Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I have been struggling to find a quality string for my banjos. Made the mistake of using labella Nylons at first. Might as well have strung up a wet noodle. Yucky. Right now I have Chris Sands classical nylons on two of my banjos and they are definitely better than the Labella's but still, way too mushy for me. I see Sands makes a heavy set as well. Any opinions on them? I really would like a stiffer set of strings for my banjos. I met Hank Sapoznik a few years ago and he was using guitar strings for his modern banjo and I couldn't believe how stiff they were. A little too much for my liking. Does anyone have some suggestions for other strings? How are the Nylgut strings compared to the Chris Sands nylons?

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Of the nylon strings that I have used, I like the Aquila minstrel nylguts.  However, I still prefer gut strings.  I haven't done any comparison with guitar strings.

John, how do the Aquila nylguts compare to regular nylon strings? are the stiffer, softer or the same??

Have you tried wire?  

The biggest complaint with soft strings seems to come from people who expect the early banjo to feel like a wired up modern "tone ring" banjo.

Play near the bridge and develop a strong right hand.  Practice.  

I actually prefer lighter strings.  It is all in the right hand.

If your banjo is in "good order" (=modern "set-up" well) then it will feel firm and strong.  There is a trend today with making banjo with a short "scale.". The lower pitch goes with a larger banjo, and our tubs are big.

Another modern misconception with builders is putting a back angle in the neck pitch.  The banjos of our era had the necks set at parallel with the rim- flat with no back angle.  The action was also a bit higher than the 1880s banjos.

One tip is when fitting the bridge, do like the violin builders do and have the bass side higher.  The fourth wound string has a wider travel when it is sounded, so having that side of the bridge higher allows for that while not affecting the "action" of the higher strings.

I noticed in your photos that you place the bridge in the center of the head.  That is the tubbiest and most sonically dead spot to put it.  Towards the tailpiece will give a sharper tone.

The "center of the head" bridge works for the iron strung old-time banjo that are shrill sounding, but we don't have that problem (shrillness that is).

Thanks Joel, I have never been partial to steel strings. Just wondering if the nylgut feel less sloppy than regular nylon strings. As for my bridge, it was the scale length that made me put it in the center of the pot. If I could move the fifth string pip and readjust the scale length, then I would gladly move the bridge farther from the center.
Not bad for my first go around at building a banjo. I learned a lot doing it and can't wait to build my next one with several improvements.

I prefer nylgut...though gut is a good (albeit expensive) substitute. ;-)

I'm currently playing a nylgut minstrel set on one of my classic banjos...tuned to eAEG#B. They're a tad on the thick side but they sound and feel quite nice. I do like them a lot on my Ashborn (28" scale, tuned dGDF#A or eAEG#B).

I find that the Chris Sands "heavies" are stiffer feeling than the nylgut "classic" set (given: 26"-28" scale, tuned to gCGBD). Prior to the advent of nylgut, I used them almost exclusively. I prefer the feel and tone of nylgut...though the wound 4ths wear out well before the rest of the set (not a problem fretless). And FWIW, I usually play "medium" steel strings...lights are just too thin to use in my cheese slicer. ;-)

Prior to obtaining the Ashborn, I played a Dan Knowles 'minstrel' which had a 29" scale. Dan designed it for classical guitar strings and it certainly did well with them. I used Aquila "Alabastro" high-tension strings on it...simply using the bottom 4 strings and then a single treble E for the 5th (which required buying two packs just to get the extra E string. If I had to do it again today, I would simply purchase any mfg. single nylon E).

I put in an order for some Aquila nylguts and will give them a try. I just bent up an oak rim on my new today steam box and will think about real gut or guitar strings on that one. Maybe another banjo or two to round out the set and I can try a mirriad of different strings side by side and see which I like best. Keep those preferences coming so I can get a feel for what to try next.

Brian -- I have a great local source for gut strings in Boston --they're not cheap but they can't be beat.

Let me know if you decide to go that route.


The shorter you set your scale length, the looser your strings will be, at a given pitch.  Baritone and soprano ukulele use the same diameter strings, but the short neck of the soprano reaches a higher pitch at approximately the same tension. If we tuned the soprano to the low notes we use on baritone, the strings would feel very soft, possibly too loose to be usable. Try moving your bridge towards the tailpiece, as Joel suggested above. I have Aquilla superior tension strings on my Dads guitar, but even those feel soft on the short 24" scale. The regular tension set would be softer still. Sorry to use non-banjo examples, but the principle is the same. I have steel strings on my banjo, until I use all the spare sets Mrs Wanda bought me. I probably will go back to Nylgut then.  You might want to try asking Aquilla if they have a slightly heavier set available, they seem very good about answering emails.   http://aquilacorde.com/


Just a note on real Gut Strings being expensive.  I asked Bob Flesher how often he changes his strings.  He told me he has had the same gut set on for over 10 years.  The 4th wound string from nylgut/nylon strings wear out much quicker and need to be replaced before the other strings.  The sound of gut strings is much deeper.

After playing the gut strung banjos of Tim, John, and Al this weekend, I'm a believer.

Regarding Nylgut, I broke the wound 4th on mine a few weeks ago and replaced it with the "Nylgut 4th." Sadly, this is not the same string that comes in the set, it's a hair bigger, I had to enlarge the slot in my banjo. And it's even more like a wound guitar string that the broken one. I do not like them Sam I am. BUT........ I discovered the wonders of 27-28" necks BECAUSE of Nylguts. To me, they're wobbly until you put 'em on a long neck.

Now I'm going to go measure my neck length. I think I built this banjo with a 28" scale length so its not too short. I don't recall exactly but, I'd bet the Chris sands strings I have on there are not the heavy gauge ones either. Looking forward to getting the nylguts and trying them out. 

Brian, if your neck is 28" scale, Minstrel Nylguts or Bob Flesher's guts are PERFECT. This is coming from someone who strings a new banjo about every 3 days.

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