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Different string gauges, just for different sake.

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Sep 20, 2020 - 6:29:31 AM
577 posts since 10/10/2004

I was looking for something just a bit lighter than the 11-24's that came on my Gold Tone. After trying a few sets with a .023 forth but the G string was still the stiff .016. I then tried DR strings which makes only 1 set for the 5 string (BA5-10). They are a 10-12-15-23-10. Currently they are my favorite stings. Why don't other brands offer that combination. Not even in custom sets from American Banjo Co. can you get an .015 or .023.

Deering makes a set with a .021 wound forth, making it the only brand that does that. I'm sure it's a marketing strategy.

Sep 20, 2020 - 6:38:44 AM
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2244 posts since 9/16/2007

An option for you is to buy single strings and put together your own sets.

Sep 20, 2020 - 6:58:24 AM

9 posts since 4/10/2008

Yes, look into Ernie Ball.

Sep 20, 2020 - 9:30:22 AM
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10825 posts since 10/27/2006

Strings are cheap. Have fun.

Sep 20, 2020 - 11:25:43 AM
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2445 posts since 3/30/2008

if you want to experiment w/ gauges, buy single strings.

Sep 20, 2020 - 11:29:03 AM
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257 posts since 6/26/2004

Hey Joe. This is a question I love. There are as many opinions on this one as there are banjo players. It is a very important question, however, because the strings you use effect both your playing and the sound of your banjo. You didn't say whether you play Bluegrass or Old-Time or something else. I will provide you with the information (and opinions) I have regarding the first two. There are others who know much more about classic and minstrel banjos. So, here goes:

The History of Banjo Strings According to Bickel-Part 1

Several years after I began playing banjo back in the mid-60s I took banjo lessons from J.D. Crowe. Up until that point, I used whatever strings the guy behind the counter at the music store handed me, probably Vegas or Gibsons. Once I started hanging around J.D. I started using the same strings as he did, a set of Bell Brand strings with the 4th string thrown out and replaced with a Gibson wound 3rd. I’m pretty sure he learned that from Earl.

At that time, Bell Brand strings still came individually wrapped and placed inside a small cardboard box with a removable lid. They were great strings, much better than the Gibsons, Vegas and Black Diamonds which were also available. I believe the Bell Brand strings were the following gauges: (1st) .0095; (2nd) .011; (3rd) .012; (4th) .020W (5th) .0095. I’m not sure what the gauge of the Gibson wound 3rd was. It seemed pretty small but it had a lot of punch. From my recollection, the only professional Bluegrass banjo player who used medium gauge strings back then was Sonny Osborne.

Sometime over the next several years, the small cardboard box with a lid was replaced with a cheaper and thinner cardboard box that opened from the end. Somewhere in the 1970s, the cardboard box gave way to a clear plastic sleeve containing strings individually sealed in large yellow envelopes. Around 1975 or 1976, I believe, Bell Brand went out of business. I remember it well, because me, and the guys here at the house (The Bluegrass Hotel) bought up as many of them as we could afford, which was 7 and a half gross. I used them for years. I think I still have a few of them laying around the house.

During the 1970s, I began transitioning from Bluegrass banjo to old-time banjo. For a while, I played both styles. By 1980, my band (the Buzzard Rock String Band) was playing old-time music exclusively so I basically stopped playing Bluegrass. All through that time, I was still using the old Bell Brand strings. At some point, I ran out of them and had to start looking for replacements.

In the early 1980s, I had a talk with Tommy Thompson (of the Red Clay Ramblers) about string gauges. I’m sure Tommy grew up using Bell Brand strings as I had. At that time, he was still using a .0095 1st string. I, however, had started using a .010 1st string. As I began playing harder and harder, I found the .0095 just a little too light. Regardless, we were both playing with light gauge strings. I experimented with a lot of different gauges and finally settled on the combination that worked best for me which is: (1st) .010; (2nd) .011; (3rd) .013; (4th) .022W; (5th) .010.

As you would imagine, no one made a set that had that exact combination. I tried for a while buying several different sets and switching out some of the strings, but that got too expensive. Fortunately, I found I could buy the individual strings I wanted for roughly the same price as a prepackaged set. Also fortunate was the fact that First Quality Music was a short drive from my house, so I could just go there and pick up what I wanted. The important thing is that I stopped letting the manufacturers decide what gauges I would use and started deciding for myself.

GHS offers two sets of J.D. Crowe Signature strings, one for stage and one for studio. The stage set has the following gauges: (1st) .010; (2nd) .011; (3rd) .012; (4th) .020W (5th) .010. The studio set has: (1st) .0095; (2nd) .011; (3rd) .012; (4th) .020W (5th) .0095, which is the same as the old Bell Brand strings.

Now, here is a statement that will stir up some strong responses. In my opinion, whether you are playing Bluegrass banjo or Old-Time banjo, light gauge strings sound better. I have built, repaired, restored and played banjos for over 50 years. I can’t even imagine how many strings I have put on banjos. Every time I have used a set of medium strings I have taken them off and replaced them with lights. To my ear, medium gauge strings make a banjo sound dead. Light gauge strings bring it to life. If I want a more muted sound or a softer sound, I either put a calfskin head on the banjo or switch to nylon strings, or both.

One of my main banjos for a long time was a 1903 Fairbanks Whyte Laydie No. 7. The head broke so I replaced it and strung it up again. It didn’t sound right. I tried everything and nothing worked. I literally stopped playing this incredible banjo because I couldn’t get it to sound right. Then, one day, I discovered I had inadvertently put a set of medium gauge strings on it. I took them off, put on a set of light gauge strings and it was back to sounding great again.

My two favorite banjo players are: Bluegrass: J.D. Crowe and Old-Time: Tommy Thompson. Both of them use(d) light gauge strings. (I would also mention Bela but I’m not sure what earthly category to put him in. Plus I don’t know what gauge strings he uses). If it was good enough for them, it is certainly good enough for me.

One more thing. Regardless of what strings you use, if the head on your banjo is too tight, it will kill the sound. The last two or three friends who brought banjos to me to make sound better had the heads tightened way too tight. All I did was loosen the heads and they went away happy. I don’t use a drum dial, I use my thumbs. I simply press down on the head with my thumbs and it should depress just a little bit. If I want a brighter sound, I tighten it a little. If I want a deeper sound, I loosen it a little. Either way, I let it sit for a few days to settle in. It will sound much different in a few days or weeks. It usually sounds better.

As you can see, being a Coronavirus Shut-In, I have way too much time on my hands. I would love to hear the responses of others. This is a matter of personal style and opinion. I want other people to join in the conversation. But in keeping with the spirit of the season “I’m Harry Bickel and I approve this message.”

Hope this helps. By the way, there are a number of places on the internet that offer single strings. Order some different gauges and figure out what works best for you.

Sep 20, 2020 - 2:09:59 PM
Players Union Member

Eric A


834 posts since 10/15/2019

I'm not far off the OP's set, but I came from the other direction.

For a long time I played 9-11-13-20w-9. Coming off a layoff last year I started playing a lot again. After a while I was picking harder and harder and began to overpower those gauges. Then I went to GHS PF 150's. Those are 10-12-14-22w-10. Then I decided I wanted the 3rd to be a hair stiffer yet, so I began replacing the 3rd with 15's. So, 10-12-15-22w-10. Then I had a brief romance with the idea of a wound 3rd. I found that I could get a 16w or a 18w from Clifford Essex in the UK. Eventually the romance fizzled, and I went crawling back to the 15.

The latest change came when I realized I wanted my 5th to be a hair lighter than the rest. There being no law that states that the 1st and 5th must be the same, I went back to a 9 for the 5th.

So here I am settled at 10-12-15-22w-9. I order custom sets from American Made Banjo Co, and am happy...for now...

Sep 20, 2020 - 8:05:07 PM

18 posts since 10/11/2017

Hi Joe, I’ve been a fan of lighter strings for a couple years now after StewMac gave me a coupon and I bought a set of lights there, if your after a custom set will match what suits you and they are good strings. Good luck!


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