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A Brief and Illustrated Look at Banjos

Updated on August 28, 2014

The American Music Staple

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Old time playerKermit T. FrogPlaying on the porch
Old time player
Old time player | Source
Source
Kermit T. Frog
Kermit T. Frog | Source
Playing on the porch
Playing on the porch | Source
A standard, five-string banjo
A standard, five-string banjo | Source

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!)

Dueling Banjos

Five-string Resonator Banjo
Five-string Resonator Banjo | Source

Five-string Banjo

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.

Finger picks, placed on the index finger and thumb, used to play the five-string banjo.
Finger picks, placed on the index finger and thumb, used to play the five-string banjo. | Source
Plectrum banjo being displayed between uses. An observant viewer will see that it has 22 frets, distinguishing it from the tenor banjo.
Plectrum banjo being displayed between uses. An observant viewer will see that it has 22 frets, distinguishing it from the tenor banjo. | Source

Four-string Banjos

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.

Front and reverse sides of a Mandolin Banjo.
Front and reverse sides of a Mandolin Banjo. | Source

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.

A few banjo players you probably never heard of...

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Harry Reser, arguably the best banjoist of the 1920s.Eddie Peabody, the best plectrum banjoist of his age.Earl Scruggs, who died in early 2012, popularized a three-finger picking style that is now appropriately referred to as Scruggs Style.
Harry Reser, arguably the best banjoist of the 1920s.
Harry Reser, arguably the best banjoist of the 1920s. | Source
Eddie Peabody, the best plectrum banjoist of his age.
Eddie Peabody, the best plectrum banjoist of his age. | Source
Earl Scruggs, who died in early 2012, popularized a three-finger picking style that is now appropriately referred to as Scruggs Style.
Earl Scruggs, who died in early 2012, popularized a three-finger picking style that is now appropriately referred to as Scruggs Style. | Source

And two you probably have...

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Steve Martin, once ranked #6 stand-up comedian of all time, has transitioned into a jack-of-all trades career which includes a heavy emphasis on his banjo-playing, which earned him a Grammy in 2010 for Best Bluegrass Album."Country" Winston Marshall, the banjoist of Mumford and Sons.  Mumford and Sons won a 2013 Grammy (Best Album) for their popular album "Babel."
Steve Martin, once ranked #6 stand-up comedian of all time, has transitioned into a jack-of-all trades career which includes a heavy emphasis on his banjo-playing, which earned him a Grammy in 2010 for Best Bluegrass Album.
Steve Martin, once ranked #6 stand-up comedian of all time, has transitioned into a jack-of-all trades career which includes a heavy emphasis on his banjo-playing, which earned him a Grammy in 2010 for Best Bluegrass Album. | Source
"Country" Winston Marshall, the banjoist of Mumford and Sons.  Mumford and Sons won a 2013 Grammy (Best Album) for their popular album "Babel."
"Country" Winston Marshall, the banjoist of Mumford and Sons. Mumford and Sons won a 2013 Grammy (Best Album) for their popular album "Babel." | Source

"The Banjolin Song" by Mumford and Sons

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