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
(a standard tuned four-string banjo)

The banjo is a four or five stringed instrument with a piece of plastic or animal skin stretched over a circular frame. Simpler forms of the instrument were fashioned by enslaved Africans in Colonial America, adapted from several African instruments of the same basic design.[1]

The banjo is usually associated with country, folk, Irish traditional music and bluegrass music. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African traditional music, before becoming popular in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. In fact, blacks influenced early development of the music that became country and bluegrass, through the introduction of the banjo and through the innovation of musical techniques for both the banjo and fiddle.[2][3][4] The banjo, with the fiddle, is a mainstay of American old-time music.



There are several theories concerning the origin of the name banjo. It may derive from the Kimbundu term mbanza. Some etymologists believe it comes from a dialectal pronunciation of the Portuguese "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.

Another theory believes the name may find its origin in the name of music professor, Steven Banjo, a prominent citizen of St. Louis, Missouri around the turn of the century. The song "Banjos" featured in the Broadway version of "Meet Me In St. Louis" (based on the popular Judy Garland film of the same name) pays homage to this great man in history.[citation needed]

Various instruments are known in Africa with a skin head and gourd (or similar shell) body.[5] The African instruments differ from early Afro American banjos in that the necks do not possess a Western-style fingerboard and tuning pegs, instead having stick necks, with strings attached to the neck with loops for tuning.[5] Banjos with fingerboards and tuning pegs are known from the Caribbean as early as the 17th Century.[6] 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, Persian tar and Morroccan sintir) have been played in many countries. Another likely ancestor of the banjo is the akonting, a spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of Senegambia, and the ubaw-akwala of the Igbo.[7] Similar instruments include the xalam of Senegal and the ngoni of the Wassoulou region including parts of Mali, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast as well as a larger variation of the ngoni developed in Moroccan by sub-Saharan Africans known as the Gimbri .[citation needed]

Early, African-influenced banjos were built around a gourd body and a wooden stick neck. These instruments had varying numbers of strings, though often including some form of drone. The five-string banjo was popularized by Joel Walker Sweeney, an American minstrel performer from Appomattox Court House, Virginia.[8]

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

In the 1830s Sweeney became the first white man to play the banjo on stage.[8] His version of the instrument replaced the gourd with a drum-like sound box and included four full-length strings alongside a short fifth-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 straight transposition would be g'c'gbd'.) Banjos were introduced in Britain by Sweeney's group, the American Virginia Minstrels, in the 1840s, and became very popular in music halls.[9]

The modern banjo

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

The body, or "pot", of a modern banjo typically consists of a circular rim (generally made of wood, though metal was also common on older banjos) and a tensioned head, similar to a drum head. Traditionally the head was made from animal skin, but today is often made of various synthetic materials. Most modern banjos also have a metal "tone ring" assembly that helps further clarify and project the sound, however many older banjos do not include a tone ring.

The banjo is usually tuned with friction tuning pegs or planetary gear tuners, rather than the worm gear machine head used on guitars. Frets have become standard since the late 19th century, though fretless banjos are still manufactured and played by those wishing to execute glissando or otherwise achieve the sound and feeling of early playing styles.

Modern banjos are typically strung with metal strings. Usually the fourth string is wound with either steel or bronze-phosphor alloy. Some players may string their banjos with nylon or gut strings to achieve a more mellow, old-time tone.

Open-back and resonator

Some banjos have a separate resonator plate on the back of the pot, designed to project the sound forward and give the instrument more volume. This type of banjo is usually used in bluegrass music, though resonator banjos are played by players of all styles, and are also used in old-time as a substitute for electric amplification when playing in large venues.

Open-back banjos generally have a mellower tone and weigh less than resonator banjos. They usually have a different setup than a resonator banjo, often with a higher string action (string action refers to how high the strings are positioned above the fingerboard.)

Five-string banjo

Typical Banjo.

The modern 5-string banjo is a variation on Sweeney's original design. The fifth string is usually the same gauge as the first, but starts from the fifth fret, three quarters the length of the other strings. (The long-necked Vega Pete Seeger model starts the fifth string from the eighth fret.) This lets the string be tuned to a higher open pitch than possible for the full-length strings. The short fifth string means that, unlike many string instruments, strings pitches on a five string banjo do not go in order from lowest to highest across the fingerboard. Instead, from low to high, they go fourth, third, second, first, and fifth. This is a form of reentrant tuning.

The short fifth string presents special problems for a capo. 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 called fifth string capos can effectively shorten the string. Many banjo players use model railroad spikes or titanium spikes (usually installed at the seventh fret and sometimes at others), that they hook the string under to press it down on the fret.

Range of five-string banjo tuned g'cgbd'.

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 g'cgbd' was commonly used instead. Other tunings found in old-time music include double C (g'cgc'd'), "sawmill" (g'dgc'd') also called "mountain modal" and open D (f#'df#ad'.) These tunings are often taken up a tone, either by tuning up or using a capo. For example "old-time D" tuning (a'dad'e') - commonly reached by tuning up from double C - is often played to accompany fiddle tunes in the key of D and Open-A (a'eac#'e') is usually used for playing tunes in the key of A.

While the size of the five string banjo is largely standardized, smaller and larger sizes are available including the long-neck or Seeger neck variation designed by Pete Seeger. 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. Between these sizes and the standard there is the A-scale banjo, which is two frets shorter and usually tuned one full step above standard tunings. A "Stealth" brand banjo is a modern 5 string banjo with a 22.5" scale length, similar to a guitar.

A five-string banjo.

American old-time music typically uses the five-string open back banjo. It is played in a number of different styles, the most common being clawhammer or frailing, characterized 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. Another common style of old-time banjo playing is Fingerpicking banjo or classic banjo. This style is based upon parlor-style guitar.[10]

Forward roll[11] About this sound Play .

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, named for Bill Keith; and three-finger style with single string work, also called Reno style after Don Reno. In these styles the emphasis is on arpeggiated figures played in a continuous eighth-note rhythm, known as rolls. All of these styles are typically played with fingerpicks.

The five-string banjo has been used in classical music since before the turn of the 20th century. Contemporary and modern works have been written or arranged for the instrument by Buck Trent, Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, Steve Martin, Tim Lake, George Crumb, Modest Mouse, Jo Kondo, Paul Elwood, Hans Werner Henze (notably in his Sixth Symphony), Daniel Mason of Hank Williams III's Damn Band, Beck, the Water Tower Bucket Boys, J.P. Pickens, Peggy Honeywell, Norfolk & Western, Putnam Smith, Iron & Wine, The Avett Brothers, and Sufjan Stevens.

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

Four-string banjos

Plectrum 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.

Four-string banjo
Irish tenor banjo from Gold Tone

The shorter-necked, tenor banjo is also typically played with a plectrum. It 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 19½ to 21½ inches. By the mid-1920s, when the instrument was used primarily for strummed chordal accompaniment, 19-fret necks with a scale length of 21¾ 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 lets the banjoist duplicate fiddle and mandolin fingering. The invention and/or popularisation of this tuning is usually attributed to Barney McKenna, banjoist with The Dubliners[citation needed].

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. George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, in Ferde Grofe's original jazz orchestra arrangement, includes tenor banjo, with widely-spaced chords not easily playable on plectrum banjo in its conventional tuning(s). With development of the archtop and electric guitar, the tenor banjo largely 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. It's normally tuned CGda, one octave below the tenor banjo like the cello and mandocello. 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. Fingerstyle opportunities of tenor banjo retuned to open G tuning dgd'g' or lower open D tuning Adad' (three finger picking, frailing) are explored by Mirek Patek.

Eddie Peabody was the greatest proponent of the plectrum banjo in the early to mid twentieth century. Johnny Baier, Bill Lowrey, Steve Peterson, and Buddy Wachter are prominent contemporary four-string banjoists currently working professionally. 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. He was well known in the banjo player community up until his passing in 1965. His single string and "chord melody" technique and ability arguably set the "high mark" that many subsequent tenor players endeavor to attain. Other prominent professional tenor performers were Mike Pingitore and Roy Smeck. Smeck was an influential performer on many fretted instruments, including the four-string banjo. He also wrote a number of solos and instructional books. Prominent contemporary tenor players are Don Vappie, Ken Aoki, Steve Di Bonaventura, David Bandrowski, the late Narvin Kimball of Preservation Hall Jazz Band fame, and Charlie Tagawa. Tagawa has been the music director of the Peninsula Banjo Band, one of the most prominent banjo bands in the U.S., since 1966. He was a student and devotee of Harry Reser. In the United Kingdom, Frank Lawes was one of the most prolific composers of four string banjo music.

The four-string banjo is used from time to time in musical theater. Examples include: Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Chicago, Cabaret, Oklahoma!, Half a Sixpence, Annie, Barnum, The Threepenny Opera, Monty Python's Spamalot, and countless others. Joe Raposo had used it variably. in the imaginative 7-piece orchestration for the long-running TV show Sesame Street, and has sometimes had it overdubbed with itself or an electric guitar. The banjo is still (albeit rarely) in use in the show's arrangement currently.

Six-string banjos

Old 6-string zither banjo

The 6-string banjo (note, these still have the short thumb string with re-entrant tuning) began as a British innovation by William Temlet, one of England's earliest banjo makers. He opened a shop in London in 1846, and sold banjos with closed backs and up to 7 strings. He marketed these as "zither" Banjos from his 1869 patent. American Alfred Davis Cammeyer (1862–1949), a young violinist-turned banjo concert player, devised the 5/6-string Zither banjo around 1880. It 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 usually has a closed back and sides with the drum body (usually metal) and skin tensioning system suspended inside the wooden rim/back, the neck and string tailpiece was mounted on the wooden outer rim, the short string usually led through a tube in the neck so that the tuning peg could be mounted on the peg head. They were often made by builders who used guitar tuners that came in banks of three and so if 5 stringed had a redundant tuner. The banjos could also be somewhat easily converted over to a six string banjo. British opera diva Adelina Patti advised Cammeyer that the zither-banjo might be popular with English audiences (which was certainly true as it was invented there), and Cammeyer went to London in 1888. Due to his virtuoso playing he helped show 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[12] 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 six-string or banjitar 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. Today, musicians as diverse as Keith Urban, Rod Stewart, Taj Mahal, Joe Satriani, David Hidalgo and Doc Watson play the 6-String guitar banjo.

Rhythm guitarist Dave Day of 1960's proto-punks The Monks replaced his guitar with a six-string, gut-strung guitar banjo on 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.

Banjo hybrids and variants

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, bandolin, and the banjo ukulele or banjolele, most famously played by the English comedian George Formby junior.[13] 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.

See also


  1. ^ Bluegrass Music: The Roots." IBMA. Retrieved on 2006-08-25.
  2. ^ Winship, David."The African American Music Tradition in Country Music." BCMA, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance. Retrieved 02-08-2007. Archived February 4, 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Conway, Cecelia (2005). African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia. The University of Tennessee Press. p. 424. 
  4. ^ "Old-time (oldtimey) Music What is it?." TML, A Traditional Music Library. Retrieved 02-08-2007.
  5. ^ a b Pestcoe, Shlomoe and Adams, Greg C., Banjo Roots Research: Exploring the Banjo’s African American Origins & West African Heritage, 2010. Essay can be found online at [1].
  6. ^ Pestcoe, Shlomoe and Adams, Greg C., Banjo Roots Research: Exploring the Banjo’s African American Origins & West African Heritage, 2010. Essay can be found online at [2].
  7. ^ Chambers, Douglas B. (2009). Murder at Montpelier: Ibo Africans in Virginia. Univ. Press of Mississippi. p. 180. ISBN 16-047-3246-6. 
  8. ^ a b Metro Voloshin, The Banjo, from Its Roots to the Ragtime Era: An Essay and Bibliography Music Reference Services Quarterly, Vol. 6(3) 1998.
  9. ^ Information on the banjo and development of the Zither-banjo.
  10. ^ Trischka, Tony (1992). Banjo Songbook, p.20. ISBN 0825601975.
  11. ^ Davis, Janet (2002). [Mel Bay's] Back-Up Banjo, p.54. ISBN 0786665254. Emphasis original.
  12. ^
  13. ^ "George Formbys Little Strad banjolele up for sale". The Times (London). 2008-05-30. 

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

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • banjo — banjo …   Dictionnaire des rimes

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  • banjo — [ bɑ̃(d)ʒo ] n. m. • 1857; mot angl. amér., de l esp. bandurria « mandore » ♦ Instrument à cordes, sorte de guitare ronde dont la caisse de résonance est formée d une membrane tendue sur un cercle de bois. Des banjos. Le banjo à cordes… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • banjo — BANJÓ, banjouri, s.n. Instrument muzical asemănător cu mandolina, cu cinci până la nouă coarde şi cu partea superioară a cutiei de rezonanţă formată dintr o piele întinsă. – Din fr. banjo. Trimis de paula, 16.03.2002. Sursa: DEX 98  banjó s. n …   Dicționar Român

  • Banjo — Sn (ein amerikanisches Saiteninstrument) per. Wortschatz fach. (20. Jh.) Entlehnung. Entlehnt aus ne. banjo, dessen Herkunft unsicher ist.    Ebenso nndl. banjo, nfrz. banjo, nschw. banjo, nisl. banjó. Man rechnet wegen älterem banjor mit einer… …   Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen sprache

  • banjo — 1764, Amer.Eng., usually described as of African origin, probably akin to Bantu mbanza, an instrument resembling a banjo. The word has been influenced by colloquial pronunciation of bandore (1560s in English), a 16c. stringed instrument like a… …   Etymology dictionary

  • banjo — (pronunciamos banyo ) sustantivo masculino 1. Área: música Instrumento musical de cuerda parecido a la guitarra, formado por una caja de resonancia circular cubierta con una piel tensada sobre un aro y un mástil largo con clavijas: tocar el banjo …   Diccionario Salamanca de la Lengua Española

  • banjo — (Del ingl. banjo, pronunciación relajada de bandore, y este relacionado con el esp. bandurria). m. banyo …   Diccionario de la lengua española

  • banjo — ☆ banjo [ban′jō΄ ] n. pl. banjos or banjoes [of Afr orig., prob. akin to Kimbundu (a Bantu language) mbanza, an instrument resembling the banjo] a stringed musical instrument having a long neck and a circular body covered on top with tightly… …   English World dictionary

  • banjo — an jo n. [Formerly also banjore and banjer; corrupted from bandore, through negro slave pronunciation.] A stringed musical instrument having a head and neck like the guitar, and a circular body like a tambourine. It has five strings, and is… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Banjo [1] — Banjo, ein Lieblingsinstrument der amerikanischen Neger, das dieselben aus Afrika mitgebracht haben, wo es sich unter dem Namen Bania vorfindet. Das B. ist eine Art Gitarre mit langem Hals, einer Art Trommel als Schallkörper und 5–9 Saiten; die… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

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