Picks, Capos, Strings, Bridges, Straps
You can spend an awful lot of time and effort (and money) choosing the things that go along with your banjo. Here are some quick tips and recommendations:


Every year or two, someone comes out with the "all new and improved" set of finger picks for the banjoist. And every year, people tend to drift back to the good old tried and true standard National style finger pick. Here, as well as with banjos, pre World War II is still the standard. National finger picks from this era can fetch big bucks on Ebay. There are brands that are nearly identical to these in production today. Just shop around for names like Keyser, Showcase, and ProPick, and you'll have what is essentially the same pick. One note, however. Shoot for nickel silver. I just don't think stainless steel produces the completely smooth sound of silver. Also, make sure they are no thinner than .25 gauge. You DON'T want your finger picks to have any flex at all.

Why do banjo players use two metal picks and one plastic pick? (usually?):
Same answer as "why is the standard model for all bluegrass banjos a flathead, one piece flange Gibson Mastertone?" BECAUSE EARL DOES. Much of what we hear when we listen to bluegrass banjo is not necessarily the "best" or clearest, cleanest sound possible, but simply what we have all agreed on as to what the thing should sound like. An awful lot of this is directly attributable to Mr. Scruggs.

Thumb picks:
There is a little more wiggle room in choosing a thumb pick, but as talked about above, the standard is plastic, or more specifically Delrin or Ivoroid, two plastic like materials that have been in use for years. There are metal thumb picks as well, but they just won't sound like Earl (although  plenty of people still use them).


The capo is an odd thing, from its somewhat foreign sounding name, to the myriad of designs available. The banjo, once again, provides a somewhat challenging job for a capo. First of all, all the strings aren't the same length. The job of the capo is to raise each string the same amount of pitch (See fifth string capos). The banjo neck isn't even the same width all the way up. This has resulted in several styles of capo:

Close yoke and saddle capos of a fixed width.
The Paige banjo capo is a good example. Good, but you must either have two - one narrow and one not - to capo above and below the 5th string neck width jump. Or just use the full width one all the way up (drawback is that you want the narrowest, smallest profile possible so you're hand doesn't run into it.)

Open on One Side:
The Shubb is the classic in this style, although the Ultimate capo is a good one, too.

Whatever you wind up with, you'll find that when fretting near the capo, your hand wants the smallest, least intrusive profile possible.

Fifth String Capos:
When you raise strings 1 through 4 a number of frets, you have the challenge of having to raise the 5th strring that same number of frets. There are about three different styles of capo to do this:

Railroad spikes:
By far the most popular for a number or reasons, this simply consists of inserting a number of HO gauge model railroad spikes in the finger board which allows you to hook the string at that fret. Usually, these will be installed at the 7th, 9th, and 10th frets (Allowing for playing in the keys of A, B, and C.)

Sliding capo:
Shubb makes one of these, although there are others. Simply a little clamp that slides up and down on a guide allowing for capoing of the 5th string.

Free standing or side clamp capo:
A few different styles here, and all have drawbacks, although many folks use them. My problem with these is that they are all small, removable, and easily lost.


There's a discussion of string gauges elsewhere here, so we'll talk generally about the types and sorts of strings here. First, the good news. Banjo strings are cheap. There's only 5 of them, and only one is "wound" (meaning it consists of a core wire with a wire wrapped around it). This spells cheap. A cheap set of guitar strings costs more than the best banjo strings on the market. Here's a rundown:

Nickel silver coated: The traditional string for banjos. Nickel silver rings clear and loud, but corrodes fairly quickly. Good thing they're cheap.

Stainless Steel: My favorite. Won't corrode, and ring as well as nickel to my ears. I sometimes play a set 3 months without changing.

4th String Variations: Being the only wound string in the set, there's some variation here. You can get stainless wound, brass or bronze wound (like you'd see on an acoustic steel string guitar), as well as some other variations like coatings of different types and colors

Cryogenic strings: Here's the deal - if you subject metal to temperatures down to about 300 below zero, it does something to the crystalline structure. It translates to longer life, staying in tune better (and higher prices).

Coatings: Several companies coat their strings with materials that extend the life of the strings by holding off wear and oxidization. They last longer, but cost more.

As mentioned elsewhere here, there is in my view no more cost effective way to enhance the sound of your banjo than upgrading your bridge. Banjo makers are better about it today than they used to be, but you can still buy a 1600 dollar banjo that ships with a 3 dollar bridge.

Variations: The number of "feet" on a bridge, the thickness, the angle at which the feet allow the bridge to stand, the amount of wood on the bottom versus on top all add up to a pretty good variety of banjo bridge shapes, but most remain true to the classic three foot maple on bottom, ebony on top design in place for decades.

Wood: Traditionally a sandwich of maple on the bottom and a strip of ebony on top, you can get bridges in different combinations of wood now. Also, "old" wood is a popular source of bridge material these days.

Shape: Compensated bridges, shaped so as to help with the intonation irregularities on the banjo, come in different designs, some with offset strings slots, some moon shaped. The overall shape of the banjo bridge hasn't changed much in the last 100 years or so.


Banjo straps used to amount to a strap of thin leather or cloth attaching on both ends to bracket hooks. In recent years, however, better (and more expensive) straps have come on the market. The wider a strap is, the easier it is on your shoulder. I think that straps are actually a pretty important part of your banjo setup. If you play standing up much at all, you'll quickly learn that that big chunk of bronze tone ring in there adds up to a pretty heavy instrument, far heavier than a guitar. A thin strap can eat into your shoulder pretty quickly. My favorite is about 3 inches wide in leather with a good quality sheepskin pad under the shoulder area.

Styles of straps

Cradle Type: This straps has two long ends that thread under the bracket hooks all the way around the bottom of the banjo where they meet and lash together, supporting the weight even distributed over the length of the strap.

Bracket attachment: This is pretty much the standard, with leather ends attaching to two bracket hooks in some manner.

Tooled leather: Some of the nicer straps have tooling on them, some can even be personalized with your name or initials.

A good strap can run 40 or 40 dollars, but is well worth it in terms of comfort and protection. I don't know if it's apocryphal or not, but I once heard that Pete Wernick had a strap give on him on stage while playing a priceless old Gibson which fell and broke. If not accurate, still a very good cautionary tale.

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