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What Is a Plectrum Banjo?

A plectrum banjo is a vibrant, four-stringed musical instrument, closely related to the five-string banjo but designed for strumming with a plectrum or pick. It's a favorite in jazz and folk music, offering a bright, crisp sound that enlivens any tune. Curious about how its unique sound shapes music? Let's delve into the world of plectrum banjos together.
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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a plectrum banjo and how does it differ from other banjos?

A plectrum banjo is a four-stringed musical instrument that is part of the banjo family, typically tuned to CGBD. It differs from the more common five-string banjo by lacking the short drone string and is often played with a plectrum or flatpick, hence its name. The plectrum banjo is particularly associated with jazz and traditional American music and offers a bright, crisp sound that is well-suited for strumming and rhythm playing.

Can you play bluegrass music on a plectrum banjo?

While the plectrum banjo is not traditionally used for bluegrass music, which typically features the five-string banjo played with a fingerpicking style, it is possible to play bluegrass tunes on it. However, the sound and playing techniques will differ, as the plectrum banjo is more suited for strumming and has a different tuning. Musicians may need to adapt their playing style to accommodate the instrument's characteristics.

What is the typical tuning for a plectrum banjo?

The typical tuning for a plectrum banjo is CGBD, with the strings being tuned from the lowest pitch to the highest. This tuning is similar to the top four strings of a five-string banjo when the drone string is removed. It allows for a wide range of musical expression and is particularly favored for chordal and rhythm playing in jazz and other genres.

How do you choose the right plectrum for playing the plectrum banjo?

Choosing the right plectrum for playing the plectrum banjo depends on personal preference and playing style. Generally, a medium to heavy gauge pick is recommended for a good balance of control and volume. Players should consider the material of the pick, as it can affect the tone; for example, celluloid picks produce a warmer sound, while metal or glass picks offer a brighter tone. Experimenting with different shapes and thicknesses can help find the most comfortable and sonically pleasing option.

Are there any famous musicians known for playing the plectrum banjo?

Yes, there are several notable musicians known for their plectrum banjo playing. One of the most famous is Harry Reser, an American musician and bandleader who was prominent in the 1920s and 1930s. He was known for his virtuosic technique and is considered one of the greatest banjoists of all time. Another notable plectrum banjo player is Eddie Peabody, also known as "the king of the banjo," who popularized the instrument in the early 20th century with his energetic playing style.

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