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.