A Beginner’s Experience with Banjo Stringing By Betty Fisher

This guest post is brought to us by Betty Fisher, who takes lessons from Casey and regularly attends the Tip Jar Jams.

So it’s New Year’s Eve and I am picking up my banjo for the first time in more days than I care to admit. (Sorry Casey and Murphy. You can kick me later.)

I had gone through my repertoire and have now capoed up to A. I don’t know what happened but somehow things got badly out of tune and I seriously over cranked the first string and it snapped. Scared the bejeebers out of me! (Couple of bad words flew.) So now I knew I had to re-string it. I had bought new strings on the advice of Murphy after the last jam that I attended. She told me if I was the least bit mechanically inclined, I could do it on my own. I am mechanically inclined. Having been a previous surgical nurse, there were many occasions when I had to get a malfunctioning piece of equipment working again in the middle of surgery while a surgeon stomped his feet and yelled, “Just fix it!” Also there is a very embarrassing story (for my husband) about a broken washing machine that he couldn’t fix, but I did in about 5 minutes….but I digress.

So I am thinking that when I open the box of banjo strings there will be instructions………not! Really? Then I turn to the Internet and got a video off YouTube, How to Re-string a Banjo. The first thing that guy said to do was take all the strings off at once. I knew Murphy had said to do just one at a time. He also discussed moving the bridge. No way! I am not moving any bridges on this banjo! So I looked at the "tailpiece" to see how the strings fit on. (That’s what the YouTube instructor called it. I always called it the “silver thingy.”) I had also noticed that two of the strings (1st and 5th) were the same gauge when I took them out of the box. Murphy had told me to get “light” strings so I had gotten Martin Vega Banjo “light.” (Sounds like a cigar.) I will have to say the YouTube video was helpful, but it could have been better. (Oh like I’m the expert now!)

I got the first string on and started working on getting it tuned with the rest, only to break it also! Okay, I am really trying to clean up my language and not yell, but let's just say the dogs left the room and one went clear outside due to the noise coming from my mouth. Big babies! I’m thinking maybe I need to call Ben but I can’t bother him on New Year’s Eve (especially since I gave him such a hard time about speeding up at the last jam I attended). Fortunately since there were two of the same strings, I knew I could change all but the fifth for now. I kept trying to keep one or two strings in tune so I could tune the rest, but that didn’t go very well. I was so afraid that I would be an octave too high and break another string. I remembered that Casey had told me I could use my keyboard, so after getting four of the five strings on, I did just that and it worked! I really think there is a difference in the way it sounds. The main problem we had noticed was the second string always sounded out of tune with the rest when I used the capo. I tried the capo after this and it sounds fine. What a great way to start the New Year! Woo Hoo!

Note from Murphy: Betty is one of our Tip Jar Jammers. She has been taking lessons from Casey for a little less than a year (I think). You can read more about her and her playing in past blogs. She is one determined lady and has ovarios of steel! Great blog, Betty! Thanks!

Next Tip Jar Jam: Frederick, Maryland, Sunday January 5.

Winchester Jams: Tuesday Jan 7, Wednesday Jan 8.

Portland People: It's almost TIME! Women's Jam Thursday Jan 9. Murphy Method Workshop Jan 10-12. Some spaces still available!

4 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Experience with Banjo Stringing By Betty Fisher

  1. Martin Bacon

    I am sure that first time banjo stringing stories are common. When I first decided to play the banjo, I started with Murphy and “first tune the banjo”. This resulted in the aforementioned breaking of the first string. Having never played any instrument before, this was very daunting. I took the banjo to the music store and sheepishly asked them to replace the string. They did and I went home and promptly broke the first string again. I figured it was a test of whether I could overcome my embarassment and actually learn to play the banjo. I carried it back to the music store, had them change the string and bought extras, went home and started the Murphy Method. Still trying but I don’t break many strings anymore:)

  2. Betty Fisher

    Thanks Martin. That is a great story and it makes me feel better about breaking two strings in a row!

  3. Tom McFadden

    Betty: I know what you went through. The 1st time I ever changed strings I broke the string again, then I made the mistake of taking off more than 1 string at a time and trying to tune, another time I put the strings on in the wrong order and 1 time I even stabbed myself with a string and drew blood. My banjo teacher didn’t help much by pointing out he once saw Sonny Osborne change a string while standing during a performance. I really felt stupid then. Fortunately after all of the practice and mispractice, I finally got much better changing banjo strings. Hang in there. Tom McFadden

  4. Larry Benitez

    I sympathize Betty. I over tightened and broke my second string trying to tune my first string and cut myself in the process when the line snapped onto my hand :-(. Luckily I had spare strings and remembered how the guy at the music store had changed one. Deerings site has a great video on replacing strings without moving the bridge as well shows a nifty trick for hiding the 5th string tag end so you don’t poke yourself (Murphy, perhaps you should look into that tip too 🙂 ). Because I recently replaced my head I actually had to do all five strings AND the brigde…thankfully the Deering restringing video talks about how to adjust that too…just in case it does move while replacing them one at a time.

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