold the wire down.

I've never noticed width (or height) having any effect on volume or tone.  With fret wire the considerations are resistance to wear, under-hand feel, and appearance, generally in that order for me.  EVO and stainless are slightly higher in price but a few dollars in materials cost is negligible when making the choice.

Fretwire choice is one of those areas where it does not pay to cheap out on materials, much like installing cheap planetary tuners to save a few bucks.

Jul 20, 2019 - 8:49:29 AM

5960 posts since 8/28/2013

Originally posted by Ken LeVa
Banjos are somewhere in between and nobody uses flat wound strings on banjos or mandolins.  

Actually, there are some four string banjoist that do, in fact, use flat wound strings.

Jul 20, 2019 - 9:59:26 AM

856 posts since 1/9/2012

Fat fret wire is often the choice of serious electric guitar players for its height. The advantage is that you don't have to press down as far to get the desired note. In particular, you don't have to squeeze until you hit the fret board. You can play faster and without the intonation problem of stretching the string.

Jul 20, 2019 - 5:43:50 PM
Players Union Member



14263 posts since 3/27/2004

"Wide" and "tall" are NOT congruent or even closely associated terms in the fret wire profile world.

Lest anyone get confused about the relationship, you can purchase wide crown wire that has a lower crown height than some of the smallest "vintage" wire and conversely you can purchase narrow or medium wire that's taller than most jumbo wire offerings.

Just be aware if you're looking to use wide or jumbo wire that there are reasons for doing that and if you're looking to use shorter or taller wire there are other reasons for making those choices.

If "wide and tall" wire were easier to play, or there was less of a tendancy to pull notes sharp, or cleaner notes could be played without contacting the fretboard then we would have seen that wire popularized long ago.

The answers just aren't that simple.

Jul 21, 2019 - 12:49:51 AM

207 posts since 11/22/2009

Thanks guys for all your useful info--much appreciated. Interesting subject.

Jul 21, 2019 - 6:22:58 AM

16 posts since 8/31/2015

Just my 2¢,
Tall narrow frets, even when highly polished, can feel like speed bumps when playing slides.
My favorite wire is .103 x .046, essentially modern Gibson guitar wire. I refretted my Whyte Laydie (conversion) with this wire and radiused the board to 20”. It plays like a dream, but those huge frets look a little out of place on a vintage banjo.
P.s lots of Mandolin players use flatwounds :) I’ve got a set of Thomastiks on mine right now.

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