Maintaining Banjo Strings and Picks by Ben Freed

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 With poorly maintained strings and picks, a nice banjo will never reach its full sonic potential. You can optimize the tone of the banjo by doing the following with your picks and strings:

 

     First, don’t let the strings get rusty.  This can happen if they are even slightly moist with humidity or perspiration, and then left not played for weeks, when oxidation can build up. Beginning players often have rusty strings because they may not have cleaned or changed them. If they are rusty, throw them away and put on new ones.

 

     Dirty strings can be almost impossible to tune, and careful routine cleaning will help keep them tunable and will easily double or triple their useful life. At the end of every session or gig, rub down the strings individually with a dry chamois (fine leather). Surround the entire string with the chamois and rub up and down the full length of the string a few times, cleaning off the grime. Then take a look at what’s left in the chamois. The black oxidation and dirt will kill its brightness after one picking session if left on the string. After cleaning, keep the banjo stored dry in the case until next time. (You can get a chamois cloth in any auto parts store. It is very soft and used to buff car finishes and jewelry. It is also good for cleaning and buffing the finish of your musical instruments.) Just cleaning the outward-facing side of the string by rubbing along the face of the fingerboard is not sufficient.

    

     Adding a commercial string lubricant without a careful rub-down cleaning of the individuals strings will not be of value. I don’t use string lubricants because I feel they add a coating which can only result in a dampening effect.

    

     Thumb pick maintainance: Most bluegrass players use a plastic, as opposed to a metal  pick. If you are having trouble keeping your thumb pick on, then it is the wrong style, size, or gauge for your finger. Try another brand, size or thicker gauge. It may need a shape adjustment as described below. Both metal and plastic picks tend to soften and get loose with the heat of your finger after an hour or so of intense playing, especially in a warm environment. The heavier the gauge, for both thumb picks and metal fingerpicks, the less that tends to occur. And most light gauge thumb picks tend to eventually break. So, I now use Golden Gate heavies for these reasons. The heavy gauge definitely gives me more control, power transference and volume when I need it. It took about a month to get my thumb use to them properly, but now everything else feels inadequate and a little wimpy on my thumb. They are tight, rock-solid reliable and rarely break.

  

 

     If your plastic thumbpick seems to not be shaped well to your thumb, re-shape it by heating in hot water to soften it so you can re-bend it to your needs. First boil a cup or two of water in a small pot. Then use long-nose pliers to hold the pick and submerse the section that needs re-shaping in the boiling water for about 10 seconds, not much more. Quickly, while the plastic is soft, use a second plier to reshape the section. Be careful not to submerse the whole pick in the water because it will lose its shape memory completely and will have to be discarded. Also, if you clamp down on the soft plastic directly with a metal plier, you will cause indentations from the metal, and that can ruin the picking side of the blade of the pick, so use a cloth(try that chamois) between the plier and the plastic to protect the plastic. This operation takes a little practice, and you may make some mistakes at first.

 

    The Dreaded Pick Scrape Noise:  This scraping sound can occur with either the thumb pick or finger picks, but it tends to be more prominent with the thumb pick. It drives me crazy! The first thing to do if you are getting a scraping sound from the picks as they strike the string is to insure that both the strings and the pick surfaces are smooth and dirt-free. For the thumb pick, make sure the surface of the blade is not pitted or rough. You can try rubbing the blade lengthwise with an emery cloth or very fine sandpaper to smooth out the surface. Also, try wiping the blade of the thumb pick with lubricant such as fine machine oil. That scraping sound can also be caused by the fact that the flat part of the blade may not be striking the string.   With thumb picks, you may be able to slightly twist the blade after heating it as described above so that the flat part of the blade, and not just the edge, hits the string.  Metal fingerpicks may need to be slightly rotated on the finger to address this problem. You also may need to evaluate and adjust your picking hand and wrist posture to insure proper sting attack. I now rub some lip balm on the leading edge of the pick, which lubricates it, and that seems to eliminate the scraping sound. 

   

     The metal fingerpicks will cause a scraping sound if they are not smooth and free of dirt. Buff the blade of a pick on a chamois or on your blue jeans so it’s shiny. Also try lubricating them with lip balm. Stainless steel picks will generally give you the potentially cleanest sound.

 

     You can easily get a scraping sound just from the accumulated grime on the string itself, just from picking one song. Cleaning the individual strings near the bridge with the chamois will help.

 

     It would be appropriate here to comment on the choice of string gauges and metals. This is subject to a wide range of personal preferences. I dont think that the thickness of the string impacts their longevity as long as they are kept clean. Some swear by a phosphor bronze wound fourth string versus a nickel steel-wound fourth to eliminate the scraping sound, but I havent found a real difference. I am sure some readers would disagree on this, and I welcome others suggestions regarding their solutions to this thumbpick scraping sound.

 

     The question always arises: How often should I change my strings? I find that in the hot humid summer, my strings die out as often as once a week or more if I play outdoors often. In the dry winter, they can last months if I take care of them.

 

     If none of the above helps to reduce the scraping sound, dont reach for the Valium just yet.  Try taking a different pick out of your pocket and using it. Believe it or not, just alternating back and forth between picks after a few songs somehow relieves the scraping problem in a satisfactory way. Im not sure why. It seems that giving the pick a bit of a rest helps somehow. It remains a mystery to me.  

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