A Little String History

A History of Banjo Strings

The  earliest banjos were strung with whatever fiber was available - horse  hair, linen, sinew, rawhide...  The intestines of small animals, when  cut into strips and dried, create a particularly strong and resonant  string. These "gut" strings became the standard and persist to this  day.  Sheep intestines are the most common source for today's banjo  strings.  In the minstrel period from the 1840s to the advent of wire  strings at the end of the 19th century, banjos were strung with  gut.

All the classical string instruments of the 19th century  used gut strings and so they were readily available.  Fiddle strings  often appear on inventory lists of even the frontier fur trading posts.   Up to and including the post civil war period however, I have only ever  found one reference to wire or metal strings on the banjo, the guitar  or the violin.  The reference comes from an advertisement in the Trinity  college Yearbook of 1895 for a steel string "Banjay" which also  included a waterproof head. 

 In  the 1890s steel strings begin to come into their own and musicians  begin experimenting with them. These "wire strings" ruined so many  guitars that some of the early guitar makers issued warnings at the time  of sale that they would not stand behind these instruments, if they  were strung with wire.  The 19th century instruments were stressed for  gut and guitars designed to accommodate wire strings do not become  common until the twentieth century.

This is not to say wire  strings did not exist at an earlier date. They most certainly did in Ireland at least.  There were wire string harps in the 16th and 17th century, but they were rare and very expensive.  I have been able to find  references to piano wire as early as the 1830s and 1840s, but the  smallest diameter I have been able to document is 0.734 mm in Vienna  circa 1840.*  Though suitable for a piano or perhaps a dulcimer, that is  a very thick gauge for use on a banjo.  For comparison, 0.010 to 0.026  mm is the dia. of modern banjo steel trebles. The modern wound 4th or  bass string is approx. 0.026 mm. In 1878 with the introduction of  mechanical wire machines in America, lighter gauges became possible and  economically available.  One should note however, that  lighter gauge is  a relative term.  All steel strings up until the 1950s were heavy or at  least medium gauge by modern standards. Modern light gauge and strings  do not become common until the 1960s.

I have found references to  silver wound silk core bass strings for the guitar and in fact this is  still a common practice for stringing antique low tension instruments.   Nowadays, because of the price of silver, other metal alloys are often  used.  But even in these early instances of silver wound silk bass  strings, the trebles on the guitar remain gut until the very late 19th  century.

In the 1890s leading up to WW1 musicians began to turn  to wire for the "E" string of the violin.  There were a few reasons for  this.  One was the novelty of the new louder and brighter sound that  wire afforded, but the other reasons were strength and durability. Gut  during this time period greatly declined in quality and violinists found  their E-string frequently breaking during performances.

The  problem with late 19th century (post 1878) gut strings is that there was  a change to mechanical polishing from hand polishing.  Because many of  these early strings had some minor highs and lows along their diameter a  mechanical polisher would polish too much in the thicker areas and too  little in the low areas.  This weakened the string in the over-polished  areas. 

Skilled string polishers of the pre-mechanical polishing  age could accommodate the slight variations, so the earlier gut strings  did not have these weak points.  In recent times, a return to polishing  to the true center of the string, the gut strings today are the equal of  the finest hand polished gut of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Modern  gut strings are now rectified and finished to tolerances never dreamed  of by the early craftsmen and many concert musicians are again returning  to gut for their unique sound properties.  Aquila Corde has produced   polymer strings (Nylgut) which approximates the characteristics of gut  and it takes a practiced ear to tell the difference.  These Nylgut  strings have a softer texture and lower tension than most regular nylon  guitar strings and are particularly well suited for replica rawhide  banjos.  They have the added bonus of being inexpensive, especially when  compared to rectified gut strings.  A single gut string can cost more  than a whole set of Nylagut strings. 

* This information  on piano wire gauges comes from Swenson's Piano.  They  provide restoration services for vintage pianos and have done extensive  research on this subject.