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What is a Banjo?

A banjo is a stringed musical instrument with a distinctive twang, often associated with folk, country, and bluegrass music. Its circular drum-like body and long neck create vibrant, rhythmic sounds. Originating from Africa, the banjo's evolution in America has made it a cultural icon. Discover how its unique sound has shaped genres and captured hearts. What's your banjo story?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A banjo is a stringed instrument that has a classically rounded body with a long, thin neck. The number of strings varies depending on the type: a classical banjo has only four or five strings, but other versions may have as many as six. The instrument's sound is commonly associated with bluegrass and country western music in the United States, although it appears in other musical genres as well. Musicians all over the world pick up the banjo for its distinctive style and sound, and are constantly refining the instrument to suit their specific needs.

Stringed instruments have been played for thousands of years throughout human civilization. The banjo probably originated in Africa, where an instrument called the mbanza was made by stretching animal skin over a gourd and adding a long neck with strings that were meant to be plucked by the musician. These stringed instruments were brought over to the Americas by captured slaves, and the first recorded instance of the word dates from the mid 1700s. In the 1800s, black minstrel shows made the banjo commonplace, and frets were added to the instrument to change the sound. The gourd had been replaced by a flat wood or metal frame by the time the instrument exploded into popular culture.

A banjo may have four to six or even more strings.
A banjo may have four to six or even more strings.

Traditional banjos come in four or five string variants, usually, with the five string pegged partway up the neck and serving as a drone. The six string version is tuned and played much like a guitar, and some other exotic variants include even more strings. Musicians usually wear multiple finger picks to pluck the instrument, although some prefer to use their fingers instead. Banjo music is characterized by a distinctive “rinky-tink” sound, although there are a number of different playing styles, depending on the style of music and the training that the musician has received.

When playing live shows, banjos are typically amplified using a microphone, but electric pickups can also be installed.
When playing live shows, banjos are typically amplified using a microphone, but electric pickups can also be installed.

Four string variants include the tenor banjo, which has a shorter neck and a different tuning than a traditional model. Tenor banjos are often used in Irish music and in Dixieland bands. The plectrum banjo, another incarnation, has a longer traditional neck, and is designed to be played with a single pick, like a guitar. Musicians tend to strum more than pluck chords with this type, leading to a different style of sound. The banjo has also been hybridized with numerous instruments, including bouzoukis, ukuleles, mandolins, and guitars. These variants meld the distinctive sounds of their parent instruments for a unique sound and resonance.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a banjo and how is it different from other stringed instruments?

A banjo is a stringed musical instrument with a distinctive sound produced by a vibrating membrane stretched over a frame. Unlike guitars or violins, which have solid wood bodies, the banjo's sound is amplified by this membrane, typically made of plastic or animal skin. It usually has four or five strings and is played with various techniques, including fingerpicking and strumming. The banjo's unique twangy tone sets it apart from other stringed instruments and is often associated with folk, country, and bluegrass music.

What are the different types of banjos available?

There are several types of banjos, each with unique features and sounds. The most common include the 5-string banjo, used predominantly in bluegrass music; the 4-string banjo, which comes in tenor and plectrum varieties and is often used in Dixieland jazz; the 6-string banjo, also known as a banjitar, which is tuned like a guitar; and the less common 12-string and fretless banjos. Each type offers a different range of musical expression and is chosen based on the style of music being played.

How do you tune a banjo, and does it differ by type?

Tuning a banjo varies by type and the music genre. A standard 5-string banjo is typically tuned to open G (gDGBD), while a 4-string tenor banjo is often tuned to C-G-D-A for jazz or G-D-A-E for Irish music. The 6-string banjo is tuned like a guitar (E-A-D-G-B-E). Tuning is done by adjusting the tension of each string using tuning pegs until the desired pitch is achieved. It's important to use a tuner or reference pitch to ensure accuracy.

What materials are banjos typically made from, and how does this affect their sound?

Banjos are traditionally made from a variety of materials that influence their sound. The rim and neck are commonly constructed from woods like maple, mahogany, or walnut, which contribute to the instrument's tonal qualities. The sound-producing membrane, or head, is made from animal skin or synthetic materials like Mylar. Animal skin heads tend to produce a warmer, more traditional tone, while synthetic heads offer brighter, more consistent sound. Metal components, such as the tone ring and tension hoop, also affect the banjo's volume and timbre.

Can beginners easily learn to play the banjo, and what resources are recommended for learning?

Beginners can certainly learn to play the banjo, and many find it rewarding due to its distinctive sound and the variety of music it can produce. Starting with a good quality beginner's banjo and using resources such as instructional books, online tutorials, and lessons from experienced players can help ease the learning process. Websites like Banjo Hangout offer forums and lessons, and video platforms like YouTube have countless tutorials for various skill levels. Consistent practice and patience are key to mastering the banjo.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MusicalExpert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MusicalExpert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

wavy58

I used a banjo to add some simple notes to a friend's song once. He had a banjo, and he wanted someone who didn't know a lot about playing one to pick out a simple melody, just for the unique sound of it.

He didn't want to use a professional banjo player, because he knew that they would be tempted to show off and embellish too much. He just wanted a few notes plucked here and there for a cool effect. He didn't want the banjo to be the main focus of the song, but he did believe that it could add something special that no other instrument could.

I was the ideal person to choose for this task, because I only knew a few notes on the banjo. I was able to give him what he was looking for, and it was pretty cool to hear myself on his CD playing an instrument that I knew so little about.

kylee07drg

@Mykol – They do make it look very easy! My uncle plays a 4 string banjo, and he let me try my hand at it once. Since I play guitar, I was able to pick out a simple melody, but no way could I play it as fast as he does and make it sound the way a banjo should.

He has been playing it for about fifteen years, so that explains the expertise. I think that some people assume just because it only has four strings, it must be super simple. In my opinion, that makes it even more difficult to learn.

I'm used to playing on a guitar with six strings, so my mind is baffled when I'm handed something with only four. I would have to retrain my brain in order to play the banjo, so I think I'll just stick to my guitar.

orangey03

@giddion – I know what you mean. With electric or even acoustic guitars, the musician can bend the strings or make them chime by hitting them in a certain spot to produce different sounds. I've never heard of anyone bending a banjo string or playing harmonics on one.

Then again, I'm not a huge follower of banjo music. It is just too fast for me, and the tempo makes me nervous. I don't like music that involves lots of notes being played in rapid succession.

Having said that, I do like slower banjo music when it is played as part of a song using other instruments and having vocals. It can be cool if it is not overused and only shines forth in certain portions of a song.

giddion

The skinniness of a long banjo neck and the roundness of the body are reminiscent of the shape of a gourd. I suppose this is where it got its design.

It must have worked so well for people long ago that they just kept the shape, even when they stopped using gourds to make them. I do wonder how much the sound changed when the gourds disappeared from the design, though.

Banjos do sound like they must be very basic instruments. You just hear a simple tone coming from each string, and there are no tricks or elaborate things you can do to make different sounds, as far as I'm aware.

SarahSon

My grandpa played the mandolin, which is similar to a banjo. He would often get together with some other musicians who played stringed instruments. It was not uncommon to have at least one guitar player, one person playing the banjo and his mandolin.

When my grandpa passed away, he gave the mandolin to my mom. The sad thing is, nobody else in the family ever learned how to play it. I have often thought about either teaching myself or taking lessons to learn how to do this.

I don't know where I would ever play it, but I might be able to find a group of people who also enjoyed playing stringed instruments like this. It isn't hard too hard to find a guitar player, but you don't see nearly as many banjo or mandolin players.

julies

There is something about the sound of a banjo that makes it hard to keep my feet still. The banjo music I have heard is usually very fast and has an upbeat tempo.

I think it would be a fun project for kids to make their own banjo using a gourd and some strings. I use gourds for different art projects, but have never thought about making a banjo out of one.

It probably wouldn't sound anything like a classic bluegrass banjo, but it would give you an idea of what an original banjo may have sounded like.

Mykol

I enjoy bluegrass music and listening to a banjo being played. Even more entertaining is watching someone playing the banjo in person. Most of them make it look pretty easy, but I know it is not as easy as they make it look.

I have never played the banjo and wouldn't know how to tell the difference between a classic banjo and a 6 string banjo, but I still love listening to someone else play one.

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    • A banjo may have four to six or even more strings.
      By: schankz
      A banjo may have four to six or even more strings.
    • When playing live shows, banjos are typically amplified using a microphone, but electric pickups can also be installed.
      By: matt&stustock
      When playing live shows, banjos are typically amplified using a microphone, but electric pickups can also be installed.