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Banjo Buyers' Guides - Accessories, from Riverboat Music(tm),
This page will be for add-ons you may or may not need for your banjo with examples you can check out online. I do believe that every banjo owner needs spare strings, a strap, and a decent case or gig bag, but the rest is negotiable.
This page can't begin to show the hundreds of nice products available in these categories. What it does is to explain your basic choices and give you an idea of the kinds of things you might look for. We also include a few examples that you can check out as you begin your research. Yes, in most cases, the examples we list are products we personally like, but please don't feel restricted to our little "short lists."
Because this page has got much longer than we expected it to be at first, I'm listing the topics so you can jump to the one you need:
StringsThere are a lot of religious arguments about banjo strings, but everybody agrees that you need to have spares onhand. I always replace the strings within a week of buying a new banjo. (Who knows what they put on there and how long they've been on? Plus I put a lot of wear and tear on them when I'm setting the instrument up for the first time.) Experts agree that you should replace them every few months afterwards - up to every few days if you're playing professionally. I confess, I have multiple banjos that I use for different things, so sometimes I go longer than I "should" on banjos. But if a gig for which I need a specific banjo comes up, I can change the strings quickly, since I keep spare sets onhand.
The one thing that you pretty much have to consider is that if you have a banjo with a built-in magnetic pickup, you must use strings with steel in them to get the pickup to work. Most banjos are set up to take strings that have little loops on the tailpiece end, but in a pinch, you could use strings with the little balls like most guitar strings have. (That's especially helpful for 6-string banjo owners, who usually wind up shopping in the guitar string section.) That said, if you have a handmade or antique banjo, you may have some arcane setup that requires special strings or techniques. It that's the case, you may want bring your banjo into the store the first time you buy new strings. After that, you only have to remember what kind you bought.
Though professional bluegrass players prefer medium, or even heavy strings - they last longer and have more tone - most pickers use "light" strings. I would certainly recommend light strings for beginners. Though it's possible to track down extra lights, they're harder to keep in tune - or intact, for that matter.
I like strings with a nickel component. Also, within the metal string family, some folks prefer "phosphor bronze" which are supposed to provide a richer tone. Or bronze-wound strings, which are popular on acoustic guitar.
If you want a really traditional (Civil-War-era) sound, or you have especially wimpy fingers, you might try a nylon-and-silk-wound combination - those are made to emulate the tone of traditional materials (usually called "catgut."). They won't be as loud as steel strings, and they'll lose tone much more quickly, but some folks prefer them. In fact Peggy Seeger used to use fishing line on her banjo - They're the same material as nylon strings, but much, much cheaper.*
Whatever you decide, please keep at least one set onhand at all times - you never know when one may break, and there are few issues that say "hopeless amateur" more loudly than begging for strings between sets or just before you go onstage because you didn't come prepared.
The following chart shows some of the strings I've used or that my friends like. These are examples only, but might be a good starting place.
StrapsYou need a strap, whether you realize it or not. Unless your arms are exactly the right length, holding the banjo's pot (body) in your lap sitting down, will only get you so far before you start developing bad habits or unnecessary repetitive motion disorders. In my case, I'm most comfortable picking with the banjo's pot more or less over my right front pants pocket, a position it would never rest in without a strap.
Besides, if you're planning to be a banjo star someday, you're going to have to be able to play standing up. Not only that, having a strap reduces the chances of someone knocking it out of your hands accidentally. So put a strap on the thing and keep it on. Also, practice while sitting in chairs, on bar stools, and while standing up - you don't want to learn how to make those adjustments the first time you jam with real musicians or perform at a talent show or open mic.
There are some cool straps out there. I always just a buy the black woven nylon one like the Gold Tone strap below. That way if I get invited to play at a wedding or funeral, (it happens), folks who don't know me won't spend the whole time I'm singing staring at a "born to be bad" skull and crossbones strap or something.
That said, if the nice solid black or brown leather ones were more affordable, or I only had one banjo to equip, I'm might go that way instead. The point is your music should speak for itself so your strap doesn't have to.
BTW. some banjos have little rings for attaching the straps; on other banjos, you simply attach the strap to the brackets. If your banjo has little rings for attaching the strap, you can use the kind with the little clips like the "hootenanny" strap in the middle below.
For attaching directly to the brackets, I generally prefer the straps that have the little loop like the Gold Tone strap shown to the left below. But I recently bought a banjo that didn't have room for the loop around the brackets near the neck, so I went with a strap that has the little shoestrings. (The leather strap shown to the right below has little leather strips for the same purpose.)
Nobody will hurt you for choosing one kind of strap over another.
The following table shows some sample straps. Again, they are examples only, but should give you some idea of what you're looking at.
Case or Gig BagThe flimsy trapezoid-shaped box your banjo came in barely survived the trip home - you know it's not going to protect your instrument when you're going back and forth. When I used to play in a band, I always had nice solid cases for my guitars and banjos since you never know when someone was going to throw a bass amp on top of one or something. Nowadays when I buy any guitar, bass, or banjo that's worth less than a couple grand, I usually get a good gig bag for it. After all, I go solo or duo 99% of the time, and I think I can trust myself not to put the banjo under the PA speakers or something. Also, I often take two or three banjos to a gig, depending on the kind of music I expect to be playing, and that's a lot easier to do with gig bags.
So what if you don't gig that much? Your banjo still needs protection. If nothing else, a gig bag keeps the banjo from being scratched and dinged up just by normal stuff getting moved around in your home.
The real deciding factors are quality, and size. If you have to mail order, you'll probably have to make assumptions about quality. But I will confess, that there is a big difference between the $20 bags and the $50 bags. More on that presently.
What is even more likely to trip you up is the size and shape of your banjo. Most banjo gig bags are made to fit the average 5-string resonator banjo. Fortunately, the same bags will fit most 6-string banjos, and 4-string banjos that have resonators. But if you have a backless banjo, you need a case specifically designed for backless banjos. If you use a standard case, your banjo will slop around in it like it would in a pillowcase, putting a lot of undue wear on the strings if nothing else.
Here's a caveat: at least one brand makes only one size of gig bag, but they label about a third of them for "backless banjos." In my case, I assumed it was a mistake, sent it back. After all, the photo on the vendor sites clearly shows a bag for backless banjos. So I ordered another one from another vendor, only to get another resonator-sized bag, also labeled for "backless banjo." Later I encountered other folks who had the same experience.
What no gig bag protects is the banjo neck. When you're using a gig bag, be very careful NOT to set the banjo where it would be possible for some other item to put enough pressure on the middle of the neck to snap it.
About Flying With Banjos - Federal regulations now technically allow you to bring your banjo on the plane if there is room for it. Most airlines and crews will let you bring your banjo as far as the gate if you have a gig bag and you're counting it as your "big" carry-on. If there's not room overhead, most crews will stick it in a closet or something for you. But the key word in those sentences is "most." Remember, since 9-1-1, the federal regulation that you have to do whatever the flight crew tells you overrides almost everything else. There's still a chance that on an overcrowded flight they would insist on gate-checking it, and you could get it back in splinters. The only way to improve your odds is to ask your friends what their experience has been on the airlines you're checking out. If you're tempted go the checked-bag route it might be worth knowing that back in the old days we would buy a $400 Carlton case and check the thing and still sometimes get the banjo and the $400 case back in pieces at the other end of the flight. So if you plan to fly with your banjo, your mileage will vary. Plan on being very nice to everyone you encounter, even if they don't "deserve" it. The short version is that a gig bag may actually be safer than a $400 flight case for your banjo, since you will be able to keep the thing closer. If you're still paranoid, consider a high-end gig-bag, but don't let them counter-check a gig bag whatever you do.
The following list shows some gig bags I like to get you started on your quest.
CapoA capo is a device that you fasten down on the neck to raise the key of the banjo. If you're playing in a very traditional Bluegrass band, you may never need one. But I often wind up playing along with guitarists who've capoed their instruments up to the best key for singing a song. (Here's an example - Noel Stookey's "Early in the Morning," which he plays in G capoed up to the third fred - Bb.) Also, if you're playing a 4-string, chances that you'll ever need a capo are somewhat nil - you're probably either going to be playing jazz chords, or you're going to be playing in traditional "Celtic" keys like C and G.
Unlike a guitar on which a capo changes all the strings, a five-string banjo has one string that the capo doesn't affect. Depending on how often you find yourself playing in very strange keys, you may want to investigate solutions such as "spiking" - using HO railroad ties to as mini-capos to raise the fifth string when you capo the other four. Or you might just get used to retuning the fifth string down to F when you're playing in F or Bb or up to A when you're playing in D or A.
Any guitar capo will work on a banjo. Four strings are easier to mash down than six, so you don't need an expensive one. I would recommend something that is easy to keep with your banjo while you're playing. For example, there are spring-loaded capos that you can clip onto the head of your banjo when you don't need them - then you can apply them quickly when you do. I use cheap capos, the kind that use elastic, since I can just fasten them to the banjo strap and leave it there, even when I put the banjo away. But then when someone announces that the next song is in Ab, I'm ready. Also, for instruments I flatpick, I use the capo to hold spare picks.
The following list shows the capo I use and an example spring-loaded capo.
PicksIf you are going to play 5-string, especially 3-finger picking, you will want to try fingerpicks. Most pickers I know prefer metal picks since you can bend them to fit yoru fingers exactly. A few like plastic when they don't want to be quite so loud.
If you're going to play 4-string you will certainly need flatpicks. I prefer medium-weight picks, but you may want to get a couple mediums and a couple lightweight ones to see what you prefer. What you buy for your 6-string depends on whether you plan to fingerpick it or flatpick it.
Here's a confession, I don't use fingerpicks on my banjo even when I fingerpick. I never really got used to them, and, when I'm stay in practice, the tips of the fingers on my right hand callouse up enough to give a nice hard edge to pluck the strings with. For my preferred styles of music, that works fine, although if I was going to joint a traditional bluegrass band, I would have to go back to metal picks (and a resonator/tone ring banjo).
The following list shows some suggestions. I'm not "married" to any of these specific products - in fact, I just buy whatever the guy at the guitar store has in the little trays. When you're starting out, you should buy an assortment from your guitar/music store as well. But hopefully, this will give you some examples to consider.
PickupsThis is a very popular item for discussion in banjo circles. You want to sound acoustic, but louder. And none of the technologies work, In fact, our CreekDontRise.com article on banjo pickups is one of our most widely read. For more information than you ever wanted to know, read that article
Four basic technologies are available:
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