Facts About Banjos

by Kylie Lemon
Banjos can have four or five strings.

Banjos can have four or five strings.

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A banjo is a stringed folk instrument that originated in Africa. It is classified as a chordophone and can be plucked or strummed. Banjos have a round-shaped body that has an animal skin or parchment stretched over it much like a drum. They may have either five or four strings, a fingerboard with frets, and a neck that is elongated.

Five String Banjo

The five string banjo is the only banjo used in bluegrass music. Bluegrass banjo players mostly use G-tuning to tune the five string banjo. They will also use a D-tuning at times. The five string banjo is mainly picked and strummed and played with fingerpicks in a picking style that is syncopated. The neck of the five string banjo is long and it has a shorter high G string that is a drone. Earlier five string banjos are known as 'frailing' or 'clawhammer' banjos. The names are derived from the playing styles that didn't involve picks but used rhythmic right hand techniques.

Plectrum Banjo

Five string banjos are referred to as regular banjos and represent the first banjo style to emerge as the instrument entered the 19th century. Removing the fifth string from a regular banjo leaves you with the four string plectrum banjo. These banjos have the same scale length and same amount of frets as regular five string banjos. The tuning on the four string banjo is the same as the tuning on the first four strings of a guitar or identical to C-tuning on a regular banjo. The four string banjo developed because musicians in emerging jazz bands wanted their instruments to be heard, so they got rid of the fifth string and used a plectrum or pick.

Tenor Banjo

If you tune the plectrum banjo like a mandola and remove three frets, you will get a tenor banjo. This banjo is played solely with a flat pick and scale lengths range from 21 to 23 inches. The tenor banjo was used in the jazz age and they were quite decorative and flashy. Today traditional Celtic string bands have started using tenor banjos.

Long Neck Banjo

Singer Pete Seeger had a special banjo built in the 1950s that could be tuned lower to better match his singing voice. This banjo had an extra three frets added to give it a total of 25 frets and a neck that is 32 inches long. These long neck banjos were popularized by the Kingston Trio and Pete Seeger. They were so in demand that thousands were built and snapped up by folk musicians who wanted to imitate the look of these musicians.

Hybrid Banjos

Most varieties of banjo get the first part of their names from the style of the neck and their tuning or playing techniques. Examples are the mandolin and guitar banjo. The mandolin banjo, which was popular in the 1920s, gets its name from the fact that it's tuned in fifths like a mandolin. The exception to this naming convention is the ukulele banjo which is most often referred to as the banjo uke. It is also called the banjolele.

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