Full disclosure – I play banjo but I am not ” A Banjo Player”…… Understand? I know enough to pick up a banjo and have some understanding of a few of the tuning systems and playing styles, but I am not prepared to play one in public. I have a bit of a love / hate relationship with the instrument. After years of playing guitar I find the banjo heavy and the strings too soft. I love clawhammer, folk music, old times styles and Celtic tunes on tenor banjo but do not care for rapid-fire blue grass. It was once described to me as “heavy metal” played on banjo. I love Bela Fleck’s non-bluegrass performances and the Chris Coole’s clawhammer tunes I regard as gifts from God.
The banjo is a uniquely American instrument with roots that can be traced back to pre- civil war days, the slave trade and further back to Africa. In the film Throw Down Your Heart Bela Fleck tried to do exactly that. It is a full length movie that probably says more about African music and culture than about the modern banjo. However, it is well worth spending 90 minutes to watch.
There are many YouTube tutorials and video performances out there. Most are about the more common aspects of the instrument. However, as people explore the history of the banjo some unusual aspects of the instrument are becoming available. Interest is growing in the Gourd and Civil War Minstrel banjos and several master musicians are now playing the instruments in public. The first clip is by Laurel Premo, a Michigan based multi-instrumentalist with strong academic credentials and folk music roots. She is playing a Gourd banjo. She is accompanied by Anna Gustavsson on the Swedish Nyckelharpa.
The second clip is Rhiannon Giddens, a conservatory trained musician with deep folkloric roots, performing on a reproduction of a Minstrel Banjo.
Both instruments are recognizable as banjos but not the usual music store models that we would readily recognize. Both instruments have fretless necks, nylon strings and sound like they are tuned lower than a conventional banjo. Modern banjos are usually strung with metal strings while the older instruments would have been strung with “gut” strings. In this day and age that is neither practical or even environmentally sensible. There are a number of nylon substitutes now available.
To effectively play a fretless instrument is probably beyond my capabilities. I have an 100 year old Washburn banjo that is a little fragile but maybe could be a suitable candidate for nylon strings. It is an option that I am in the process of exploring. I have done my home work, read the reviews and have decided to try the Aquila Classic Banjo – Red Series. The product information describes “A unique feeling and a strong, consistent sound. Until now, it was necessary to increase the gauge of a string for it to produce a lower-pitched note. But increasing the string’s diameter also increases internal dampening. That makes the string less bright, less responsive and more muffled; the thicker the string, the duller the sound. Our revolutionary new approach — unique to us — changes the specific weight of the material, increasing it progressively to leave the gauge almost unchanged.” Depending on the basic note required for the individual string the composition (density) of the string is designed at the point of manufacture. “The result is amazing: instruments sound brighter, more powerful and more responsive through the entire range of the fret board. The strings also maintain their intonation better, because thicker strings need to be fretted harder, pulling them further out of tune. ” At least that is the claim.
Fresh out of the packet the first thing to notice is that the plastic envelopes for the individual strings are color coded. For a banjo tuned in the traditional G tuning (gDGBD) the coding is (g) yellow, D white, G green, B blue and D red.
The second thing to notice is that the strings do not have the usual loops for attachment at the bottom end. At first sight that is a little disconcerting. However, here is a video demonstrating how to overcome that problem. The solution is pretty simple and straight forward.
Attaching the string at the top end requires threading the string through the tuning peg and cinching as described below.
Here is another video on Nylon Strings.
As an after thought I might try tuning the nylon set down at least a tone to either (fCFAC) a tone down from standard G; or (f Bb F Bb C) a tone down from Double C. The fingering you are used to will be the same. Only the Key will change.
Postscript: Just because of the huge variety of instruments and string sets available it may be difficult to purchase some speciality sets locally so I tend to buy strings on line from https://www.stringsandbeyond.com/ . I have been purchasing strings from this site for years without problems.