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What is a Banjo?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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 The gourd had been replaced by a flat wood or metal frame by the time the instrument exploded into popular culture.

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.

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.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

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

Discussion Comments
By wavy58 — On Jul 15, 2012

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.

By kylee07drg — On Jul 15, 2012

@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.

By orangey03 — On Jul 14, 2012

@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.

By giddion — On Jul 14, 2012

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.

By SarahSon — On Jul 13, 2012

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.

By julies — On Jul 12, 2012

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.

By Mykol — On Jul 12, 2012

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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