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What Is a Plectrum Banjo?

DM Gutierrez
DM Gutierrez

The plectrum banjo is named for the way it is played, with a plectrum, more commonly known as a pick. It has only four strings, unlike the standard banjo, which has four long strings and one short string. The plectrum banjo does not include the fifth shorter string.

Like other banjos, plectrum banjos consist of a drum, neck with frets, tuning pegs, and strings. The plectrum banjo’s usual tuning is “C, G, B, D.” It can also be tuned like a mandolin or fiddle when playing traditional folk music, a style known as “Chicago tuning.” This style also matches the top four strings of a guitar: D, G, B, E.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

Plectrum banjos were created to suit a particular type of music, typically jazz and specifically Dixieland jazz. They are usually strummed with a pick between thumb and forefinger instead of picked with either fingertips or finger picks as the 5-string banjo is usually played. The sound of the plectrum banjo was typically bright and cheerful.

The banjo originated in Africa from instruments made of gourds. Large gourds were usually fitted with necks onto which strings were attached. When Africans were taken to other countries as slaves, they recreated these instruments which were later called banjos. White musicians in black face performed with banjos as early as the American Revolution, but they gained their greatest popularity during the Civil War.

The plectrum banjo later evolved into the tenor banjo. Where plectrum banjos have 22 frets like the standard five-string banjo, the tenor banjo has only 17 or 19 frets, making its neck shorter. These four-string banjos, along with the lesser-known cello banjo, were generally played either by strumming chords or by playing melodies one string at a time with a plectrum.

The loud, bright sound of the plectrum and tenor banjos are the typical voice of early 20th-century dance halls, vaudeville, and jazz clubs, especially before and after World War I. Ragtime music was often played by plectrum banjo players.

The four-string banjo, of which the plectrum banjo is prominent, was generally the most popular banjo during the 1900s. The five-string banjo regained popularity with a renewed interest in Appalachian folk music in mid-20th century, largely due to the tune “Dueling Banjos” in the film “Deliverance.” The rise of bluegrass music also called on the five-string banjo, though traditional Irish folk music, made famous by the group “The Dubliners,” brought the four-string banjo to a wider audience.

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      Man playing a guitar