banjos ATLAS of Plucked Instruments

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banjos

To most people all banjos look (and sound) the same. However there were and are many different types, most of which can be found on this page.

It is the only typical American (USA) instrument, starting off as an instrument of the slaves, then via the Minstrel Shows becoming part of typical American music styles like Jazz, Dixieland, Bluegrass, etc.


A good source (including music clips) for all (modern) different banjos is Goldtone, and for all kind of instruments : Frets.com. See also the history page of Andybanjo, and to quickly identify your banjo see Whitetreeaz.com. For lots of banjo related information see Mugwumps.


Notice that although the banjo is a very typical American instrument, in Portugal and Brazil the banjo is often used for the body of the cavaquinho.
In Turkey the çumbus looks like a banjo, but is a type of oud, with a metal bucket used for the back.

Notice also that it is not only the banjo that has a "half-string". Also a couple of guitars (like from Portugal and South America) have one or more short bourdon strings; as have a number of long neck lutes from Central Asia.



gourd banjo
example : picture from website Gourdbanjo.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~650mm
You Tube

gourd banjo

Although the early history of the banjo is not really clear, most people believe the origin lies in instruments from Africa (see ngoni and akonting on the page Africa).

Known is that the slaves in America (in the 17th and 18th century) used to play some kind of simple instrument made from local materials, to accompany their songs and dances.

Names used in early manuscripts were banjar, bonja, banza, strum-strum, etc.

The body was made of hollowed-out wood, but much easier was the use of gourds, with a piece of animal skin streched over the open front and (as good glue was difficult to get) made tight with ropes around it or with tacks around the edge.

The early instruments did not have frets, and probably had only 3 or 4 strings, but often already with the short string from a peg halfway the neck.


These instruments are now made again. See for lots of information about history and different types, makers and sound: Dhyatt-gourdbanjo.

 

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minstrel banjo
example : picture from Smithsonian Museum
L= B= H= mm
scale ~650mm
You Tube

minstrel banjo

After around 1830, the banjo instrument was taken over from the blacks by the whites. White performers (with a blackface to caricature the black culture) danced and sang simple jolly songs, accompanied on a kind of banjo. These Minstrel Shows became quite popular and slowly the instruments were made of a better quality. As these instruments were all made by local craftsman, there is quite some difference in shape between instruments.

The flat tuninghead (with pegs from behind) sometimes had a sideways curl. Eventually the stringing with 4 gut strings and one from a peg halfway the neck, became the norm. Tuning would be an open G-chord : g' d g b d'.

From around 1850 banjo bodies were made with a wooden hoop. The head (the animal skin) was fixed on a separate round (metal) ring, which fitted over the special rim of the hoop. The head could be tightened with hooks and nuts, like on a drum. The back was left open.
A wooden stick (dovel) joined the end of the neck with the bottom of the hoop.




Left : the back of a banjo, with the round wooden hoop, with the dovel inside. Between the decorative rosettes you can see the hooks and nuts which tightened the (white edges of the) head over the rim of the hoop.

(picture from HartelMinstrelBanjo)

Playing style was with fingerpicking, frailing or strumming.

See for more information and pictures (and sound) Minstrelbanjo.

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fretless banjo
example : picture
from website Frets.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~650mm
You Tube

fretless banjo

Eventually, after 1850, the minstel banjo developed slowly into a main 5-string banjo. First still with no frets (like the example), but soon frets and better bodies were made.

This banjo was used for Old-Time Style and for Mountain Music. Note however that most of this music is also played on a fretted 5-string banjo.

Tuning of the gut strings would be the standard G-tuning g' d g b d', or the C-tuning g' c g b d'.

Playing is often in "frailing" style, by which the fingers do not pluck upwards, but hit the strings going downwards. Even the thumb moves different. Because of the funny shape of your right hand this playing style is also called "clawhammer banjo".

Even now some people still prefer the "woody" sound of the fretless banjo. It is mainly used with gut or nylon strings.

 

left : the side of the banjo hoop, with the hooks and bolts to tighten the head.

(picture from eBay)

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Open back and resonator

Most of the next banjos can have an open back or can be fitted with a resonator. In general most folk-type players prefer an open back and most bluegrass- and jazz-players prefer a resonator back.

The resonator has no connection with the resonator guitars (see steelguitars), but is a round wooden "lid" that can be fixed to the back of the banjo body, and is meant to project the sound forwards. It also makes the back feel more comfortable against the stomach, in stead of all the hooks and nuts...

at left : an open back
and at right :
a (decorated) resonator back

 



(pictures from Goldtone.com)

Banjos have always been instruments that recieved lots of decoration, with inlayed fingerboards, carved necks, pegheads and especially (though not visible while playing) the resonator.


The fingerboard is always flush with the top of the head (the skin) and stops at the rim of the body. Note also that the (loose) bridge is placed at the lower half of the head (so not in the centre).
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5-string banjo
example :
picture from website Goldtone.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~650mm
You Tube

5-string banjo

In the late 1900 untill about 1940 the banjo was quite popular and in the beginning many inventions were used to improve the instrument. Like the development of a heavy metal tone-ring, a proper fingerboard with about 22 guitar-like metal frets, steel strings, an armrest on the side, and a resonator on the back.

The tuninghead became flat and square (or violin-shaped), with 4 pegs (or tuning machines) from the back. Another peg was fitted at the side of the neck near the 4th fret, with the string running from the 5th fret.

Tuning of the (now usually) metal strings is still : g' d g b d'.

The playing technique changed from strumming to fingerpicking.

 

After the 1940s banjos were mainly only used for bluegrass, traditional jazz, folk and Irish music.

 

 

 

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banjourine
example : picture from website Frets.com

L= B= H= mm
scale ~500mm
You Tube

banjourine

When around 1900 special banjo-orchestras were formed (like the mandolin orchestras) there was a need for different size instruments. All these instruments had 5 strings and were tuned in a similar relative tuning.

The A-scale banjo is approximately two frets shorter than the standard banjo, and is tuned in A rather than the standard G.
The Piccolo banjo can be either seven frets shorter than the standard, and tuned in "D," or it can have about the same neck length as a Banjo-Ukelele and tuned one octave higher than the standard G.
Also a bass banjo seems to have existed.

The banjourine was a 5-string banjo with a short scale, with 5 frets shorter (17 frets on the neck). Other spellings were banjorine and banjeaurine.
It was tuned 5 tones higher : c'' g c' e g'.

Playing was often with fingers, or with a plectrum for melody lines, like on a mandolin.

See a bit more information : Banjorine.

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plectrum banjo
example : picture
from website Gruhn
L= B= H= mm
scale ~650mm
You Tube

plectrum banjo

The plectrum banjo developed in the 1920s, when players who played (with a plectrum) in a jazz- or Dixieland band, dismissed with the short 5th string.

The plectrum banjo is the same size as a 5-string banjo, so usually 22 frets. The tuning is like a 5-string banjo, but without the short 5th string : d g b d'.

It is in general played (of course) with a plectrum, in melody style with chords in between.

 

 

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tenor banjo
example :
picture from website Goldtone.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~550mm
You Tube

tenor banjo

The tenor banjo has a remarkable name : it is not really the "tenor" of the family of banjos (there are no soprano or alto banjos....).

The tenor banjo developed in the 1910s from the 4-string plectrum banjo, by shortening the neck.
At first it was called tango banjo, which had 15 frets, and was sometimes called melody banjo.
Players used on this shorter neck a violin/mandolin-like tuning : c g d' a'.

The tenor banjo has 17-19 frets on the neck, and is played with a plectrum, often strumming chords, in jazz- and Dixieland orchestras.

After 1930s the guitar suddenly became more popular and players of the tenor banjo in Jazz orchestras felt obliged to change to the guitar, but at first prefered to keep their tenor banjo tuning. So they used a 4-string guitar, which they tuned like a tenor banjo and which they therefore called the tenor guitar (see guitars2).

 

For more information and pictures about the tenor banjo see Tenorbanjo.

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Irish banjo
example :
gift from friends, 1986
L=770 B=290 H=70 mm
scale ~530mm
You Tube

Irish banjo

In Celtic music they use a tenor banjo, but often these instruments look less flashy and are a bit smaller (a shorter scale length).

The tuning would be similar to the tenor banjo, but lower : G d a e'.

Playing is like all Irish music : strumming chords to accompany other instruments, and melody lines for the solos. Some players play with a plectrum, others just as easy use the fingers. During solos a very fast ornamental triple is used.

See for more information about the Irish banjo : Standingstones

 

 

 






The example is a bit special instrument : it has the body with a fixed wooden "box" (in which the head falls and can be tightened with screws from above) and the tuning head is like a guitar.

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bluegrass banjo
example :
Framus, bought 1972
L=100 B=370 H=75 mm
scale ~685mm
You Tube
Earl Scruggs picking
You Tube
with Keith tuners

bluegrass banjo

The 5-string banjo fell almost in complete disuse around 1950, except in Bluegrass music.

After 1960 the banjo became slowly a bit popular again, both in folk music (mainly the open back type) and in Bluegrass (mainly the resonator type).

The bluegrass banjo is a 5-string banjo, with a heavy metal tone-ring, and a fretted neck (with about 22 frets), often with geared tuners from the back. The head is now almost always made of plastic, rarely of skin.

Tuning of the 5 steel strings is still the open G-chord : g' d g b d'.

The playing technique changed from strumming to fingerpicking with at least a thumb pick, but often special fingerpicks on 2 or 3 fingers as well. This lead eventually to the special complex 3-finger style developed by Earl Scruggs in the 1960s (Scruggs style).

A special feature used on some bluegrass banjos are the Keith tuners : the tuners for the strings g and b are constructed in such a way that with one turn of the tuner the tuning of that string can be changed to another pre-fixed note.

 

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longneck banjo
example : picture
from website Frets.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~800mm
You Tube

longneck banjo

In folk music players also still play the 5-string banjo, usually the type with the open back. It was folksinger/banjoist Pete Seeger in the 1960s, who needed sometimes to sing and play in a lower key than the normal G, and had this new type of instrument made for him so it was easier to play lower (by also re-tuning the 5th string).

So the longneck banjo is just a normal 5-string banjo but with a longer neck: it has 3 frets extra, with the sidestring on the 8th fret. With a capo on the 3th fret it sounds the same as a normal 5-string banjo.

It became quite popular with folk banjo players, really just only for the look of it, as they usually play it with a capo, as a normal 5-string banjo in G.

For more information see Frets.com.

 

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guitar banjo
example :
from website Goldtone.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~650mm
You Tube

guitar banjo

The guitar banjo is a hybrid instrument : a combination of a banjo-body with a guitar-neck, with 6 guitar-strings. Other names for it are banjitar and guitjo.
Note that the name 6-string banjo is also used for a 5-string banjo with an extra string (see under).

The banjitar is tuned and played like a normal guitar (but sounds much louder !).

Some exist even as a 12-string version, and some have a kind of guitar-body (with a hole for the round banjo-head !).

For years this has been one of the most popular banjo for guitar players, as it makes the sound of the banjo, but can be played like a normal guitar.

 

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6-string banjo
example :
picture from website Goldtone.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~650mm
You Tube

6-string banjo

For (real) banjo players who felt they needed an extra (lower pitch) string, recently a 6-string banjo has been developed (or beter : re-developed, as it also was used in the early days of banjo orchestras).

It has often a quite large body.

It is tuned : g' G d g b d', and is played like any other 5-string banjo (so frailing or Scruggs style).


 

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cello banjo
example :
picture from website Goldtone.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~630mm
You Tube

cello banjo

Another banjo type that recently has been re-introduced, after being used in the early days of banjo orchestras, is the cello banjo.

It has a large (14'' = 350mm) body for a very loud voice. The neck is slightly shorter than the normal bluegrass banjo. It uses nylon strings (the four lower strings of a guitar).

The cello banjo is available in a 4-string version and in a 5-string version. The 4-string version is tuned in 5ths (like a mandolin), the 5-string version is tuned one octave lower than a bluegrass banjo.

The cello banjo can be played like any other banjo (so with a plectrum, or frailing or Scruggs style).


 

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mandolin banjo
example :
picture from website Goldtone.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~330mm
You Tube

mandolin banjo

A hybrid : a mandolin banjo has a banjo-body with a mandolin-neck, with 4 double strings. A banjolin is the same instrument, but with only 4 single strings.

They were quite popular in the early 1900, in banjo orchestras (in the USA and UK), both for strumming as for picking with a plectrum. At that time there was quite a craze for (first) mandolin orchestras (with mandolin families) followed by banjo orchestras (with banjo families). It was easy to change over to the new type of instrument, with the same size/tuning.

The mandolin banjo is tuned and played like a normal mandolin (but it sounds much louder !).

See for more detailed information Banjolin.

 

 

 

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ukulele banjo
example :
picture from website Themusicdept.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~300mm
You Tube

ukulele banjo

Another hybrid : a banjo-body with a ukulele-neck, with 4 nylon (or gut) strings. Another name is banjolele.

The small instrument is tuned and played like a ukulele (however the sound is much louder !). It is/was mainly played at home.

This was the instrument used by the English comic singer George Formby, popular during the years 1930-1950.

 

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zither-banjo
example :
Barnes & Mullins nr 2,
bought via eBay 2011
L=960 B=290 H=60mm
scale 690mm
You Tube

zither-banjo

The zither-banjo is in fact a kind of 5-string banjo, but instead of the short 5th string on a peg on the side of the neck, here this string goes over a small bridge at the 5th fret, and than through a long hole (tube) to the top of the neck, where it is tuned like all the other strings from a normal tuning machine (if normal 6 guitar-tuners are used, one tuner is left empty). The zither-banjo was designed in the 1890's.

Another difference is that most of the zither-banjos have a so-called "closed back" - that is that the neck is fixed to a round wooden box, in which the head falls. The way of tightening the vellum is with special screws.

The zither-banjo looks in general like a guitar banjo, however it is tuned and played like a (normal) 5-string banjo.

The proper strings for a zither-banjo are : steel for the 1st, 2nd and 5th, plain nylon (or gut) for the 3rd, and a nylon-covered (or silk-covered) 4th string. Playing should be with less force.

 

For more information about many types of zither-banjos see Zither-banjo.

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banjola
example :
picture from website Goldtone.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~650mm
You Tube

banjola

Another hybrid instrument : a banjola, with the standard neck of a 5-string banjo and the body of a mandolin (or mandola).

Although these instruments existed already for a short while in the 1900s, they have been re-introduced by Goldtone in the 1980s, who uses an old style tuninghead and a mandoline-type bridge.

As you can imagine, the banjola has a very special sound, quite different from a banjo.

See more information on banjolas.com.

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dojo
example :
picture from website Goldtone.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~670mm
You Tube

dojo

A dojo is another banjo type which is quite a hybrid : a wooden guitar-body, with a biscuit type cone resonator and a 5-string banjo-neck. Only a few banjo-factories provide these dojo resophonic banjos (mix of DObro and banJO).

The dojo is tuned and played like a normal bluegrass banjo, but sounds more like a guitar/dobro.




 

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dulcijo
example :
picture from website Cigarboxnation.com
L= B= H= mm
scale ~0mm
You Tube

dulcijo

A dulcijo is another banjo type which is quite a hybrid : a banjo type body, with a dulcimer neck. Developed by Michael Fox in the 1980's.

The dulcijo has usually 3 strings (one halfway the neck, like on a 5-string banjo).
It is tuned like a (stick-) dulcimer, and played like a banjo, but with a limited choice of music, due to the diatonically used (= less) frets. It is often played frailing style.



For more information see : cigarboxnation and ezfolk.


 

   
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