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Old 6-string zither banjo
Old 6-string zither banjo

The banjo is a stringed instrument of African American origin, early or original examples sometimes being called the "gourd banjo". Its name is commonly thought to be derived from the Kimbundu term mbanza. Some etymologists derive it from a dialectal pronunciation of "bandore", though recent research suggests that it may come from a Senegambian term for the bamboo stick used for the instrument's neck.

The modern banjo comes in a variety of different forms, including four- (plectrum and tenor banjos) and five-string versions. A six-string version, tuned and played similar to a guitar is gaining popularity. In almost all of its forms the banjo's playing is characterised by a fast strumming or arpeggiated right hand, although there are many different playing styles.

The banjo consists of a wooden or metal rim with a plastic (PET film) or calf or goat skin drumhead stretched across it, a neck mounted on the side of the rim, a tailpiece mounted opposite the neck, four or five strings, and a bridge. The woods used in construction vary, but are often combinations of maple, walnut, and ebony for fingerboards, pegheads, and the tops of bridges. In the five-string banjo, the fifth peg is normally on the side of the neck, although some English versions (the Zither banjo) mount the fifth string tuner on the tuning head with the others, and route the string through a tube in the neck where it exits near the fifth fret.

The earliest banjos were unfretted, like the African and Asian instruments that inspired them, but most banjos today are fretted. Banjo strings are most commonly metal, although nylon and gut can be used on some banjos, especially those played in the classical style. The two most common modern day acoustic banjos are the resonator banjo which has a detachable chamber, or resonator, on the back of the rim and the open back banjo which does not have a resonator. There are also solid body electric banjos; one such banjo, the Crossfire (manufactured by Deering), has two powerful magnetic pickups under the drumhead. A metal footed bridge ensures that pickups draw sound from both the strings and the head.

Five-string banjo

The origins of the five-string banjo are often, but probably erroneously, linked to Joel Walker Sweeney, an American minstrel performer. Sweeney wanted an instrument similar to the banjar played by African Americans in the American south, but at the same time, he wanted to implement some new ideas. He worked with a New York drum maker to replace the banjar's skin-covered gourd with the modern open-backed drum-like pot, and added another string to give the instrument more range or a drone. This new banjo came to be tuned gCGBD; somewhat higher than the eAEG#B tuning of the banjar. However, a painting done long before Sweeney's supposed invention of the fifth string, called The Old Plantation, shows African American slaves playing a banjo with what looks to be a short, fifth string.

The banjo can be played in several styles and is used in various forms of music. In bluegrass music, which uses the five-string resonator banjo extensively, it is often played in Scruggs style, named after Earl Scruggs, melodic or Keith style, or two-finger style, also called Reno style after Don Reno, legendary father of Don Wayne Reno. In these styles the emphasis is on arpeggiated figures played in a continuous eighth-note rhythm.

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 "claw-hammer") and frailing, characterised by the use of a downward rather than upward motion when striking the strings with the fingers. Frailing techniques use the thumb to catch the fifth string for a drone after each strum, or to pick out additional melody notes in what is known as "drop-thumb" or "double thumbing." Pete Seeger popularised a folk style by combining clawhammer with "up picking" without the use of finger picks.

Many tunings are used for the five-string banjo. Probably the most common, certainly in bluegrass, is the open G tuning: gDGBd. In earlier times, the tuning gCGBd was commonly used instead. Other tunings common in old-time music include double C (gCGCd), sawmill or mountain minor (gDGCd) also called Modal or Mountain Modal, 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 five frets shorter, three quarters the length of the rest. This 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 to simply retune the fifth string. Otherwise various devices are available to effectively shorten the string. Many banjo players favour the use of model railroad 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.

Four-string banjo

The plectrum banjo has four strings, lacking the shorter fifth string, and 22 frets; it is usually tuned CGBD. 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 almost always played with a thumbpick and two fingerpicks, or occasionally with bare fingers. The plectrum banjo evolved out of the five-string banjo to cater for styles of music involving strummed chords. A further development is the tenor banjo, which also has four strings and is typically played with a plectrum too. It has a shorter neck of 19 frets is usually tuned CGDA, like a viola, or GDAE, like a violin (but an octave lower), and has become quite a standard instrument for Irish traditional music where is mainly used in its shorter 17 frets variant. Eddie Peabody (plectrum) Harry Reser (tenor and plectrum) are regarded as two of the best four-string banjo players of all times.

Other banjo variants

Stanislaw Grzesiuk playing a distinctive 8-string banjo
Stanislaw Grzesiuk playing a distinctive 8-string banjo

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 guitar banjo, 'banjitar' (a trade-name) or guitjo, the banjo mandolin 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. The six-string or guitar-banjo was the instrument of the early jazz great Johnny St. Cyr, as well as of jazzmen Danny Barker, Papa Charlie Jackson and Clancy Hayes.

Instruments using the five-string banjo neck on a wooden body (for example, that of a bouzouki or resonator guitar) have also been made, though these are not so common. A 20th-Century Turkish instrument very similar to the banjo is called Cumbus.

Further reading

Banjo history

  • Conway, Cecelia (1995). African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions, University of Tennessee Press. Paper: ISBN 0870498932>; cloth: ISBN 0870498924. 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 0807824844. 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, New York: Katonah Museum of Art.
  • Tsumura, Akira (1984). Banjos: The Tsumura Collection. Kodansha International Ltd. ISBN 0870116053. An illustrated history of the banjo featuring the world's premier collection.
  • Webb, Robert Lloyd (1996). Ring the Banjar!. 2nd edition. Centerstream Publishing. ISBN 1574240161. A short history of the banjo, with pictures from an exhibition at the MIT Museum.


  • Costello, Patrick (2003). The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo. Pik-Ware Publishing. ISBN 0974419001. Instruction in frailing banjo. Available online under a Creative Commons license on several web sites including ezfolk.
  • Seeger, Pete (1969). How to Play the 5-String Banjo. 3rd edition. Music Sales Corporation. ISBN 0825600243. The seminal instruction book, still in print decades later. Seeger has since recorded an instruction video, available on DVD.
  • Seeger, Mike (2005). "Old-Time Banjo Styles". Homespun Tapes. ASIN: B0007LC59Q. Seeger teaches several old-time picking techniques -- clawhammer, two-finger, three-finger, up-picking and others.

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article - Banjo