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What Is a Banjo Ukulele?

By Lori Kilchermann
Updated May 23, 2024
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A banjo ukulele, or banjolele as it is often called, is a four-stringed musical instrument that uses the neck of a ukulele attached to a miniature banjo-like body. Unlike some stringed instruments that can occasionally have a fretless neck, the banjolele always employs a fretted fingerboard in the design. The unique design of the banjo ukulele combines a small-scale neck with the familiar tone and telltale sound of a banjo. The body of the instrument can be open or closed. The musical instrument is primarily made using wooden materials, however, some metal bodies have been produced, albeit on a very limited scale.

Combining the 16-fret ukulele neck with a small-scale banjo body, the banjo ukulele makes a distinctive sound when played. Commonly equipped with nylon strings and a synthetic head on the body, original banjo ukulele strings were made of cat gut, while the head was traditionally made of calf skin. The modern banjo ukulele is occasionally equipped with a wound third string and is typically tuned in a C or D tuning, or what is known as a "my dog has fleas" tuning. Unlike a banjo that is played using three fingers in a rolling style of picking, the banjolele is strummed in the same manner as a ukulele, either by fingers or with a pick.

The banjo ukulele has been used by many important songwriters and composers in all types of musical genres, from stand-up comedy and classical music to contemporary country and rock-and-roll. Reaching from Great Britain to the United States, the banjo ukulele has been used by musicians such as George Harrison of the Beatles and Queen's Brian May. American musical artists Wendell Hall and Roy Smeck also used the small instrument with much success.

Music typically written for the ukulele can be easily transposed for use with the banjolele. The twangy, sometimes high-pitched notes of this instrument add a touch of Dixieland or bluegrass to some types of music. The banjo ukulele reached the height of the instrument's popularity in the 1920s and 1930s; however, it remains a common piece of many large string bands and orchestras around the globe.

Many players of the banjo ukulele prefer the natural heads as compared to the synthetic versions. The head is the covering on the surface of the large circle area at the base of the instrument's neck. The natural heads are claimed, by some players, to have a richer and a traditional deeper tone when played.

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Discussion Comments

By drtroubles — On Nov 27, 2011

Does anyone know of some music that I can sample that has ukuleles in it?

I have recently heard some music being played by a local band that featured Mainland ukuleles and I really enjoyed the vibe of the Dixieland tunes. I think it had a really unique sound, one that you just don't hear much these days. I was actually surprised that I enjoyed it to be honest. I like later jazz, so hearing some of the really early stuff was rather enlightening. I think the next time I go down to New Orleans I will make a point of finding some more shows to watch.

By letshearit — On Nov 26, 2011

@lonelygod - If you are looking for a banjo ukulele that will hold up and comes with a good warranty, your best bet is to purchase one like an Eddy Finn Banjo Uke, which is a concert-sized instrument that has a lifetime warranty.

As far as parts go, usually you can get replacement strings off of the company, though when I purchased my gold tone banjo ukulele for my own work it did come with a few extras. I think it was some sort of promotional deal though.

Also, as a tip, try and purchase a banjo ukulele that comes with the carrying bag. You'd be surprised at how expensive they can be separately.

By lonelygod — On Nov 26, 2011

My friends and I have been thinking about purchasing a bangjo ukulele for our band, as we want to add a bit of twang to some of our songs. We have been experimenting quite a bit with a lot of different instruments in hopes of creating a really unique sound that sets up apart.

Does anyone know where to find a banjo ukulele for sale that comes with a few spare banjo ukulele parts for repair, and has a decent warranty?

We consider our instruments to be an investment and like the ones that come with lifetime warranties. All of our guitars have great warranties, which has come in really handy over the years we have been working together.

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