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A modern 5-string banjo
String instrument
Hornbostel-Sachs classification 321.322-5
(Composite chordophone sounded by the bare fingers)
Developed 18th century
Playing range
Range banjo.png

The banjo is a stringed instrument developed by enslaved Africans in Colonial America, adapted from several African instruments.[1] The name banjo is commonly thought to be derived from the Kimbundu term mbanza. Some etymologists derive it from a dialectal pronunciation of "bandore" or from an early anglicisation of the Spanish word "bandurria", though other research suggests that it may come from a Senegambian term for a bamboo stick formerly used for the instrument's neck.[citation needed]



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Enslaved Africans, living in Appalachia, fashioned gourd-bodied instruments like those with which they had been familiar in Africa. 18th and early 19th century writers transcribed the name of these instruments variously as bangie, banza, banjer and banjar. Instruments similar to the banjo (e.g., the Japanese shamisen and Persian tar have been played in many countries, but a likely ancestor of the banjo is the akonting, a spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of Senegambia. Other similar instruments include the xalam of Senegal and the ngoni of the Wassoulou region including parts of Mali, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire.[citation needed] It is probable that the banjo has migrated across continents, mutating from form to form for centuries. The modern banjo was popularized by the American minstrel performer Joel Sweeney in the 1830s. Banjos were introduced in Britain in the 1840s by Sweeney's group, the American Virginia Minstrels, and became very popular in music halls.[2]

Modern forms

The modern banjo comes in a variety of forms, including four- and five-string versions. A six-string version, tuned and played similar to a guitar, has been gaining popularity. In almost all of its forms, the banjo's playing is characterized by a fast arpeggiated plucking, although there are many different playing styles.

The body, or "pot", of a modern banjo typically consists of a circular rim (generally made of wood), a metal tone ring, and a tensioned head, similar to a drum head. Traditionally the head was made from animal skin, but is often made of various synthetic materials today. Some banjos have a separate resonator plate on the back of the pot, while others have an open back. There are also electric banjos.


Today, the banjo is commonly associated with Dixieland, country, folk and bluegrass music. Historically, however, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music, as well as in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. In fact, African Americans exerted a strong, early influence on the development of both country and bluegrass through the introduction of the banjo, and as well through the innovation of musical techniques in the playing of both the banjo and fiddle.[3][4][5] Recently, the banjo has enjoyed inclusion in a wide variety of musical genres, including pop crossover music, indie rock (see Modest Mouse and Sufjan Stevens), and Celtic punk.

Five-string banjo

Helmholtz notation
Note: This article uses Helmholtz pitch notation to define banjo tunings.

The instrument is available in many forms. The five-string banjo was popularized by Joel Walker Sweeney, an American minstrel performer from Appomattox Court House, Virginia.[6] In the 1830s Sweeney became the first white man to play the banjo on stage. His version of the instrument replaced the gourd body of the banjar with a drum-like sound box and included four full-length strings alongside the short fifth-string drone string. There is no proof, however, that Sweeney invented either innovation. This new banjo came to be tuned g'cgbd'. This is not quite a straight transposition of the e'aeg#b' tuning of the banjar; the B string of the banjo has the lowest pitch.

A woman playing a five-string banjo.

The banjo can be played in several styles and is used in various forms of music. American old-time music typically uses the five-string open back banjo. It is played in a number of different styles, the most common of which are called clawhammer or frailing, characterised by the use of a downward rather than upward motion when striking the strings with a fingernail. Frailing techniques use the thumb to catch the fifth string for a drone after each strum or twice in each action ("double thumbing"), or to pick out additional melody notes in what is known as "drop-thumb." Pete Seeger popularised a folk style by combining clawhammer with "up picking", usually without the use of fingerpicks.

Typical Banjo.

Bluegrass music, which uses the five-string resonator banjo almost exclusively, is played in several common styles. These include Scruggs style, named after Earl Scruggs; melodic, or Keith style; and three-finger style with single string work, also called Reno style after Don Reno, father of Don Wayne Reno. In these styles the emphasis is on arpeggiated figures played in a continuous eighth-note rhythm. All of these styles are typically played with fingerpicks.

Many tunings are used for the five-string banjo. Probably the most common, particularly in bluegrass, is the open G tuning (g'DGBd'). In earlier times, the tuning gCGBd was commonly used instead. Other tunings common in old-time music include double C (g'CGc'd'), sawmill or mountain minor (g'DGc'd') also called Modal or Mountain Modal, old-time D (a'DAd'e') a step up from double C, often played with a violin accompaniment, and open D (f#'DF#Ad'). These tunings are often taken up a tone, either by tuning up or using a capo.

The fifth (drone) string is the same gauge as the first, but it is generally five frets shorter, three quarters the length of the rest. One notable exception is the long-necked Pete Seeger model, where the additional three frets are not added to the fifth string. The short fifth string means that unlike many string instruments, the strings on a five string banjo do not go in order from lowest to highest from one side of the neck to the other. Instead, in order from low to high the strings are the fourth, third, second, first, and then fifth.

The short fifth string presents special problems for using a capo to change the pitch of the instrument. For small changes (going up or down one or two semitones, for example) it is possible simply to re-tune the fifth string. Otherwise various devices, known as fifth string capos, are available effectively to shorten the string. Many banjo players favour the use of model railroad spikes or titanium spikes (usually installed at the seventh fret and sometimes at others), under which the string can be hooked to keep it pressed down on the fret.

While the five-string banjo has been used in classical music since the turn of the century, contemporary and modern works have been written for the instrument by Béla Fleck, Tim Lake, George Crumb, Modest Mouse, Jo Kondo, Paul Elwood, Hans Werner Henze (notably in his Sixth Symphony), Beck, J.P. Pickens, Peggy Honeywell, Norfolk & Western, The Avett Brothers and Sufjan Stevens.

The instrument is sometimes used in musical theater. For example, the following musicals feature a banjo: Mame, Half a Sixpence, and Annie.

While the size of the five string banjo is largely standardized, there are smaller and larger sizes available, including the 'long neck' or 'Seeger neck' variation discussed above. Petite variations on the 5-string banjo have been available since the 1890s. S.S. Stewart introduced the banjeaurine, tuned one fourth above a standard five-string. Piccolo banjos are smaller, and tuned one octave above a standard banjo.

Four-string banjo

Four-string banjo
Plectrum banjo from Gold Tone
Irish tenor banjo from Gold Tone
Cello banjo from Gold Tone

The plectrum banjo is a standard banjo without the short drone string. It usually has 22 frets on the neck and a scale length of 26 to 28 inches, and was originally tuned cgbd'. It can also be tuned like the top four strings of a guitar, which is known as "Chicago tuning." As the name suggests, it is usually played with a guitar-style pick (that is, a single one held between thumb and forefinger), unlike the five-string banjo, which is either played with a thumbpick and two fingerpicks, or with bare fingers. The plectrum banjo evolved out of the five-string banjo, to cater to styles of music involving strummed chords. The plectrum is also featured in many early jazz recordings and arrangements.

The shorter-necked tenor banjo, which also has four strings and is also typically played with a plectrum, became a popular instrument after about 1910. Early models used for melodic picking typically had 17 frets on the neck and a scale length of 19 1/2 to 21 1/2 inches. By the mid-1920's, when the instrument was used primarily for strummed chordal accompaniment, 19-fret necks with a scale length of 21 3/4 to 23 inches became standard. The usual tuning is cgd'a', like a viola or mandola, but some players (particularly in Irish traditional music) tune it Gdae′ like an octave mandolin, which allows the banjoist to duplicate fiddle and mandolin fingering. The invention and/or popularisation of this tuning is usually attributed to Barney McKenna, banjoist with The Dubliners.

The tenor banjo was a common rhythm instrument in early 20th-century dance bands. Its volume and timbre suited early jazz (and jazz-influenced popular music styles) and could both compete with other instruments (such as brass instruments and saxophones) and be heard clearly on acoustic recordings. Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, in its original jazz orchestra arrangement by Ferde Grofe, includes tenor banjo in its scoring, with the widely-spaced chords not playable on plectrum banjo in its conventional tuning(s). With the development of the archtop and electric guitar, the tenor banjo practically disappeared from jazz and popular music, though keeping its place in traditional "Dixieland" jazz.

Rarer than either the tenor or plectrum banjo is the cello banjo. Normally tuned CGda, one octave below the tenor banjo, it matches the cello and mandocello in range. It played a role in banjo orchestras in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bass banjos have been produced in both upright bass formats and with standard, horizontally-carried banjo bodies.

Four-string banjos, both plectrum and tenor, can be used strictly for chordal accompaniment (as in early jazz), strictly for single string melody playing (as in Irish traditional music), in "chord melody" style (a succession of chords are played in which the highest notes carry the melody), in tremolo style (both on chords and single strings) and a mixed technique called duo style which combines single string tremolo and rhythm chords.

Eddie Peabody was the greatest proponent of the plectrum banjo in the early to mid twentieth century. Harry Reser, who also played plectrum banjo, was arguably the best tenor banjoist of the same era and wrote a large number of works for tenor banjo as well as instructional material. Roy Smeck was an influential performer on many fretted instruments, including the four-string banjo. He also wrote a number of solos and instructional books. In the United Kingdom, Frank Lawes was one of the most prolific composers of four string Banjo music. Johnny Biar and Buddy Wachter are prominent four-string banjoists currently working professionally.

Banjo variants

Old 6-string zither banjo

A British innovation was the 6-string banjo, developed by William Temlett, one of England's earliest banjo makers, who opened his shop in London in 1846. American Alfred Davis Cammeyer (1862-1949), a young violinist-turned banjo concert player, devised the 5/6-string Zither banjo around 1880, which had a wood resonator and metal "wire" strings (the 1st and 2nd melody strings and 5th "thumb" string; the 3rd melody string was gut and the 4th was silk covered) as well as frets and guitar-style tuning machines. A Zither banjo is a 5 string banjo that has 6 tuning heads because they used guitar tuning heads which at that time contained 3 tuning heads in one solid piece. The banjos could also be somewhat easily converted over to a 6 string banjo. British opera diva Adelina Patti advised Cammeyer that the zither-banjo might be popular with English audiences, and Cammeyer went to London in 1888. After convincing the British that banjos could be used for more sophisticated music than was normally played by blackface minstrels, he was soon performing for London society, where he met Sir Arthur Sullivan, who recommended that Cammeyer progress from writing banjo arrangements of music to composing his own music. (Interesting to note that, supposedly unbeknownst to Cammeyer, William Temlett had patented a 7-string closed back banjo in 1869, and was already marketing it as a "zither-banjo.") In the late 1890s Banjo maker F.C Wilkes developed a 6-string version of the banjo with the 6th string "tunnelled" through the neck. It is arguable that Arthur O. Windsor had much influence in creating and perfecting the Zither banjo and creating the open-back banjo[7] along with other modifications to the banjo type instruments, such as the non-solid attached resonator that banjos' today have (Gibson lays claim to this modification on the American Continent). Windsor claims to be the first in creating the hollow neck banjo with a truss rod, and he buried the 5th string in the neck after the 5th fret so to put the tuning peg on the peg-head rather than in the neck. Gibson lays claim to perfecting the banjo with the tone rings.

The first 5-string electric solid-body banjo was developed by Charles (Buck) Wilburn Trent, Harold "Shot" Jackson, and David Jackson in 1960.

The six-string or guitar-banjo was the instrument of the early jazz great Johnny St. Cyr, as well as of jazzmen Django Reinhardt, Danny Barker, Papa Charlie Jackson and Clancy Hayes, as well as the blues and gospel singer The Reverend Gary Davis. Nowadays, it sometimes appears under such names as guitanjo, guitjo, ganjo, banjitar, or bantar.

A number of hybrid instruments exist, crossing the banjo with other stringed instruments. Most of these use the body of a banjo, often with a resonator, and the neck of the other instrument. Examples include the banjo mandolin, the Banjolin, and the banjo ukulele or banjolele. These were especially popular in the early decades of the twentieth century, and were probably a result of a desire either to allow players of other instruments to jump on the banjo bandwagon at the height of its popularity, or to get the natural amplification benefits of the banjo resonator in an age before electric amplification.

Instruments using the five-string banjo neck on a wooden body (for example, that of a bouzouki or resonator guitar) have also been made, such as the banjola. A 20th-Century Turkish instrument very similar to the banjo is called cümbüs.

Rhythm guitarist Dave Day of 1960's proto-punks The Monks replaced his guitar with a six-string, gut-strung banjo upon which he played guitar chords. This instrument sounds much more metallic, scratchy and wiry than a standard electric guitar, due to its amplification via a small microphone stuck inside the banjo's body.

See also

Further reading


Banjo history

  • Conway, Cecelia (1995). African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions, University of Tennessee Press. Paper: ISBN 0-87049-893-2; cloth: ISBN 0-87049-892-4. A study of the influence of African Americans on banjo playing throughout U.S. history.
  • Gura, Philip F. and James F. Bollman (1999). America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century. The University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0-8078-2484-4. The definitive history of the banjo, focusing on the instrument's development in the 1800s.
  • Katonah Museum of Art (2003). The Birth of the Banjo. Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York. ISBN 0-915171-64-3.
  • Linn, Karen (1994). That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-06433-X. Scholarly cultural history of the banjo, focusing on how its image has evolved over the years.
  • Tsumura, Akira (1984). Banjos: The Tsumura Collection. Kodansha International Ltd. ISBN 0-87011-605-3. An illustrated history of the banjo featuring the world's premier collection.
  • Webb, Robert Lloyd (1996). Ring the Banjar!. 2nd edition. Centerstream Publishing. ISBN 1-57424-016-1. A short history of the banjo, with pictures from an exhibition at the MIT Museum.

External links


  1. ^ Bluegrass Music: The Roots." IBMA. Retrieved on 2006-08-25.
  2. ^ Information on the banjo and development of the Zither-banjo.
  3. ^ Winship, David."The African American Music Tradition in Country Music." BCMA, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. Retrieved 02-08-2007. Archive copy at the Internet Archive.
  4. ^ Conway, Cecelia (2005). African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia. The University of Tennessee Press. p. 424. 
  5. ^ "Old-time (oldtimey) Music What is it?." TML, A Traditional Music Library. Retrieved 02-08-2007.
  6. ^ Metro Voloshin, The Banjo, from Its Roots to the Ragtime Era: An Essay and Bibliography Music Reference Services Quarterly, Vol. 6(3) 1998.
  7. ^


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