Strings for classic era banjo have been a strange situation. At some point the idea of “modern playability” (whatever that is) came along and strings got thicker and thicker. These thick and heavy strings are unsuited to classic era banjos (no matter what style you play on them). They also tend to sound dull.
After much research I have discovered two sets of sizes that are documented to the classic era. The first set was provided by S. S. Stewart in his article “Observations on the Banjo and Banjo Playing” published in 1892. These string sizes, printed in English Wire Gauge and converted to inches, are .018, .022, .028, .024 silver plated copper over floss, .018.
The second set the we know of came from classic era players who were still living when nylon came out after WW2. These are the sizes used by Fred Van Eps, Bill Bowen, &c, and are lighter at .017, .019, .023, .024, wound, .017. This set is what the original Labella No 17 were based on (i.e. the “17” was the first string .017”). But even Labella has made their strings thicker and the sets people are selling today are .019. (The FVE 17s are my favorite set that I use on most of my daily player banjos).
I have worked with Labella and Aquila to offer two sets of “period” sized strings.
The 1892 S. S. Stewart size strings I am offering in “nylgut” polyester and the Fred Van Eps size strings I am offering in Labella rectified nylon.
There are some things to know about synthetic strings. First, learn to attach them correctly. This is actually pretty simple. If there is a post then tie them on using a figure 8 knot. If there is a hole then tie a stopper knot in the end of the strings and feed it through the hole. If there is a post with a notch in it then they should be attached using the “no knot method”. If your tailpiece is one of the many “patent” models then there is probably a specific way to attach the strings. If you don’t know how then send me a picture and I can tell you the way to do it. Bowline knots are overkill and tend to make large loops that do not look good.
Do not pull or artificially stretch nylgut strings! This is something shown on many videos— don’t do it if you care about intonation. Nylgut takes a long time to settle in and will stretch a lot. I recommend tuning them one full step high after you put them on and then let the banjo sit overnight. You can do the same thing with nylon.
Nylgut is sensitive to any slightly sharp or rough surface, they will break if this is not addressed. If your banjo has a recent copy of the No Knot then the posts need to be polished and de-burred. This can be done with 1000 grit wet/dry sand paper. Tear it in strips and run it through and around the notches until they are all smooth. Many modern tailpieces today are sold as “no knot” but they do not have the feature to attach strings without a knot. I call those “knot tailpieces”. Period tailpiece that have been subjected to wire strings might have nicks or serrations caused by the unyielding wire strings. Stamped metal tailpieces are prone to this. Check your tailpiece over carefully to prevent broken strings.
Wound 4th strings wear out. This is a fact of life. At some point Aquila decided to replace the 4th string on their standard sets with an unwound 4th. I believe this was done because of complaints about how quickly these will wear out. That should have never been done as it is a big sacrifice to tone and volume. Just expect the forth string to wear out faster than the rest (but they still give very good service). In all of documented banjo history the 4th string was always wound. The earliest photos show wound strings in use and the Briggs’ Banjo Instructor of 1855 recommends to use them.
I offer extra wound 4ths. Always keep an extra in your case.
Special set based on the sizes S. S. Stewart published in "Observations on the Banjo and Banjo Playing in 1892.
Only available from me in .018, .022, .028, .024 silver plated copper over rayon floss, .018.
Extra wound 4ths available below.
This set changed my views on Nylgut strings. This set works great for "concert pitch" (gCGBD) which became standard in the mid 1880s.
Red= 1st or 5th
Yellow= 1st or 5th
White= wound 4th
This set duplicates the original LaBella #17.
Offered in rectified nylon to give a "tooth" similar to gut, the sizes in inches are .017, .019, .023, .024 silver plated copper over nylon floss, .017.
These are the same sizes used by Fred Van Eps and other classic era banjoists when nylon first became available after WW2.
These are excellent strings for the standard pitch that became common in the mid 1880s (gCGBD) and offer a snappy and quick response.
I use these on most of my classic era banjos. Great for clear stroke style playing too.
Choose from two styles, Aquila silver-plated copper wound on rayon floss ($2) or Labella silver-plated copper wound on nylon floss ($1.5).
No Knot tailpiece using the feature that makes it a “no knot”. The stopper knots are not needed.
Original advertisement for the "No Knot" tailpiece from Fred Bacon.
Advertisement illustrating how to string the Elite tailpieces.
S. S. Stewart Common Sense tailpiece strung correctly.
Tailpiece as used on Fairbanks & Cole banjos. Note that a stopper knot is used and the string wraps around the front bar.
Clifford Essex “Professional” tailpiece, introduced in 1922. A simple figure 8 knot secures the strings to the hooks.