The banjo is a four-, five- or six-stringed instrument with a piece of animal skin or plastic stretched over a circular frame. Simpler forms of the instrument were fashioned by Africans in Colonial America, adapted from several African instruments of similar design.
The banjo is usually associated with country, folk, Irish traditional, and bluegrass music. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music, before becoming popular in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. In fact, slaves influenced early development of the music that became country and bluegrass, through the introduction of the banjo and the innovation of musical techniques for both the banjo and fiddle. 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 West African term for a bamboo stick formerly used for the instrument's neck.
Various instruments in Africa, chief among them the kora, feature a skin head and gourd (or similar shell) body. 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. Banjos with fingerboards and tuning pegs are known from the Caribbean as early as the 17th century. 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 Moroccan 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. Similar instruments include the xalam of Senegal and the ngoni of the Wassoulou region including parts of Mali, Guinea, and Côte d'Ivoire as well as a larger variation of the ngoni developed in Morocco by sub-Saharan Africans known as the Gimbri.
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.
In the 1830s Sweeney became the first white man to play the banjo on stage. 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 was at first tuned dGDF#A, though by the 1890s this had been transposed up to gCGBD. Banjos were introduced in Britain by Sweeney's group, the American Virginia Minstrels, in the 1840s, and became very popular in music halls.
Two techniques closely associated with the banjo are rolls and drones. Rolls are, "right hand [accompanimental] fingering pattern[s] consisting of eight (eighth) notes [subdividing each measure]". "Drone notes are quick little notes [typically eighth notes] that are always played on the 5th (short) string and are used to fill in around the melody notes [typically eighth notes]..." These techniques are both idiomatic to the banjo in all styles, and their sound is characteristic of bluegrass.
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.
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.
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.
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 25.5" scale length, similar to a guitar.
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.
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 Bluegrass (resonator) style banjo was introduced by Earl Scruggs who in fact invented the three finger style roll, which is presented in contemporary Bluegrass music. This was mixed with the sounds Bill Monroe had created to form what is recognized as the genre of Bluegrass.
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, Todd Taylor, 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.
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.
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 the all-fifths tuning cgd'a', in which there are exactly seven semitones (a perfect fifth) between the open notes of consecutive strings; all-fifths tuning is traditional for a viola or mandola. Other players (particularly in Irish traditional music) tune the banjo Gdae′ like an octave mandolin, which lets the banjoist duplicate fiddle and mandolin fingering. The invention and/or popularisation of this tuning was usually attributed to the late Barney McKenna, banjoist with The Dubliners.
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. Prominent contemporary plectrum players include Cynthia Sayer.
Earl Scruggs was the greatest three finger picker of the mid to late twentieth century, he also continued to play into the early 21st century.
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 community prior to death 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 tenor performers were Mike Pingitore and Roy Smeck. Smeck was an influential performer on many fretted instruments, including the four-string banjo, and wrote a number of solos and instructional books. In the United Kingdom, Frank Lawes was one of the most prolific composers of four string banjo music.
Prominent contemporary tenor players include Don Vappie, Ken Aoki, Steve Di Bonaventura, David Bandrowski, the late Narvin Kimball of Preservation Hall Jazz Band fame, Johnny Baier, Bill Lowrey, Steve Peterson, Buddy Wachter, Charlie Tagawa, and Canada's Tim Allen. Prominent jazz guitarist Howard Alden began on tenor banjo and still plays it at traditional jazz events. "Country" Winston Marshall currently plays the banjo (as well as the dobro and guitar) for the popular British bluegrass group Mumford and Sons.
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.
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 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.
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, and the banjo ukulele or banjolele, most famously played by the English comedian George Formby. 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 the cümbüş.
Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Date: October 2012.
Photo Credits: (1) Maroccan Gimbri Player (by "Ear & Eye - Encounters with World Music"); (3) Pete Seeger, (4) "Ken Perlman's Clawhammer Banjo", (6)-(7) "The We Banjo 3 Tune Book", (8) Barney McKenna, (9) Lissy Rosemont, (10) Stephen Guidry, (11) Shannon Carey, (unknown / from website); (2) 5-String Banjo, (5) 4-String Banjo (by Wikipedia).