A review and comparison of the new Red Series Nylgut banjo strings from Aquila Corde Armoniche.
Aquila, the company that makes Nylgut strings, sent me a trial set of a new string they’ve made, Red Series Nylgut. As Mimmo from Nylgut explained: “Instead of increasing each gauge I was able to increase the density of each string. So all 4 strings have similar diameters. This can be done using different quantities of metal copper powder added to the melted Nylgut during the extrusion of the product. Explanation: on a traditional banjo set, the strings have very different diameters. Unfortunately, the thicker the string, the duller the sound. In fact it is well known that the 3rd string is duller than the 2nd and the 2nd duller than the 1st. With this innovative solution the problem is now solved: banjos now work like harps — all the strings have the same bright sound. On these sets, gauges are thinner than those of traditional white Nylgut while the the tension is exactly the same. Performance: brighter sound than Fluocarbon & Nylgut strings, closer to metal strings. More sustain. More powerful than Nylgut & Fluocarbon strings.”
I already had a set of the original white Nylguts on my old S.S. Stewart, so I made a recording of it still strung with them for comparison before swapping them out for the new red set and recording again. Both sets are “classic” gauge. (I’ll call the old strings “white” for the rest of this review. I think there’s also a more recent gut-colored set of Nylguts, but from what I’ve read they’re the same as the white, it just being the color that was changed.)
First impression: the new strings are definitely red — almost candy apple red! It’s a color that might give the traditionalist pause. I suppose once upon a time phosphor bronze looked out of place on a string too. It’s a little funny to see on the Stewart, but I’m getting used to it.
Compared to the white Nylgut, these strings seemed to stretch out fairly quickly. I put them on, tuned up roughly and let the banjo sit for an hour or two. Tuned up again and I was able to play more or less, though having to do some fairly heavy tweaking between tunes. You wouldn’t want to put these on right before a gig, though maybe you could quicken the process some by hand-stretching the strings. In the video, the red strings had been on the banjo for about two days and were good and stable.
By eye (I don’t have calipers to measure their diameters accurately) the difference between the 1st and 2nd strings of the different sets doesn’t look all that great, on the 3rd though it’s quite noticeable. The 4th string in this red set is unwound — there are white sets with an unwound 4th, but mine was wound so I can’t compare them. The unwound red 4th sounds good, doesn’t feel unduly stiff and its big advantage is that its timbre is the same as the rest of the strings. Personally though, I think I prefer a wound string — its timbre is different from the other strings of course, but that’s something that can be used to advantage, like for a bassy drone.
The red strings are lightly textured, which I like. On the white sets, I would roughen up the right hand playing area of the strings with 600 or 1000 grit sandpaper to give them a little more grab, like gut has. I’ll probably do the same on these eventually but out of the package I already like their feel more. As well, they feel quite a bit stiffer than the white, which I also prefer – the white classic gauge felt a little mushy to me (though the feel of the heavier gauge minstrel set suits me fine).
The sound of these new strings is bright and sharp, as you can hear in the video — which I also like. In the clawhammer section, I’m playing with my short index finger nail, but with a longer nail or a pick, they’re even brighter.
Since changing the strings on the Stewart from minstrel gauge to classic a while ago, I haven’t been playing it as much, but I think I’ll be picking it up more often now.
The finger-picked tune is “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)” by Harry Dacre, played in gDGBD, and the clawhammer tune “Shortenin’ Bread”, in the same tuning. The two sets of videos were recorded a few days apart, thus the costume changing.
Old-timey Music for Body & Soul – http://www.hunterrobertson.com
This is “Ducks on the Millpond” adapted from Emmett Lundy’s fiddle playing. I’m playing in the equivalent of double-C (gCGCD) but tuned down. This tune is one of the ten I teach on my DVD “Unfortunate Puppy and Other Fine Tunes: Lessons in Intermediate & Advanced Clawhammer Banjo” (Mel Bay): http://www.hunterrobertson.com/unpupframe.html
Bonaparte’s Retreat based on William Stepp’s famous fiddle recording from 1937.
If you want to learn to play “Bonaparte’s Retreat” on the banjo, there’s a lesson for it on my DVD Unfortunate Puppy and Other Fine Tunes: Lessons in Intermediate & Advanced Clawhammer Banjo (Mel Bay): http://www.hunterrobertson.com/unpupframe.html
My fretless banjo here is tuned down from the equivalent of gCGCC or aDADD – double-C or D with the 1st string tuned down to unison with the 2nd string – to Bb: fBbFBbBb (the lesson is at standard pitch).
This is a tune that Glen Smith played on fretless banjo, from the County album “Clawhammer Banjo Vol. 3″. My version has drifted off a bit since I learned it there… Sounds like it’s in the “Oh! Susanna” family. Tuning is gDGBD, a whole tone or so low.
- May 26th, Saturday. A daytime clawhammer banjo workshop followed by an evening of old-time American music. Evening concert: 7.30 pm, £8.00. Workshop: 10.00 am – 4.00 pm, £45.00 includes lunch. Wandering William Centre, Foldgate Farm, Steventon, Ludlow, SY8 4BN. To book, contact: Jim Allen 01568 750546.www.wanderingwilliam.co.uk
- May 30th, Wednesday. Rivelin Folk Club, Nether Edge Bowling Club, 8 Nether Edge Rd. Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S7 1RU. 8.30pm. (The ticket price is £5 to be paid at the door. You can reserve a ticket by emailing the organizer: firstname.lastname@example.org ) http://www.rivelinfolkclub.org.uk/
Well, it’s a pleasure to finally be able to announce that the last 4 tabs for Unfortunate Puppy and Other Fine Tunes are done! They’re up on my site and can be downloaded by anyone who has purchased the DVD (or the video as a download).
The final four tunes, ‘Ducks on the Millpond’, ‘Raleigh & Spencer’, ‘Ft. Smith Breakdown’ and ‘Unfortunate Puppy’ also have videos to illustrate the tabs, as there were some tricky timing problems in writing those four out.
If you’re in England, I may well be playing near you this coming May. I’m also teaching an old-time banjo workshop (could include fingerpicking and clawhammer) in Ludlow, which will be followed by a concert there in the evening.
- May 30th, Wednesday. Rivelin Folk Club, Nether Edge Bowling Club, 8 Nether Edge Rd. Sheffield, South Yorkshire, S7 1RU. 8.30pm.
- May 27th, Sunday. Walthamstow Folk Club, Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre Pub, 53 Hoe Street, Walthamstow, London E17 4SA. 7.30pm.
- May 26th, Saturday. A daytime clawhammer banjo workshop followed by an evening of old-time American music. Evening concert: 7.30 pm, £8.00. Workshop: 10.00 am – 4.00 pm, £45.00 includes lunch. Wandering William Centre, Foldgate Farm, Steventon, Ludlow, SY8 4TS. To book, contact: Jim Allen 01568 750546. www.wanderingwilliam.co.uk
Dusty Miller, from the playing of fiddler John Alexander Brown, who was recorded in 1939 around Iuka, Mississippi. Brown learned the tune from his father sometime before 1900 in Itawamba County, where he was born in 1872. On “Great Big Yam Potatoes: Anglo-American Fiddle Music from Mississippi”, a great album, unfortunately out of print. But, thanks to Gadaya at Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be, downloadable: http://timesaintliketheyusedtobe.blogspot.com/2010/01/great-big-yam-potatoes-…
Played on my trusty bakelite banjo, a semi-fretless Harmony, tuned to the equivalent of aAEAE/gGDGD but down a semitone or two.
Another great review of Unfortunate Puppy just came out in the 5-string banjo magazine, Banjo Newsletter! The review is 2+ pages so I’ll just give some highlights.
“Robertson is an excellent player and singer, and has also recorded two CDs. And as I discovered, he’s also an exceptional instructor.”
“The DVD is jam-packed with 133 minutes of content, and none of it’s filler. The video format is widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio), which is ideal for the split screen technique he uses to show both hands simultaneously. The audio and video quality of this DVD is excellent.”
“If you play the DVD sequentially, you’ll first see a short introduction, followed by a fast-paced and concise 12-minute overview of just about every right and left hand technique I’ve ever heard of. You’ll see explanations and demos of drop thumb, M skips, Galax licks, slides, push-offs, hammer-ons, pull-offs, alternate string pull-offs, and more. Noticeably absent is the “cluck,” a technique Robertson doesn’t use much. It’s a great overview, and I think even veteran players will benefit from watching this section.”
“I can’t stress enough how good the video quality is on this DVD. Even the slowed-down segments are crisp and blur-free. In some cases, the slowed down audio suffers a bit (which is to be expected), but it never gets out of the acceptable range.
This DVD sets a new standard for banjo instructional material, and I can’t imagine any clawhammer player who couldn’t pick up a few things while watching it.”
“If you’re the type of player who has grown to depend on tab when learning a new tune, this DVD (along with some time and effort) might assist you in breaking free from that constraint. But, as I mentioned, this product is not a start-from-scratch package for beginners. The 12-minute introductory video provides a quick overview of clawhammer techniques, but don’t expect this video to provide everything a new player must know. But on the other hand, I think most new players would certainly enjoy seeing a banjo master in action – especially one who explains what he’s doing.
This DVD is competitively priced – the cost of about two CDs, or about half of what you’d pay for a single private lesson.
If all instructional videos were this good, it might turn me into a DVD consumer after all.”
- John Walkenbach
Yup, there are lots of highlights! The review includes a tab of Lonesome John (transcribed by Tony Spadaro of Rocket Science Banjo) and there are two recordings I’ve made of the tune (one solo, the other with fiddler Casey Joe Abair) up on Banjo Newsletter’s website.