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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

A four-string banjo
A four-string banjo
For other uses, see Banjo (disambiguation)

The banjo is a stringed instrument of African origin, early or original examples sometimes being called the "gourd banjo". One predecessor to the banjo is called the "Akonting." It is a spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of Senegambia. The name banjo 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.

Although the banjo is most commonly associated with country or bluegrass music, the instrument has enjoyed inclusion in a wide variety of musical genres, not the least of which is up-and-coming pop crossover music. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music as well as in the minstrel shows of the 19th century.

The banjo consists of a wooden or metal rim with a plastic polyester (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 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 possibly erroneously, linked to Joel Walker Sweeney, an American minstrel performer from Appomattox Court House, Virginia. 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 that has what appears to be three long strings and a short, thumb-plucked string. In part because of that painting, modern scholarship now believes that it was the bass string that Sweeney added, not the "thumb string".

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 "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 fingerpicks.

Bluegrass music, which uses the five-string resonator banjo 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, legendary father of Don Wayne Reno. In these styles the emphasis is on arpeggiated figures played in a continuous eighth-note rhythm.

Many tunings are used for the five-string banjo. Probably the most common, particularly 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 generally five frets shorter, three quarters the length of the rest (one notable exception is Vega's long necked Pete Seeger model, where the fifth string is seven frets shorter). 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.

While the five-string banjo has been little used in classical music, contemporary and modern works have been written for the instrument by George Crumb, Jo Kondo, Paul Elwood, Tim Lake and Beck.

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 to styles of music involving strummed chords.

A further development is the tenor banjo, which also has four strings and is also typically played with a plectrum. It has a shorter neck of 19 frets, and is usually tuned CGDA, like a viola, or GDAE, like a violin (but an octave lower). These tunings became popular around the turn of the century due to the growing popularity of the mandolin. A previous tuning was DGBE (like the 1st four of a guitar) which is now regaining popularity due to the number of guitarists who double on banjo. The tenor banjo has become a standard instrument for Irish traditional music, where is mainly used in its shorter 17 frets variant. Tenor Banjo was also a common rhythm instrument in traditional or Dixieland Jazz because its volume can compete with brass instruments.

The Tenor Banjo is regaining popularity as Dixieland Jazz finds its way back into experimental improvisational music. Its rise to popularity is being supported by the recent manufacturing of Tenors at a working musicians price. Until the late 1990s, Tenors were rare and expensive, not giving players much of a chance to warm up to them.

Eddie Peabody (plectrum), Harry Reser (tenor and plectrum) and Barney McKenna (Irish tenor) are regarded as three of the best four-string banjo players of all time.

Other banjo variants

Old 6-string zither banjo
Old 6-string zither 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 (sometimes known by the trade name 'banjitar') or guitjo, an instrument used by Australian country music artist Keith Urban; the banjo mandolin; the Banjolin; Banjoline 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 Cümbüs.

A different variation is the bassjo used most notably by Les Claypool on the song Iowan Gal. It is, in essence, a banjo with a bass guitar neck and bass strings.

See also

  • List of banjo players
  • Prewar Gibson banjo

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.

Instructional (5-String Banjo)

  • Bailey, Jay. "Historical Origin and Stylistic Development of the Five-String Banjo." The Journal of American Folklore 85.335 (1972): 58-65.
  • Winans , Robert B. "The Folk, the Stage, and the Five-String Banjo in the Nineteenth Century." The Journal of American Folklore 89. 354 (1976): 407-37. 14 Sep. 2006.
  • Costello, Patrick (2003). The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo. Pik-Ware Publishing. ISBN 0-9744190-0-1. Instruction in frailing banjo. Available online under a Creative Commons license on several web sites including ezfolk.
  • 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.
  • Seeger, Pete (1969). How to Play the 5-String Banjo. 3rd edition. Music Sales Corporation. ISBN 0-8256-0024-3. The seminal instruction book, still in print decades later. Seeger has since recorded an instruction video, available on DVD.

Instructional (Tenor Banjo)

  • Bay, Mel (1990). Complete Tenor Banjo Method. Porcupine Press. ISBN 1-56222-018-7. An instructional guide.
  • O'Connor, Gerry. 50 solos for Irish tenor banjo: (featuring jigs, reels and hornpipes arranged for E, A, D, G and A, D, G, C tuning). Soodlum, Waltons Mfg. Ltd. ASIN B0000COFVO.
  • Wachter, Buddy (2005). Learning Tenor Banjo. Homespun. ISBN 1-59773-078-5. An instructional guide.
  • Bay, Mel (1973). Deluxe Encyclopedia of Tenor Banjo Chords. Porcupine Press. ISBN 0-87166-877-7. A comprehensive chord dictionary for CGDA or standard tuning.
  • Richards, Tobe A. (2006). The Irish Tenor Banjo Chord Bible. Cabot Books. ISBN 0-9553944-4-9. A comprehensive chord dictionary for GDAE Irish tuning.

External links

  • myspace Akonting site-african predecessor
  • The Art of Gourde Banjo Construction
  • Haiti Banza, early gourde banjo
  • Old Time banjo music examples
  • The International Bluegrass Music Museum
  • Chord finder for 4-string banjos
  • The Banjo Hut Video Samples
  • Banjo-L
  • The Banjo Hangout
  • Audities Foundation Bacon and Day Tenor
  • The Banjo Newsletter


  • Video Demonstration of clawhammer style of banjo playing
  • Julie Duggan clawhammer banjo videosRoomba
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