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Maybe you found an old banjo at a thrift store or yard sale, or got one as a gift. If it doesn’t have strings, you might not be sure what to do.
Can you use guitar strings on a banjo if you don’t have other strings?
You can use guitar strings on a banjo, but because guitar strings and banjo strings aren’t all the same size, you might need to take individual strings from different packs of guitar strings, and you might have trouble fixing a guitar string to a banjo bridge.
Let’s look at why you might want to use guitar strings on a banjo, why you might not want to do that and what else you need to know so you can start practicing bluegrass licks.
What’s The Difference Between Guitar and Banjo Strings?
Broadly speaking, strings for one string instrument will work, as long as the strings exert about the same amount of tension on the neck.
Most banjos, like most modern acoustic guitars, have a truss rod, so they can support the tension of steel strings.
The video below explains what a truss rod is and how to adjust it for one model of banjo but the other consideration for string tension is the string gauge.
What Gauge Are Banjo Strings?
A light gauge string set for banjos usually starts with a .009” string for the high string, followed by a .011” string, a .013” string and a wound .020” string.
For medium and heavy gauge banjo string sets, they start with a high string of .010” or .011” and go as heavy as a wound .022” string.
A 5 string banjo also uses a shorter string in the fifth position, which is usually the same size as the lightest string.
Why Shouldn’t You Use Guitar Strings On A Banjo?
For the most part, you’re absolutely fine using guitar strings on a banjo, but you definitely need to keep in mind that while most banjos have a truss rod reinforcing their neck, they still aren’t built to take the same tension as a steel string acoustic guitar.
Be careful not to use strings larger than .022” because they could put excess tension on the neck.
Also, be cautious if you’re putting strings on an older banjo or one whose history you don’t know. It’s always better to put lighter strings on than to risk damaging an instrument.
How To Use Guitar Strings On A Banjo
For the most part, the right string sizes are available from standard packs of guitar strings, but not all in the same pack. A standard pack of light gauge acoustic guitar strings offers up three strings that could be used on a banjo — .011”, .015”, and a wound .022”.
A pack of extra light gauge can yield three, as well — .010”, .014”, and a wound .020”.
If you want thinner strings, light gauge and super light gauge electric guitar strings can get as thin as .009” and .008”, respectively. Although it can change how often they break.
You can see why a single set of guitar strings isn’t going to be enough to string a banjo, and depending on whether it’s a 4 string or 5 string type you might need as many as three packs of guitar strings to string a banjo.
If guitar strings are all you have on hand, it will definitely work in a pinch, as long as you use the right strings.
As a money-saving idea, it’s a pretty bad one, though, as a set of D’Addario costs less than $5 and you can pay a little more to get a super durable and super bendy set too.
What Are The Different Kinds Of Banjo?
Like a lot of stringed instruments, there are many choices for kinds of banjo, with most of them being either 4 string or 5 string models.
The most common banjo now is a 5 string, with four full-length strings and one “drone” string that is about ¾ the length of the others. That basic type has been made since before 1900.
A 4 string banjo is also very common, and is sometimes called a tenor banjo.
How Is A Banjo Tuned?
The two most common tunings for a 5 string banjo are similar. “Open G” tuning, which is used in bluegrass and plays a G major chord when all five strings are played open, is tuned G D G B D.
An earlier tuning, used for much classic banjo, is tuned G C G B D.
This video walks through the basics of tuning a 5 string banjo using Open G tuning:
Another, known as “Chicago Tuning” mimics the four highest strings of a guitar, and so is tuned D G B E.
Can A Guitar Sound Like A Banjo?
Even though they’re both similar instruments, in traditional music, guitar is almost always a rhythm instrument, playing chords and keeping a beat, while a banjo usually plays a melody line, at least some of the time.
But if you’re after something different, there is the 6 string banjo, which tries to mix guitar-like familiarity for players with the distinctive sound of a banjo.
Usually tuned the same as a guitar in standard tuning — E A D G B E — you could also try something different.
Open G tuning — D B G D G D — would make your banjitar licks sound even more bluegrass. Don’t hold me responsible if you end up falling in love with playing slide blues on a banjo.
Why Choose Banjo Strings For Your Banjo?
As long as you’re careful in your string choice and don’t use too heavy gauge of string, you’ll be fine if you use guitar strings on a banjo.
But before you head too far down that road, it’s probably worth thinking about why you’d do that.
In a pinch, if you have the right strings, it will totally work. But how likely are you to have exactly the right mix of strings on hand?
And if you already have to buy strings, why not just buy the right set of strings? You’ll be glad you did.