The banjo, a quintessential American instrument, emerged from the antebellum South, first in the hands of African-American slaves and then in those of white minstrel musicians. By the 20th century the banjo was a staple of jazz and country music. Today, it is more typically associated with Dixieland jazz and traditional bluegrass although creative musicians deploy the instrument in a variety of genres. Banjos today vary in size and the number of strings, offering distinctive sounds.
The four-string tenor banjo became a popular staple of jazz and show music in the early 20th century. The neck is typically shorter than on other models, and the banjo is usually strummed, rather than picked, used as something of a percussive instrument in many jazz recordings. This banjo was particularly popular with jazz groups because, unlike the acoustic guitar, its volume could compete with the brass and woodwinds. Other four-string variations include the longer-necked plectrum banjo and the lower-tuned cello banjo.
The five-string banjo has perhaps the best-known banjo sound and is the standard banjo for country and bluegrass arrangements. This banjo is almost always picked rather than strummed and usually plays a leading melodic or harmonic role in arrangements. In the late 1940s, Earl Scruggs invented the three-finger style of rapid banjo rolls, probably the most familiar banjo sound to the modern listener, particularly in the theme song to "The Beverly Hillbillies." Five-string banjos vary in neck length, and the rare electric five-string can be found.
The six-string banjo was invented in the early 19th century but did not come into prominence until the jazz era. The six-string tuning allowed much greater flexibility and a wider range of styles. This banjo was a favorite of jazz guitar great Django Reinhardt and other jazz players who sought to use the banjo for more than the four-string strumming style. Because of its similarity to guitar stringing, some considered the six-string banjo to be something of a hybrid.
Banjo development has never frozen, and throughout the 20th century banjo-makers produced hybrids like the tiny banjo ukelele, the banjo mandolin and the banjo bouzouki (a Greek stringed instrument). These banjos are mostly novelty instruments and have not become standard in any genre of music. Electric versions of these hybrids as well as traditional banjos are also considered novelty instruments, rarely used as a primary instrument by any musician.
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