A Brief and Illustrated Look at Banjos
The American Music StapleClick thumbnail to view full-size
A (very) Little Bit of History
The banjo is an iconic instrument in American music, identified as both somewhat old-timesy and regional. As a staple in country, folk, and bluegrass music, the banjo occupies a particularly soft spot in the American musical psyche.
The banjo has its most basic roots in an assortment of African instruments that used animal skins, dried shells (such as that from a gourd), sticks, and strings. They began to take their current form as early as the 1600s in the islands of the Caribbean, where certain improvements where made. This is the first introduction of the standard flat-necked fingerboards and pegs which could be used to tune the instrument simply by rotation.
It was in minstrel shows that the banjo gained much of its mainstream American popularity when, for the first time in public, a white man (named Joel Walker Sweeny) began playing it in entertainment halls.
What it looks like
To an absolute musical novice, a banjo could be described as a small guitar-looking stringed instrument with a tight skin, similar to that of a drum, drawn across a circular rim. Most popular banjos have four or five strings, though six-string banjos exist as well.
What it sounds like
In a word, twangy. Though tuning, playing style, and number of strings have clear and evident impacts upon the way a particular banjo sounds, the most common conception of the way a banjo sounds is whiny sound that inclines itself toward short notes and fast melodies.
Though there are no requirements mandating the speed of banjo play, quick play does seem popular. In fact, even when the playing starts slow, it appears inevitable that that twangy pace will pick up sooner or later. An example of the instinctive quickening of the banjo can be seen in one of the most famous banjo riffs ever. (See below!)
There are at least two significant versions of the five-string banjo.
The most popular type of banjo is a five-stringed banjo called the "resonator." If you know nothing about banjos except what you've read here, then you're most likely to have only seen the five-string resonator. It is the exclusive banjo of the bluegrass genre and is played with finger picks worn over the index finger and the thumb. The five-string resonator has 22 frets.
The second type of five-string banjo is the non-resonator, also known as the "regular banjo." The primary difference between the resonator and the non-resonator is that the regular banjo has an open back to it. That open back keeps the sound from resonating. This style is also played with finger picks and has 22 frets.
Like the five-string banjos, there are two popular styles of the four-stringed instrument.
The more commonly used is the "plectrum banjo." Why is there one fewer string on the four-string banjo? Well, jazz players lopped off a string and started using picks (a.k.a. "plectrums") in order to be better heard when playing in crowded clubs. This type of banjo has 22 frets like the others.
The tenor banjo, the second most played style of four-string banjos has another significant change. Unlike the three previously detailed banjos, the tenor has fewer threats. Typically a tenor banjo will be crafted with either 17 or 19 frets.
Other Miscellaneous Banjos
There is a style of banjo that has six-strings, but it is less standardized than the four- and five-string instruments. There are a variety of string-length variations associated with the six-string banjos that have subtle influences on the sounds a skilled player can make.
As stringed instruments became increasingly popular in American musical culture, guitar banjos, mandolin banjos, and ukulele banjos were all designed to resemble their namesakes in both style and sound.