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The banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity to form a resonator. The membrane is typically circular, and usually made of plastic, or occasionally animal skin. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by
African Americans African Americans (also referred to as Black Americans and Afro-Americans) are an Race and ethnicity in the United States, ethnic group consisting of Americans with partial or total ancestry from sub-Saharan Africa. The term "African American" ...
in the United States. The banjo is frequently associated with
folk Folk or Folks may refer to: Sociology *Nation *People * Folklore ** Folk art ** Folk dance ** Folk hero ** Folk music *** Folk metal *** Folk punk *** Folk rock ** Folk religion * Folk taxonomy Arts, entertainment, and media * Folk Plus or Folk ...
, bluegrass and
country music Country (also called country and western) is a genre of popular music that originated in the Southern United States, Southern and Southwestern United States in the early 1920s. It primarily derives from blues, church music such as Southern gosp ...
, and has also been used in some
rock Rock most often refers to: * Rock (geology) In geology, rock (or stone) is any naturally occurring solid mass or aggregate of minerals or mineraloid matter. It is categorized by the minerals included, its Chemical compound, chemical compos ...
, pop and hip-hop. Several
rock Rock most often refers to: * Rock (geology) In geology, rock (or stone) is any naturally occurring solid mass or aggregate of minerals or mineraloid matter. It is categorized by the minerals included, its Chemical compound, chemical compos ...
bands, such as
the Eagles The Eagles are an American rock band formed in Los Angeles in 1971. With five number-one singles and six number-one albums, six Grammy Awards and five American Music Awards, the Eagles were one of the most successful musical acts of the 1970s ...
,
Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin were an English rock band formed in London in 1968. The group comprised vocalist Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page, bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones (musician), John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham. With a heavy, guitar ...
, and
the Grateful Dead The Grateful Dead was an American rock band formed in 1965 in Palo Alto, California Palo Alto (; Spanish language, Spanish for "tall stick") is a charter city in the northwestern corner of Santa Clara County, California, United States, i ...
, have used the five-string banjo in some of their songs. Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in Black American traditional music and the folk culture of rural whites before entering the mainstream via the
minstrel show The minstrel show, also called minstrelsy, was an American form of racist theatrical entertainment developed in the early 19th century. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that depicted people spec ...
s of the 19th century. Along with the
fiddle A fiddle is a Bow (music), bowed String instrument, string musical instrument, most often a violin. It is a colloquial term for the violin, used by players in all genres, including European classical music, classical music. Although in many ...
, the banjo is a mainstay of American styles of music, such as bluegrass and
old-time music Old-time music is a genre of North American folk music. It developed along with various North American folk dances, such as square dance, square dancing, clogging, and buck dance, buck dancing. It is played on acoustic instruments, generally cen ...
. It is also very frequently used in
Dixieland jazz Dixieland jazz, also referred to as traditional jazz, hot jazz, or simply Dixieland, is a style of jazz based on the music that developed in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century. The 1917 recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band ( ...
, as well as in Caribbean genres like biguine, calypso and
mento Mento is a style of Music of Jamaica, Jamaican folk music that predates and has greatly influenced ska and reggae music. It is a fusion of African rhythmic elements and European elements, which reached peak popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. ...
.


History


Early origins

The modern banjo derives from instruments that have been recorded to be in use in
North America North America is a continent in the Northern Hemisphere and almost entirely within the Western Hemisphere. It is bordered to the north by the Arctic Ocean, to the east by the Atlantic Ocean, to the southeast by South America and the Car ...
and the
Caribbean The Caribbean (, ) ( es, El Caribe; french: la Caraïbe; ht, Karayib; nl, De Caraïben) is a region of the Americas that consists of the Caribbean Sea, its islands (some surrounded by the Caribbean Sea and some bordering both the Caribbean ...
since the 17th century by enslaved people taken from West and Central Africa. Their African-style instruments were crafted from split gourds with animal skins stretched across them. Strings, from gut or vegetable fibers, were attached to a wooden neck. Written references to the banjo in North America and the Caribbean appear in the 17th and 18th centuries. The earliest written indication of an instrument akin to the banjo is in the 17th century: Richard Jobson (1621) in describing
The Gambia The Gambia,, ff, Gammbi, ar, غامبيا officially the Republic of The Gambia, is a country in West Africa. It is the smallest country within mainland AfricaHoare, Ben. (2002) ''The Kingfisher A-Z Encyclopedia'', Kingfisher Publicatio ...
, wrote about an instrument like the banjo, which he called a ''bandore''. The term ''banjo'' has several etymological claims, one being from the Mandinka language which gives
The Gambia The Gambia,, ff, Gammbi, ar, غامبيا officially the Republic of The Gambia, is a country in West Africa. It is the smallest country within mainland AfricaHoare, Ben. (2002) ''The Kingfisher A-Z Encyclopedia'', Kingfisher Publicatio ...
its capital name,
Banjul Banjul (,"Banjul"
(US) and
), officially the City of Ba ...
. Another claim is a connection to the West African
Akonting The ''akonting'' (, or ''ekonting'' in French transliteration) is the folk lute of the Jola people, Jola people, found in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. It is a banjo-like instrument with a skin-headed gourd body, two long me ...
: The akonting is made with a long bamboo neck called a ''bangoe''. The material for the neck, called ''ban julo'' in the Mandinka language, again gives ''
Banjul Banjul (,"Banjul"
(US) and
), officially the City of Ba ...
'', the capital of
The Gambia The Gambia,, ff, Gammbi, ar, غامبيا officially the Republic of The Gambia, is a country in West Africa. It is the smallest country within mainland AfricaHoare, Ben. (2002) ''The Kingfisher A-Z Encyclopedia'', Kingfisher Publicatio ...
, its name. In this interpretation, ''Banjul'' became a sort of eponym for the Akonting as it crossed the Atlantic. The instrument's name might also derive from the
Kimbundu Kimbundu, a Bantu language which has sometimes been called Mbundu or 'North Mbundu' (see Umbundu), is the second-most-widely-spoken Bantu language in Angola , national_anthem = " Angola Avante"() , image_map = ...
word ''mbanza'', which is a loan word to the Portuguese language resulting in the term ''banza''. Its earliest recorded use was in 1678 in the Caribbean (Martinique) by enslaved Africans. The OED claims that the term ''banjo'' comes from a
dialect The term dialect (from Latin Latin (, or , ) is a classical language belonging to the Italic languages, Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. Latin was originally a dialect spoken in the lower Tiber area (then known as Latium) arou ...
al pronunciation of Portuguese ''bandore'' or from an early anglicisation of Spanish ''
bandurria The bandurria is a plectrum, plucked chordophone from Spain, similar to the mandolin and bandola, primarily used in Music of Spain, Spanish folk music, but also found in former Spanish colonies. Instrument development Prior to the 18th century, t ...
''. However, contrary evidence definitively supports that the terms '' bandore'' and ''
bandurria The bandurria is a plectrum, plucked chordophone from Spain, similar to the mandolin and bandola, primarily used in Music of Spain, Spanish folk music, but also found in former Spanish colonies. Instrument development Prior to the 18th century, t ...
'' were terms used when Europeans encountered the banjo or its kin varieties in use by people of African descent, who used different terms for the instrument like ''banza''. Various instruments in Africa, chief among them the ''kora'', feature a skin
head A head is the part of an organism which usually includes the ears, brain, forehead, cheeks, chin, eyes, nose, and mouth, each of which aid in various sensory functions such as visual perception, sight, hearing, olfaction, smell, and taste. Some ...
and
gourd Gourds include the fruits of some flowering plant species in the family Cucurbitaceae, particularly ''Cucurbita'' and ''Lagenaria''. The term refers to a number of species and subspecies, many with hard shells, and some without. One of the earli ...
(or similar shell) body. Those African instruments differ from early African American banjos in that the necks do not possess a Western-style fingerboard and tuning pegs; instead they have stick necks, with strings attached to the neck with loops for tuning. Another likely relative of the banjo is the ''
akonting The ''akonting'' (, or ''ekonting'' in French transliteration) is the folk lute of the Jola people, Jola people, found in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. It is a banjo-like instrument with a skin-headed gourd body, two long me ...
'', a spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of
Senegambia The Senegambia (other names: Senegambia region or Senegambian zone,Barry, Boubacar, ''Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade'', (Editors: David Anderson, Carolyn Brown; trans. Ayi Kwei Armah; contributors: David Anderson, American Council of Le ...
, and the ''ubaw-akwala'' of the Igbo. Similar instruments include the ''
xalam Xalam (in Serer language, Serer, or khalam in Wolof language, Wolof) is a traditional stringed musical instrument from West Africa with 1-5 strings. The xalam is commonly played in Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Niger, Northern Nigeria, Northern Ghana, ...
'' of
Senegal Senegal,; Wolof language, Wolof: ''Senegaal''; Pulaar language, Pulaar: 𞤅𞤫𞤲𞤫𞤺𞤢𞥄𞤤𞤭 (Senegaali); Arabic language, Arabic: السنغال ''As-Sinighal'') officially the Republic of Senegal,; Wolof language, Wolof: ''R ...
and the '' ngoni'' of the Wassoulou region including parts of
Mali Mali (; ), officially the Republic of Mali,, , ff, 𞤈𞤫𞤲𞥆𞤣𞤢𞥄𞤲𞤣𞤭 𞤃𞤢𞥄𞤤𞤭, Renndaandi Maali, italics=no, ar, جمهورية مالي, Jumhūriyyāt Mālī is a landlocked country in West Africa. Mali ...
,
Guinea Guinea ( ),, fuf, 𞤘𞤭𞤲𞤫, italic=no, Gine, wo, Gine, nqo, ߖߌ߬ߣߍ߫, bm, Gine officially the Republic of Guinea (french: République de Guinée), is a coastal country in West Africa. It borders the Atlantic Ocean to the we ...
, and
Ivory Coast Ivory Coast, also known as Côte d'Ivoire, officially the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire, is a country on the southern coast of West Africa. Its capital is Yamoussoukro, in the centre of the country, while its largest city and economic centre is ...
, as well as a larger variation of the ''ngoni'' known as the ''gimbri'' developed in
Morocco Morocco (),, ) officially the Kingdom of Morocco, is the westernmost country in the Maghreb region of North Africa. It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and has land borders with Algeria to A ...
by Black Sub-Saharan Africans (
Gnawa The Gnawa (or Gnaoua, Ghanawa, Ghanawi, Gnawi'; Arabic: wikt:ڨناوة, ڭناوة) are an ethnic group inhabiting Morocco. The name Gnawa probably originated in the indigenous language of North Africa and the Sahara, Sahara Desert. The phonol ...
or
Haratin Haratin (), also referred to as Haratine, Harratin (singular: Hartani), are an ethnic group found in western Sahel and southwestern Maghreb. The Haratin are mostly found in modern Mauritania (where they form a plurality), Morocco, Western Sahar ...
). Banjo-like instruments seem to have been independently invented in several different places, since instruments similar to the banjo are known from a diverse array of distant countries. For example, the Chinese ''
sanxian The (, literally "three strings") is a three-stringed List of traditional Chinese musical instruments, traditional Chinese lute. It has a long fretless fingerboard, and the body is traditionally made from snake skin stretched over a rounded rec ...
'', the Japanese ''
shamisen The , also known as the or (all meaning "three strings"), is a three-stringed traditional Japanese musical instrument derived from the Chinese instrument . It is played with a plectrum called a bachi. The Japanese pronunciation is usuall ...
'', Persian ''
tar Tar is a dark brown or black viscosity, viscous liquid of hydrocarbons and free carbon, obtained from a wide variety of organic matter, organic materials through destructive distillation. Tar can be produced from coal, wood, petroleum, or peat. ...
'', and the Moroccan ''
sintir The sintir ( ar, سنتير), also known as the guembri (), gimbri or hejhouj or Garaya in Hausa language, is a three stringed skin-covered bass guitar, bass plucked lute used by the Gnawa people. It is approximately the size of a guitar, wit ...
'', in addition to the many African instruments mentioned above. Early, African-influenced banjos were built around a
gourd Gourds include the fruits of some flowering plant species in the family Cucurbitaceae, particularly ''Cucurbita'' and ''Lagenaria''. The term refers to a number of species and subspecies, many with hard shells, and some without. One of the earli ...
body and a wooden stick neck. These instruments had varying numbers of strings, though often including some form of drone. The earliest known picture, , of an enslaved person playing a banjo-like instrument ( The Old Plantation) shows a four-string instrument with its fourth (thumb) string shorter than the others. Banjos with fingerboards and tuning pegs are known from the Caribbean as early as the 17th century. Some 18th- and early 19th-century writers transcribed the name of these instruments variously as ''bangie'', ''banza'', ''bonjaw'', ''banjer'' and ''banjar''. The instrument became increasingly available commercially from around the second quarter of the 19th century due to
minstrel A minstrel was an entertainer, initially in Middle Ages, medieval Europe. It originally described any type of entertainer such as a musician, juggler, acrobatics, acrobat, singer or jester, fool; later, from the sixteenth century, it came to ...
performances.


Minstrel era, 1830s–1870s

In the
antebellum South In History of the Southern United States, the history of the Southern United States, the Antebellum Period (from la, ante bellum, lit=Status quo ante bellum, before the war) spanned the Treaty of Ghent, end of the War of 1812 to the start of ...
, many enslaved Africans played the banjo, spreading it to the rest of the population. In his memoir ''With Sabre and Scalpel: The Autobiography of a Soldier and Surgeon'', the Confederate veteran and surgeon John Allan Wyeth recalls learning to play the banjo as a child from an enslaved person on his family plantation. Another man who learned to play from African-Americans, probably in the 1820s, was Joel Walker Sweeney, a
minstrel A minstrel was an entertainer, initially in Middle Ages, medieval Europe. It originally described any type of entertainer such as a musician, juggler, acrobatics, acrobat, singer or jester, fool; later, from the sixteenth century, it came to ...
performer from Appomattox Court House,
Virginia Virginia, officially the Commonwealth of Virginia, is a U.S. state, state in the Mid-Atlantic (United States), Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States, Southeastern regions of the United States, between the East Coast of the United Stat ...
.Metro Voloshin, ''The Banjo, from Its Roots to the Ragtime Era: An Essay and Bibliography'' Music Reference Services Quarterly, Vol. 6(3) 1998. Sweeney has been credited with adding a string to the four-string African-American banjo, and popularizing the five-string banjo. Although Robert McAlpin Williamson is the first documented white banjoist, in the 1830s Sweeney became the first white performer to play the banjo on stage. Sweeney's musical performances occurred at the beginning of the minstrel era, as banjos shifted away from being exclusively homemade folk instruments to instruments of a more modern style. Sweeney participated in this transition by encouraging drum maker William Boucher of Baltimore to make banjos commercially for him to sell. According to Arthur Woodward in 1949, Sweeney replaced the gourd with a sound box made of wood and covered with skin, and added a short fifth string about 1831. However, modern scholar Gene Bluestein pointed out in 1964 that Sweeney may not have originated either the 5th string or sound box. This new banjo was at first tuned d'Gdf♯a, though by the 1890s, this had been transposed up to g'cgbd'. Banjos were introduced in Britain by Sweeney's group, the American
Virginia Minstrels The Virginia Minstrels or Virginia Serenaders was a group of 19th-century United States, American entertainers who helped invent the entertainment form known as the minstrel show. Led by Daniel Decatur Emmett, Dan Emmett, the original lineup co ...
, in the 1840s, and became very popular in music halls. The instrument grew in popularity during the 1840s after Sweeney began his traveling minstrel show. By the end of the 1840s the instrument had expanded from Caribbean possession to take root in places across America and across the Atlantic in England. It was estimated in 1866 that there were probably 10,000 banjos in New York City, up from only a handful in 1844. People were exposed to banjos not only at minstrel shows, but also medicine shows, Wild-West shows, variety shows, and traveling vaudeville shows. The banjo's popularity also was given a boost by the Civil War, as servicemen on both sides in the Army or Navy were exposed to the banjo played in minstrel shows and by other servicemen. A popular movement of aspiring banjoists began as early as 1861. The enthusiasm for the instrument was labeled a "banjo craze" or "banjo mania." By the 1850s, aspiring banjo players had options to help them learn their instrument. There were more teachers teaching banjo basics in the 1850s than there had been in the 1840s. There were also instruction manuals and, for those who could read it, printed music in the manuals. The first book of notated music was ''The Complete Preceptor'' by Elias Howe, published under the pseudonym ''Gumbo Chaff'', consisting mainly of Christy's Minstrels tunes. The first banjo method was the ''Briggs' Banjo instructor'' (1855) by Tom Briggs. Other methods included ''Howe's New American Banjo School'' (1857), and ''Phil Rice's Method for the Banjo, With or Without a Master'' (1858). These books taught the "stroke style" or "banjo style", similar to modern "frailing" or "
clawhammer Clawhammer, sometimes called down-picking, overhand, or frailing, is a distinctive banjo playing style and a common component of American old-time music. The principal difference between clawhammer style and other styles is the picking direct ...
" styles. By 1868, music for the banjo was available printed in a magazine, when J. K. Buckley wrote and arranged popular music for ''Buckley's Monthly Banjoist''. Frank B. Converse also published his entire collection of compositions in ''The Complete Banjoist'' in 1868, which included "polkas, waltzes, marches, and clog hornpipes." Opportunities to work included the minstrel companies and circuses present in the 1840s, but also floating theaters and variety theaters, forerunners of the variety show and vaudeville.


Classic era, 1880s-1910s

The term ''classic banjo'' is used today to talk about a bare-finger "guitar style" that was widely in use among banjo players of the late 19th to early 20th century. It is still used by banjoists today. The term also differentiates that style of playing from the fingerpicking bluegrass banjo styles, such as the Scruggs style and Keith style. The ''Briggs Banjo Method'', considered to be the first banjo method and which taught the ''stroke style'' of playing, also mentioned the existence of another way of playing, the ''guitar style.'' Alternatively known as "finger style", the new way of playing the banjo displaced the stroke method, until by 1870 it was the dominant style. Although mentioned by Briggs, it wasn't taught. The first banjo method to teach the technique was ''Frank B. Converse's New and Complete Method for the Banjo with or without a Master'', published in 1865. To play in guitar style, players use the thumb and two or three fingers on their right hand to pick the notes. Samuel Swaim Stewart summarized the style in 1888, saying, The banjo, although popular, carried low-class associations from its role in blackface minstrel shows, medicine shows, tent shows, and variety shows or vaudeville. There was a push in the 19th century banjo to bring the instrument into "respectability." Musicians such as William A. Huntley made an effort to "elevate" the instrument or make it more "artistic," by "bringing it to a more sophisticated level of technique and repertoire based on European standards." Huntley may have been the first white performer to successfully make the transition from performing in blackface to being himself on stage, noted by the Boston Herald in November 1884. He was supported by another former blackface performer, Samuel Swaim Stewart, in his corporate magazine that popularized highly talented professionals. As the "raucous" imitations of plantation life decreased in minstrelsy, the banjo became more acceptable as an instrument of fashionable society, even to be accepted into women's parlors. Part of that change was a switch from the stroke style to the guitar playing style. An 1888 newspaper said, "All the maidens and a good many of the women also strum the instrument, banjo classes abound on every side and banjo recitals are among the newest diversions of fashion...Youths and elderly men too have caught the fever...the star strummers among men are in demand at the smartest parties and have the choosing of the society of the most charming girls." Some of those entertainers, such as Alfred A. Farland, specialized in classical music. However, musicians who wanted to entertain their audiences, and make a living, mixed it in with the popular music that audiences wanted. Farland's pupil Frederick J. Bacon was one of these. A former medicine show entertainer, Bacon performed classical music along with popular songs such as ''Massa's in de cold, cold ground'', a ''Medley of Scotch Airs'', a ''Medley of Southern Airs'', and his own ''West Lawn Polka''. Banjo innovation which began in the minstrel age continued, with increased use of metal parts, exotic wood, raised metal frets and a tone-ring that improved the sound. Instruments were designed in a variety of sizes and pitch ranges, to play different parts in banjo orchestras. Examples on display in the museum include banjorines and piccolo banjos. New styles of playing, a new look, instruments in a variety of pitch ranges to take the place of different sections in an orchestra – all helped to separate the instrument from the rough minstrel image of the previous 50–60 years. The instrument was modern now, a bright new thing, with polished metal sides.


Ragtime era (1895–1919) and Jazz Age era (1910s–1930s)

In the early 1900s, new banjos began to spread, four-string models, played with a plectrum rather than with the minstrel-banjo clawhammer stroke or the classic-banjo fingerpicking style. The new banjos were a result of changing musical tastes. New music spurred the creation of "evolutionary variations" of the banjo, from the five-string model current since the 1830s to newer four-string
plectrum A plectrum is a small flat tool used for plucking or strumming of a string instrument, stringed instrument. For hand-held instruments such as guitars and mandolins, the plectrum is often called a guitar pick, pick and is held as a separate tool i ...
and tenor banjos. The instruments became ornately decorated in the
1920s File:1920s decade montage.png, From left, clockwise: Third Tipperary Brigade Flying Column No. 2 under Seán Hogan during the Irish War of Independence; Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol in accordance to the Eighteenth Amendment to ...
to be visually dynamic to a theater audience. The instruments were increasingly modified or made in a new style – necks that were shortened to handle the four steel (not fiber as before) strings, strings that were sounded with a pick instead of fingers, four strings instead of five and tuned differently. The changes reflected the nature of post-World War 1 music. The country was turning away from European classics, preferring the "upbeat and carefree feel" of jazz, and American soldiers returning from the war helped to drive this change. The change in tastes toward dance music and the need for louder instruments began a few years before the war, however, with ragtime. That music encouraged musicians to alter their 5-string banjos to four, add the louder steel strings and use a pick or plectrum, all in an effort to be heard over the brass and reed instruments that were current in dance-halls. The four string plectrum and tenor banjos did not eliminate the five-string variety. They were products of their times and musical purposes—ragtime and jazz dance music and theater music. The Great Depression is a visible line to mark the end of the Jazz Age. The economic downturn cut into the sales of both four- and five-stringed banjos, and by World War 2, banjos were in sharp decline, the market for them dead.


Modern era

In the post-World War Two years, the banjo experienced a resurgence, played by music stars such as
Earl Scruggs Earl Eugene Scruggs (January 6, 1924 – March 28, 2012) was an American musician noted for popularizing a three-finger banjo picking style, now called "Scruggs style", which is a defining characteristic of bluegrass music. His three-finge ...
(bluegrass),
Bela Fleck Bela may refer to: Places Asia *Bela Pratapgarh, a town in Pratapgarh District, Uttar Pradesh, India *Bela, a small village near Bhandara, Maharashtra, India *Bela, another name for the biblical city Zoara *Bela, Dang, in Nepal *Bela, Janakpur, i ...
(jazz, rock, world music), Gerry O'Connor (Celtic and Irish music), Perry Bechtel (jazz, big band),
Pete Seeger Peter Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer and social activist. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, Seeger also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, notably ...
(folk), and Otis Taylor (African-American roots, blues, jazz). Pete Seeger "was a major force behind a new national interest in folk music." Learning to play a fingerstyle in the Appalachians from musicians who never stopped playing the banjo, he wrote the book, ''How To Play The Five-String Banjo'', which was the only banjo method on the market for years. He was followed by a movement of folk musicians, such as Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio and Erik Darling of the Weavers and Tarriers. Earl Scruggs was seen both as a legend and a "contemporary musical innovator" who gave his name to his style of playing, the ''Scruggs Style''. Scruggs played the banjo "with heretofore unheard of speed and dexterity," using a picking technique for the 5-string banjo that he perfected from 2-finger and 3-finger picking techniques in rural North Carolina. His playing reached Americans through the
Grand Ole Opry The ''Grand Ole Opry'' is a weekly American country music stage concert in Nashville, Tennessee, founded on November 28, 1925, by George D. Hay as a one-hour radio "barn dance" on WSM (AM), WSM. Currently owned and operated by Opry Entertainment ...
and into the living rooms of Americans who didn't listen to country or bluegrass music, through the theme music of
The Beverly Hillbillies ''The Beverly Hillbillies'' is an American television sitcom that was broadcast on CBS from 1962 to 1971. It had an ensemble cast featuring Buddy Ebsen, Irene Ryan, Donna Douglas, and Max Baer Jr. as the Clampetts, a poor, backwoods family from ...
. For the last one hundred years, the tenor banjo has become an intrinsic part of the world of Irish traditional music. It is a relative newcomer to the genre. The banjo has also been used more recently in the
hardcore punk Hardcore punk (also known as simply hardcore) is a punk rock music genre and subculture that originated in the late 1970s. It is generally faster, harder, and more aggressive than other forms of punk rock. Its roots can be traced to earlier punk ...
scene, most notably by Show Me the Body on their debut album, '' Body War''.


Technique

Two techniques closely associated with the five-string banjo are rolls and drones. Rolls are right hand
accompaniment Accompaniment is the musical part which provides the rhythmic and/or harmonic support for the melody or main themes of a song or instrumental piece. There are many different styles and types of accompaniment in different genres and styl ...
al fingering patterns that consist of eight (eighth) notes that subdivide each measure. Drone notes are quick little notes ypically eighth notes usually played on the 5th (short) string to fill in around the melody notes ypically eighth notesErbsen, Wayne (2004). ''Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus'', p.13. . These techniques are both
idiomatic Idiom, also called idiomaticness or idiomaticity, is the syntactical, grammatical, or structural form peculiar to a language. Idiom is the realized structure of a language, as opposed to possible but unrealized structures that could have develope ...
to the banjo in all styles, and their sound is characteristic of bluegrass. Historically, the banjo was played in the
claw-hammer Clawhammer, sometimes called down-picking, overhand, or frailing, is a distinctive banjo playing style and a common component of American old-time music. The principal difference between clawhammer style and other styles is the picking direct ...
style by the Africans who brought their version of the banjo with them. Several other styles of play were developed from this. Clawhammer consists of downward striking of one or more of the four main strings with the index, middle or both fingers while the drone or fifth string is played with a 'lifting' (as opposed to downward pluck) motion of the thumb. The notes typically sounded by the thumb in this fashion are, usually, on the off beat. Melodies can be quite intricate adding techniques such as double thumbing and drop thumb. In old time Appalachian Mountain music, a style called two-finger up-pick is also used, and a three-finger version that
Earl Scruggs Earl Eugene Scruggs (January 6, 1924 – March 28, 2012) was an American musician noted for popularizing a three-finger banjo picking style, now called "Scruggs style", which is a defining characteristic of bluegrass music. His three-finge ...
developed into the "Scruggs" style picking was nationally aired in 1945 on the
Grand Ole Opry The ''Grand Ole Opry'' is a weekly American country music stage concert in Nashville, Tennessee, founded on November 28, 1925, by George D. Hay as a one-hour radio "barn dance" on WSM (AM), WSM. Currently owned and operated by Opry Entertainment ...
. In this style the instrument is played by plucking individual notes. Modern fingerstyle is usually played using fingerpicks, though early players and some modern players play either with nails or with a technique known as on the flesh. In this style the strings are played directly with the fingers, rather than any pick or intermediary. While five-string banjos are traditionally played with either fingerpicks or the fingers themselves, tenor banjos and plectrum banjos are played with a pick, either to strum full chords, or most commonly in
Irish traditional music Irish traditional music (also known as Irish trad, Irish folk music, and other variants) is a Music genre, genre of folk music that developed in Ireland. In ''A History of Irish Music'' (1905), W. H. Grattan Flood wrote that, in Gaelic Irel ...
, play single-note melodies.


Modern forms

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 A broken chord is a chord broken into a sequence of notes. A broken chord may repeat some of the notes from the chord and span one or more octaves. An arpeggio () is a type of broken chord, in which the notes that compose a chord are played ...
plucking, though many different playing styles exist. 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, but many older banjos do not include a tone ring. The banjo is usually tuned with friction tuning pegs or
planetary gear An epicyclic gear train (also known as a planetary gearset) consists of two gears mounted so that the center of one gear revolves around the center of the other. A carrier connects the centers of the two gears and rotates the planet and sun gea ...
tuners, rather than the
worm gear A worm drive is a gear train, gear arrangement in which a worm (which is a gear in the form of a Screw thread, screw) meshes with a worm wheel (which is similar in appearance to a gear#Spur, spur gear). The two machine element, elements are als ...
machine head A machine head (also referred to as a tuning machine, tuner, or gear head) is a geared apparatus for tuning stringed musical instruments by adjusting string tension. Machine heads are used on mandolins, guitars, double basses and others, and ar ...
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 In music, a glissando (; plural: ''glissandi'', abbreviated ''gliss.'') is a wikt:glide, glide from one pitch (music), pitch to another (). It is an Italianized Musical terminology, musical term derived from the French ''glisser'', "to glide". In ...
, play quarter tones, 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 A wound is a rapid onset of injury that involves laceration, lacerated or puncture wound, punctured skin (an ''open'' wound), or a bruise, contusion (a ''closed'' wound) from blunt force physical trauma, trauma or compression. In pathology, a '' ...
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 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, sometimes 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.


Five-string banjo

The modern five-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. This lets the string be tuned to a higher open pitch than possible for the full-length strings. Because of the short fifth string, the five-string banjo uses a
reentrant tuning On a stringed instrument String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when a performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner. Musicians play some string ins ...
– the string pitches do not proceed lowest to highest across the fingerboard. Instead, the fourth string is lowest, then third, second, first, and the fifth string is highest. The short fifth string presents special problems for a capo. For small changes (going up or down one or two semitones, for example), retuning the fifth string simply is possible. Otherwise, various devices called "fifth-string capos" effectively shorten the vibrating part of the string. Many banjo players use model-railroad spikes or titanium spikes (usually installed at the seventh fret and sometimes at others), under which they hook the string to press it down on the
fret A fret is any of the thin strips of material, usually metal wire, inserted laterally at specific positions along the Neck (music), neck or fretboard of a stringed instrument. Frets usually extend across the full width of the neck. On some histo ...
. Five-string banjo players use many tunings. (Tunings are given in left-to-right order, as viewed from the front of the instrument with the neck pointing up.) Probably the most common, particularly in bluegrass, is the Open-G tuning G4 D3 G3 B3 D4. In earlier times, the tuning G4 C3 G3 B3 D4 was commonly used instead, and this is still the preferred tuning for some types of folk music and for classic banjo. Other tunings found in old-time music include double C (G4 C3 G3 C4 D4), "sawmill" (G4 D3 G3 C4 D4) also called "mountain modal" and open D (F#4 D3 F#3 A3 D4). These tunings are often taken up a tone, either by tuning up or using a capo. For example, "double-D" tuning (A4 D3 A3 D4 E4) – commonly reached by tuning up from double C – is often played to accompany fiddle tunes in the key of D, and Open-A (A4 E3 A3 C#4 E4) is usually used for playing tunes in the key of A. Dozens of other banjo tunings are used, mostly in old-time music. These tunings are used to make playing specific tunes easier, usually fiddle tunes or groups of fiddle tunes. The size of the five-string banjo is largely standardized, but smaller and larger sizes exist, including the long-neck or "Seeger neck" variation designed by
Pete Seeger Peter Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer and social activist. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, Seeger also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, notably ...
. Petite variations on the five-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 standard lies the A-scale banjo, which is two frets shorter and usually tuned one full step above standard tunings. Many makers have produced banjos of other scale lengths, and with various innovations. American
old-time music Old-time music is a genre of North American folk music. It developed along with various North American folk dances, such as square dance, square dancing, clogging, and buck dance, buck dancing. It is played on acoustic instruments, generally cen ...
typically uses the five-string, open-back banjo. It is played in a number of different styles, the most common being
clawhammer Clawhammer, sometimes called down-picking, overhand, or frailing, is a distinctive banjo playing style and a common component of American old-time music. The principal difference between clawhammer style and other styles is the picking direct ...
or frailing, characterized by the use of a downward rather than upward stroke when striking the strings with a fingernail. Frailing techniques use the thumb to catch the fifth string for a drone after most strums or after each stroke ("double thumbing"), or to pick out additional melody notes in what is known as drop-thumb. Pete Seeger popularized a
folk Folk or Folks may refer to: Sociology *Nation *People * Folklore ** Folk art ** Folk dance ** Folk hero ** Folk music *** Folk metal *** Folk punk *** Folk rock ** Folk religion * Folk taxonomy Arts, entertainment, and media * Folk Plus or 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.Trischka, Tony (1992). ''Banjo Songbook'', p.20. . 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 first five-string, electric, solid-body banjo was developed by Charles Wilburn (Buck) Trent, Harold "Shot" Jackson, and David Jackson in 1960. 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
Jerry Garcia Jerome John Garcia (August 1, 1942 – August 9, 1995) was an American musician best known for being the principal songwriter, lead guitarist, and a vocalist with the rock band Grateful Dead, which he co-founded and which came to prominence ...
, Buck Trent, Béla Fleck,
Tony Trischka Anthony Cattell Trischka (born January 16, 1949) is an American five-string banjo The banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity to form a resonator. The membrane is typically circular, and usually ...
,
Ralph Stanley Ralph Edmund Stanley (February 25, 1927 – June 23, 2016) was an American bluegrass artist, known for his distinctive singing and banjo The banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity to form a res ...
,
Steve Martin Stephen Glenn Martin (born August 14, 1945) is an American actor, comedian, writer, producer, and musician. He has won five Grammy Awards, a Primetime Emmy Award, and was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2013. Additionally, he was nominated ...
,
George Crumb George Henry Crumb Jr. (24 October 1929 – 6 February 2022) was an American composer of avant-garde contemporary classical music. Early in his life he rejected the widespread Modernism (music), modernist usage of serialism, developing a highly ...
,
Modest Mouse Modest Mouse is an American rock music, rock band formed in 1992 in Issaquah, Washington, and currently based in Portland, Oregon. The founding members are lead singer/guitarist Isaac Brock (musician), Isaac Brock, drummer Jeremiah Green, and bas ...
, Jo Kondo, Paul Elwood,
Hans Werner Henze Hans Werner Henze (1 July 1926 – 27 October 2012) was a German composer. His large oeuvre of works is extremely varied in style, having been influenced by serialism, atonality, Stravinsky, Italian music, Arabic music and jazz Jazz ...
(notably in his ''Sixth Symphony''), Daniel Mason of
Hank Williams III Shelton Hank Williams (born December 12, 1972), known as Hank Williams III, is an American musician, singer and multi-instrumentalist, known for his unique fusion of traditional country music, rockabilly, heavy metal music, heavy metal and punk ...
's Damn Band,
Beck Beck David Hansen (born Bek David Campbell; July 8, 1970) is an American musician, singer, songwriter, and record producer. He rose to fame in the early 1990s with his Experimental music, experimental and Lo-fi music, lo-fi style, and became ...
, the Water Tower Bucket Boys, Todd Taylor, J.P. Pickens, Peggy Honeywell,
Norfolk & Western The Norfolk and Western Railway , commonly called the N&W, was a US class I railroad, formed by more than 200 railroad mergers between 1838 and 1982. It was headquartered in Roanoke, Virginia, for most of its existence. Its motto was "Precisio ...
, Putnam Smith, Iron & Wine,
The Avett Brothers The Avett Brothers are an American folk rock Folk rock is a hybrid music genre that combines the elements of folk music, folk and rock music, rock music, which arose in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom in the mid-1960s. In ...
, The Well Pennies,
Punch Brothers Punch Brothers is an American band consisting of Chris Thile (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle/violin), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass). Their style has been described as "bluegrass instrumentation and spontane ...
, Julian Koster,
Sufjan Stevens Sufjan Stevens ( ; born July 1, 1975) is an American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. He has released nine solo studio albums and multiple collaborative albums with other artists. Stevens has received Grammy The Grammy Awards ...
, Sarah Jarosz and sisters Leah Song and
Chloe Smith Chloe Rebecca Smith (born 17 May 1982) is a British politician who served as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions from September to October 2022. She previously served as Minister of State for Disabled People, Work and Health from 2021 to 2 ...
from Rising Appalachia
Frederick Delius file:Fritz Delius (1907).jpg, Delius, photographed in 1907 Frederick Theodore Albert Delius ( 29 January 1862 – 10 June 1934), originally Fritz Delius, was an English composer. Born in Bradford in the north of England to a prosperous mercan ...
wrote for a banjo in his opera '' Koanga''.
Ernst Krenek Ernst Heinrich Krenek (, 23 August 1900 – 22 December 1991) was an Austrian, later American, composer of Czech origin. He explored atonality and other Contemporary classical music, modern styles and wrote a number of books, including ''Music H ...
includes two banjos in his ''Kleine Symphonie'' (''Little Symphony'').
Kurt Weill Kurt Julian Weill (March 2, 1900April 3, 1950) was a German-born American composer active from the 1920s in his native country, and in his later years in the United States. He was a leading composer for the stage who was best known for his fru ...
has a banjo in his opera '' The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny''.
Viktor Ullmann Viktor Ullmann (1 January 1898, in Teschen – 18 October 1944, in KZ Auschwitz-Birkenau Auschwitz concentration camp ( (); also or ) was a complex of over 40 Nazi concentration camps, concentration and extermination camps operated by N ...
included a tenor banjo part in his ''Piano Concerto'' (op. 25).


Four-string banjos

The four-string 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 C3 G3 B3 D4. 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 A fingerpick is a type of plectrum used most commonly for playing bluegrass music, bluegrass style banjo music. Most fingerpicks are composed of metal or plastic (usually Celluloid or Delrin). Unlike flat guitar picks, which are held between t ...
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 banjos can be used for chordal accompaniment (as in early jazz), for single-string melody playing (as in Irish traditional music), in "chord melody" style (a succession of chords in which the highest notes carry the melody), in tremolo style (both on chords and single strings), and a mixed technique called duo style that combines single-string tremolo and rhythm chords. Four-string banjos are used from time to time in musical theater. Examples include: '' Hello, Dolly!'', '' Mame'', ''
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'', ''
Cabaret Cabaret is a form of theatrical entertainment featuring music, song, dance, recitation, or drama. The performance venue might be a pub, a casino, a hotel, a restaurant, or a nightclub with a stage for performances. The audience, often dining or d ...
'', ''
Oklahoma! ''Oklahoma!'' is the first musical theater, musical written by the duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The musical is based on Lynn Riggs' 1931 play, ''Green Grow the Lilacs (play), Green Grow the Lilacs''. Set in farm country outside the town of ...
'', '' Half a Sixpence'', '' Annie'', ''
Barnum Phineas Taylor Barnum (; July 5, 1810 – April 7, 1891) was an American showman, businessman, and politician, remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and founding the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Barnum & Bailey Circus (187 ...
'', ''
The Threepenny Opera ''The Threepenny Opera'' ( ) is a "Play (theatre), play with music" by Bertolt Brecht, adapted from a translation by Elisabeth Hauptmann of John Gay's 18th-century English ballad opera, ''The Beggar's Opera'', and four ballads by François Vill ...
'', '' Monty Python's Spamalot'', and countless others.
Joe Raposo Joseph Guilherme Raposo, Order of Prince Henry, OIH (February 8, 1937 – February 5, 1989) was an American people, American composer, songwriter, pianist, singer and lyricist, best known for his work on the children's television series ''Sesame ...
had used it variably in the imaginative seven-piece orchestration for the long-running TV show ''
Sesame Street ''Sesame Street'' is an American educational children's television series that combines live-action, sketch comedy Sketch comedy comprises a series of short, amusing scenes or vignettes, called "sketches", commonly between one and t ...
'', 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.


Tenor banjo

The shorter-necked, tenor banjo, with 17 ("short scale") or 19 frets, 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 19 to 21 inches. By the mid-1920s, when the instrument was used primarily for strummed chordal accompaniment, 19-fret necks with a scale length of 21 to 23 inches became standard. The usual tuning is the
all-fifths tuning Among guitar tunings, all-fifths tuning refers to the set of tunings in which each interval (music), interval between consecutive open string (music), open strings is a perfect fifth. All-fifths tuning is also called fifths, perfect fift ...
C3 G3 D4 A4, in which exactly seven
semitone A semitone, also called a half step or a half tone, is the smallest interval (music), musical interval commonly used in Western tonal music, and it is considered the most Consonance and dissonance#Dissonance, dissonant when sounded harmonically ...
s (a
perfect fifth In music theory, a perfect fifth is the Interval (music), musical interval corresponding to a pair of pitch (music), pitches with a frequency ratio of 3:2, or very nearly so. In classical music from Western culture, a fifth is the interval fro ...
) occur between the
open note On string instruments, a stopped note is a musical note, note whose pitch has been altered from the pitch of the open string (music), open string by the player's left hand pressing (stopping) the string against the fingerboard. Bowed strings On ...
s of consecutive
string String or strings may refer to: *String (structure), a long flexible structure made from threads twisted together, which is used to tie, bind, or hang other objects Arts, entertainment, and media Films * Strings (1991 film), ''Strings'' (1991 fi ...
s; this is identical to the tuning of a
viola The viola ( , also , ) is a string instrument that is bow (music), bowed, plucked, or played with varying techniques. Slightly larger than a violin, it has a lower and deeper sound. Since the 18th century, it has been the middle or alto voice of ...
. Other players (particularly in Irish traditional music) tune the banjo G2 D3 A3 E4 like an
octave mandolin The octave mandolin (US and Canada) or octave mandola (Ireland and UK) is a fretted string instrument with four pairs of strings tuned in fifths, G−D−A−E (low to high), an octave In music, an octave ( la, octavus: eighth) or perfect oc ...
, which lets the banjoist duplicate fiddle and mandolin fingering. The popularization of this tuning is usually attributed to the late Barney McKenna, banjoist with
The Dubliners The Dubliners were an Folk music of Ireland, Irish folk band founded in Dublin in 1962 as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, named after its founding member; they subsequently renamed themselves The Dubliners. The line-up saw many changes in personn ...
. Fingerstyle on tenor banjo retuned to open G tuning dgd'g' or lower open D tuning Adad' (three finger picking, frailing) have been explored by Mirek Patek. 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 A brass instrument is a musical instrument A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make Music, musical sounds. In principle, any object that produces sound can be considered a musical instrument—it is through purpose that the ...
and saxophones) and be heard clearly on acoustic recordings.
George Gershwin George Gershwin (; born Jacob Gershwine; September 26, 1898 – July 11, 1937) was an American composer and pianist whose compositions spanned popular, jazz and classical genres. Among his best-known works are the orchestral compositions ' ...
's ''
Rhapsody in Blue ''Rhapsody in Blue'' is a 1924 musical composition written by George Gershwin for solo piano and jazz band, which combines elements of classical music with jazz-influenced effects. Commissioned by bandleader Paul Whiteman, the work premiered i ...
'', in Ferde Grofe's original jazz-orchestra arrangement, includes tenor banjo, with widely spaced chords not easily playable on plectrum banjo in its conventional tunings. 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. Some 1920s Irish banjo players picked out the melodies of jigs, reels, and hornpipes on tenor banjos, decorating the tunes with snappy triplet ornaments. The most important Irish banjo player of this era was Mike Flanagan of the New York-based Flanagan Brothers, one of the most popular Irish-American groups of the day. Other pre-WWII Irish banjo players included Neil Nolan, who recorded with Dan Sullivan's Shamrock Band in Boston, and Jimmy McDade, who recorded with the Four Provinces Orchestra in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the rise of ''ceili'' bands provided a new market for a loud instrument like the tenor banjo. Use of the tenor banjo in Irish music has increased greatly since the folk revival of the 1960s.


Six-string banjos

The six-string banjo began as a British innovation by William Temlett, one of England's earliest banjo makers. He opened a shop in London in 1846, and sold seven-string banjos which he marketed as "zither" banjos from his 1869 patent. A zither banjo usually has a closed back and sides with the drum body and skin tensioning system suspended inside the wooden rim, the neck and string tailpiece mounted on the outside of the rim, and the drone string led through a tube in the neck so that the tuning peg can be mounted on the head. They were often made by builders who used guitar tuners that came in banks of three, so five-stringed instruments had a redundant tuner; these banjos could be somewhat easily converted over to a six-string banjo. American Alfred Davis Cammeyer (1862–1949), a young violinist turned concert banjo player, devised the six-string zither banjo around 1880. British opera diva
Adelina Patti Adelina Patti (19 February 184327 September 1919) was an Italian 19th-century opera singer, earning huge fees at the height of her career in the music capitals of Europe and America. She first sang in public as a child in 1851, and gave her la ...
advised Cammeyer that the zither banjo might be popular with English audiences as it had been invented there, and Cammeyer went to London in 1888. With his virtuoso playing, he helped show that banjos could make more sophisticated music than normally played by
blackface Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used predominantly by non-Black people, Black people to portray a caricature of a Black person. In the United States, the practice became common during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of ...
minstrels. He was soon performing for London society, where he met Sir
Arthur Sullivan Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (13 May 1842 – 22 November 1900) was an English composer. He is best known for 14 comic opera, operatic Gilbert and Sullivan, collaborations with the dramatist W. S. Gilbert, including ''H.M.S. Pinaf ...
, who recommended that Cammeyer progress from arranging the music of others for banjo to composing his own music. Modern six-string bluegrass banjos have been made. These add a bass string between the lowest string and the drone string on a five-string banjo, and are usually tuned G4 G2 D3 G3 B3 D4. Sonny Osborne played one of these instruments for several years. It was modified by luthier Rual Yarbrough from a Vega five-string model. A picture of Sonny with this banjo appears in Pete Wernick's ''Bluegrass Banjo'' method book. Six-string banjos known as banjo guitars basically consist of a six-string guitar neck attached to a bluegrass or plectrum banjo body, which allows players who have learned the guitar to play a banjo sound without having to relearn fingerings. This was the instrument of the early jazz great Johnny St. Cyr, jazzmen
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, Danny Barker, Papa Charlie Jackson and Clancy Hayes, as well as the blues and gospel singer Reverend Gary Davis. Today, musicians as diverse as
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,
Rod Stewart Sir Roderick David Stewart (born 10 January 1945) is a British rock and pop singer and songwriter. Born and raised in London, he is of Scottish and English ancestry. With his distinctive raspy singing voice, Stewart is among the List of best- ...
,
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,
Joe Satriani Joseph Satriani (born July 15, 1956)Prato, Greg"Joe Satriani – Music Biography, Credits and Discography". ''AllMusic''. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved May 28, 2014. is an American guitarist, composer, songwriter, and guitar teacher. Early in his ...
,
David Hidalgo David Kent Hidalgo (born October 6, 1954, in Los Angeles.) is an American singer-songwriter, best known for his work with the band Los Lobos. Hidalgo frequently plays musical instruments such as accordion Accordions (from 19th-century Ge ...
,
Larry Lalonde Reid Laurence "Larry" LaLonde (born September 12, 1968), also known as Ler LaLonde, is an American musician best known as the guitarist for Primus, a position that he has served since 1989, where he is known for his experimental accompaniment t ...
and
Doc Watson Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson (March 3, 1923 – May 29, 2012) was an American guitarist, songwriter, and singer of Bluegrass music, bluegrass, American folk music, folk, country music, country, blues, and gospel music. Watson won seven Grammy award ...
play the six-string guitar banjo. They have become increasingly popular since the mid-1990s.


Other banjos


Low banjos

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in vogue in plucked-string instrument ensembles – guitar orchestras,
mandolin orchestra A mandolin orchestra is an orchestra consisting primarily of instruments from the mandolin family of instruments, such as the mandolin A mandolin ( it, mandolino ; literally "small mandola") is a Chordophone, stringed musical instrument in the ...
s, banjo orchestras – was when the instrumentation was made to parallel that of the string section in symphony orchestras. Thus, "violin, viola, 'cello, bass" became "mandolin, mandola, mandocello, mandobass", or in the case of banjos, "banjolin, banjola, banjo cello, bass banjo". Because the range of pluck-stringed instrument generally is not as great as that of comparably sized bowed-string instruments, other instruments were often added to these plucked orchestras to extend the range of the ensemble upwards and downwards. The banjo cello was normally tuned C2-G2-D3-A3, one octave below the tenor banjo like the cello and mandocello. A five-string cello banjo, set up like a bluegrass banjo (with the short fifth string), but tuned one octave lower, has been produced by the Goldtone company. Bass banjos have been produced in both upright bass formats and with standard, horizontally carried banjo bodies. Contrabass banjos with either three or four strings have also been made; some of these had headstocks similar to those of bass violins. Tuning varies on these large instruments, with four-string models sometimes being tuned in 4ths like a bass violin (E1-A1-D2-G2) and sometimes in 5ths, like a four-string cello banjo, one octave lower (C1-G1-D2-A2).


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 (first patented in 1882) and the banjo ukulele, most famously played by the English comedian
George Formby George Formby, (born George Hoy Booth; 26 May 1904 – 6 March 1961) was an English actor, singer-songwriter and comedian who became known to a worldwide audience through his films of the 1930s and 1940s. On stage, screen and record he s ...
. These were especially popular in the early decades of the 20th 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. Conversely, the tenor and plectrum guitars use the respective banjo necks on guitar bodies. They arose in the early 20th century as a way for banjo players to double on guitar without having to relearn the instrument entirely. Instruments that have a five-string banjo neck on a wooden body (for example, a guitar,
bouzouki The bouzouki (, also ; el, μπουζούκι ; alt. pl. ''bouzoukia'', from Greek ), also spelled buzuki or buzuci, is a musical instrument A musical instrument is a device created or adapted to make Music, musical sounds. In principle, any ...
, or
dobro Dobro is an American brand of resonator guitars, currently owned by Gibson (guitar company), Gibson and manufactured by its subsidiary Epiphone. The term "dobro" is also used as a generic term for any wood-bodied, single-cone resonator guitar. ...
body) have also been made, such as the banjola. A 20th-century Turkish instrument similar to the banjo is called the '' cümbüş'', which combines a banjo-like resonator with a neck derived from an oud. At the end of the 20th century, a development of the five-string banjo was the BanSitar. This features a bone bridge, giving the instrument a
sitar The sitar ( or ; ) is a plucked stringed instrument, originating from the Indian subcontinent, used in Hindustani classical music. The instrument was invented in medieval India, flourished in the 18th century, and arrived at its present form in ...
-like resonance. The Brazilian Samba Banjo is basically a
cavaquinho The cavaquinho (pronounced in Portuguese language, Portuguese) is a small Portugal, Portuguese string instrument in the European guitar family, with four wires or gut strings. More broadly, ''cavaquinho'' is the name of a four-stringed subdivisi ...
neck on a banjo body, thereby producing a louder sound than the cavaquinho. It is tuned the same as the top 4 strings of a 5-string banjo up an octave (or any cavaquinho tuning).


Notable banjoists

* Vess Ossman (1868–1923) was a leading five-string banjoist whose career spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Vess started playing banjo at the age of 12. He was a popular recording artist, and in fact, one of the first recording artists ''ever'', when audio recording first became commercially available. He formed various recording groups, his most popular being the Ossman-Dudley trio.Gracyk, Tom (2000). ''Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895–1925''; Routledge (Haworth Popular Culture series); p. 106ff. . * Joel Sweeney (1810–1860) also known as Joe Sweeney, was a musician and early
blackface Blackface is a form of theatrical makeup used predominantly by non-Black people, Black people to portray a caricature of a Black person. In the United States, the practice became common during the 19th century and contributed to the spread of ...
minstrel A minstrel was an entertainer, initially in Middle Ages, medieval Europe. It originally described any type of entertainer such as a musician, juggler, acrobatics, acrobat, singer or jester, fool; later, from the sixteenth century, it came to ...
performer. He is known for popularizing the playing of the banjo and has often been credited with advancing the physical development of the modern five-string banjo. * Fred Van Eps (1878–1960) was a noted five-string player and banjo maker who learned to play from listening to cylinder recordings of Vess Ossman. He recorded for Edison's company, producing some of the earliest disk recordings, and also the earliest ragtime recordings in any medium other than player piano. *
Uncle Dave Macon David Harrison Macon (October 7, 1870 – March 22, 1952), known professionally as Uncle Dave Macon, was an American old-time music, old-time banjo, banjo player, singing, singer, songwriter, and comedian. Known as "The Dixie Dewdrop", Macon was ...
(1870–1952) was a banjo player and comedian from Tennessee known for his "plug hat, gold teeth, chin whiskers, gates ajar collar and that million dollar Tennessee smile". * Eddie Peabody (1902–1970) was a great proponent of the plectrum banjo who performed for nearly five decades (1920–1968) and left a considerable legacy of recordings. An early reviewer dubbed him "King of the Banjo", and his was a household name for decades. He went on to develop new instruments, produce records, and appear in movies. * Frank Lawes (1894–1970), of the United Kingdom, developed a unique fingerstyle technique on the four-string plectrum instrument, and was a prolific composer of four-string banjo music, much of which is still performed and recorded today. * Harry Reser (1896–1965), plectrum and tenor banjo, was regarded by some as the best tenor banjoist of the 1920s. He wrote a large number of works for tenor banjo, as well as instructional material, authoring numerous banjo method books, over a dozen other instrumental method books (for guitar; ukulele; mandolin; etc.), and was well known in the banjo community. Reser's accomplished single string and "chord melody" technique set a "high mark" that many subsequent tenor players endeavored – and still endeavor – to attain. * Ola Belle Reed (1916–2002) was an American folk singer, songwriter and banjo player. *
Pete Seeger Peter Seeger (May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014) was an American folk singer and social activist. A fixture on nationwide radio in the 1940s, Seeger also had a string of hit records during the early 1950s as a member of the Weavers, notably ...
(1919–2014), although perhaps most widely known as a singer-songwriter with folk group
The Weavers The Weavers were an American folk music Folk music is a music genre that includes #Traditional folk music, traditional folk music and the Contemporary folk music, contemporary genre that evolved from the former during the 20th-century fo ...
, included five-string banjo among his instruments. His 1948 method book ''How to Play the Five-String Banjo'' has been credited by thousands of banjoists, including prominent professionals, with sparking their interest in the instrument. He is also credited with inventing the long-neck banjo (also known as the "Seeger Banjo"), which adds three lower frets to the five-string banjo's neck, and tunes the four main strings down by a minor third, to facilitate playing in singing keys more comfortable for some folk guitarists. *
Earl Scruggs Earl Eugene Scruggs (January 6, 1924 – March 28, 2012) was an American musician noted for popularizing a three-finger banjo picking style, now called "Scruggs style", which is a defining characteristic of bluegrass music. His three-finge ...
(1924–2012), whose career ranged from the end of World War II into the 21st century, is widely regarded as the father of the bluegrass style of banjo playing.Willis, Barry R.; ''America's Music: Bluegrass : A History of Bluegrass Music in the Words of Its Pioneers''; Pine Valley Music, 1997. The three-finger style of playing he developed while playing with
Bill Monroe William Smith "Bill" Monroe (; September 13, 1911 – September 9, 1996) was an American mandolinist, singer, and songwriter, who created the bluegrass music genre. Because of this, he is often called the "Honorific nicknames in popular music#M ...
's band is known by his name: '' Scruggs Style''.Trischka, Tony, "Earl Scruggs", ''Banjo Song Book'', Oak Publications, 1977 *
Ralph Stanley Ralph Edmund Stanley (February 25, 1927 – June 23, 2016) was an American bluegrass artist, known for his distinctive singing and banjo The banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity to form a res ...
(1927–2016) had a long career, both with his brother as "The Stanley Brothers" and with his band "The Clinch Mountain Boys. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of music by Lincoln Memorial University, is a member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and the
Grand Ole Opry The ''Grand Ole Opry'' is a weekly American country music stage concert in Nashville, Tennessee, founded on November 28, 1925, by George D. Hay as a one-hour radio "barn dance" on WSM (AM), WSM. Currently owned and operated by Opry Entertainment ...
. He won a
Grammy Award The Grammy Awards (stylized as GRAMMY), or simply known as the Grammys, are awards presented by the Recording Academy of the United States to recognize "outstanding" achievements in the music industry. They are regarded by many as the most pr ...
for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in the movie
O Brother, Where Art Thou? ''O Brother, Where Art Thou?'' is a 2000 comedy drama film written, produced, co-edited, and directed by Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen. It stars George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, with Chris Thomas King, John Goodman, Holl ...
. * Rual Yarbrough (1930–2010) *
Roy Clark Roy Linwood Clark (April 15, 1933 – November 15, 2018) was an American singer and musician. He is best known for having hosted ''Hee Haw'', a nationally televised country variety show, from 1969 to 1997. Clark was an important and influen ...
(1933–2018) * John Hartford (1937–2001) * Ben Eldridge (b. 1938) * Barney McKenna (1939–2012) was an Irish musician and a founding member of The Dubliners. He played the tenor banjo, violin, mandolin, and melodeon. He was most renowned as a banjo player. Barney used GDAE tuning on a 19-fret tenor banjo, an octave below fiddle/mandolin and, according to musician Mick Moloney, was single-handedly responsible for making the GDAE-tuned tenor banjo the standard banjo in Irish music. Due to his skill level on the banjo fans, all around the world and other members of
The Dubliners The Dubliners were an Folk music of Ireland, Irish folk band founded in Dublin in 1962 as The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group, named after its founding member; they subsequently renamed themselves The Dubliners. The line-up saw many changes in personn ...
nicknamed him "Banjo Barney". * Bill Keith (1939–2015) * Sonny Osborne (b. 1937) * Pete Wernick (b. 1946) *
Tony Trischka Anthony Cattell Trischka (born January 16, 1949) is an American five-string banjo The banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity to form a resonator. The membrane is typically circular, and usually ...
(b. 1949) * Béla Fleck (b. 1958) is widely acknowledged as one of the world's most innovative and technically proficient banjo players. His work spans many styles and genres, including jazz, bluegrass, classical, R&B, avant garde, and "world music", and he has produced a substantial discography and videography. He works extensively in both acoustic and electric media. Fleck has been nominated for Grammy Awards in more categories than any other artist, and has received 13 . * Noam Pikelny (b. 1981) is an American banjoist who plays eclectic styles including traditional bluegrass, classical, rock, and jazz music. He has won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2010. He has been nominated for eight Grammy Nominations and has been awarded one with his band, The Punch Brothers, in 2018. *
Clifford Essex Clifford Essex (1869 – 2 February 1946) was an English banjoist, teacher, and instrument manufacturer during the Victorian era, Victorian and Edwardian eras. Biography Essex formed a partnership with Alfred D. Cammeyer in 1883 and sold banjo ...
, (b. 1869 – c.1946) a British banjoist, who was also a musical instrument manufacturer * Other important four-string performers were Mike Pingitore, who played tenor for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra through 1948, and
Roy Smeck Leroy Smeck (6 February 1900 – 5 April 1994) was an American musician. His skill on the banjo, guitar, and ukulele earned him the nickname "The Wizard of the Strings". Background Smeck was born in Reading, Pennsylvania. He started on the vau ...
, early radio and recording pioneer, author of many instructional books, and whose influential performances on many fretted instruments earned him the nickname "Wizard of the Strings", during his active years (1922–1950). Prominent tenor players of more recent vintage include Narvin Kimball (d. 2006) (left-handed banjoist of Preservation Hall Jazz Band fame). * Notable four-string players currently active include
ragtime Ragtime, also spelled rag-time or rag time, is a musical style that flourished from the 1890s to 1910s. Its cardinal trait is its syncopation, syncopated or "ragged" rhythm. Ragtime was popularized during the early 20th century by composers su ...
and
dixieland Dixieland jazz, also referred to as traditional jazz, hot jazz, or simply Dixieland, is a style of jazz based on the music that developed in New Orleans at the start of the 20th century. The 1917 recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band ( ...
stylists Charlie Tagawa (b. 1935) and Bill Lowrey (b. 1963). Jazz guitarist
Howard Alden Howard Vincent Alden (born October 17, 1958) is an American jazz Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African Americans, African-American communities of New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its ro ...
(b. 1958) began his career on tenor banjo and still plays it at traditional jazz events. Cynthia Sayer (b. 1962) is regarded as one of the top jazz plectrum banjoists. Rock and country performer
Winston Marshall Winston Aubrey Aladar deBalkan Marshall (born 20 December 1987) is an English musician and podcaster. He is best known as the former banjoist and lead guitarist of the British folk rock band Mumford & Sons. Prior to this he was in the Bluegrass ...
(b. 1988) plays banjo (among other instruments) for the British
folk rock Folk rock is a hybrid music genre that combines the elements of folk music, folk and rock music, rock music, which arose in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom in the mid-1960s. In the U.S., folk rock emerged from the American fo ...
group Mumford and Sons, a band that won the 2013
Grammy Award The Grammy Awards (stylized as GRAMMY), or simply known as the Grammys, are awards presented by the Recording Academy of the United States to recognize "outstanding" achievements in the music industry. They are regarded by many as the most pr ...
for "Best Album of the Year".


See also

*
Akonting The ''akonting'' (, or ''ekonting'' in French transliteration) is the folk lute of the Jola people, Jola people, found in Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. It is a banjo-like instrument with a skin-headed gourd body, two long me ...
* Banjo (samba) * Banjo ukulele * Benju * Bulbul tarang * Cuatro (instrument) * Double-neck guitjo * Stringed instrument tunings


References


Further reading


Banjo history

* Conway, Cecelia (1995). ''African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia: A Study of Folk Traditions'', University of Tennessee Press. Paper: ; cloth: . A study of the influence of African Americans on banjo playing throughout U.S. history. * De Smaele G. (1983). "Banjo a cinq cordes". Brussels: Musée Instrumental (MIM), Brussels. D 1983-2170-1 * De Smaele G. (2015). "Banjo Attitudes." Paris: L'Harmattan, 2015. * De Smaele G. (2019). "A Five-String Banjo Sourcebook." Paris: L'Harmattan, 2019. * Dubois, Laurent (2016). ''The Banjo: America's African Instrument.'' Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016. * Epstein, Dena (1977). ''Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War''. University of Illinois Press, 2003. Winner of the Simkins Prize of the Southern Historical Association, 1979. Winner of the Chicago Folklore Prize. The anniversary edition of a classic study of black slave music in America. * Gaddy, Kristina (2022). ''Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo's Hidden History''. W. W. Norton & Company, 2022. . The author uncovers the banjo’s key role in Black spirituality, ritual, and rebellion. * Gibson, George R. (2018). "Black Banjo, Fiddle and Dance in Kentucky and the Amalgamation of African American and Anglo-American Folk Music." ''Banjo Roots and Branches''(Winans, 2018). University of Illinois Press, 2018. Gibson's historiographic chapter uncovers much new information about black banjo and fiddle players, and dance, in Kentucky, and their influence on white musicians, from the 1780s. * Gura, Philip F. and James F. Bollman (1999). ''America's Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century''. The University of North Carolina Press. . 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. . * Linn, Karen (1994). ''That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture''. University of Illinois Press. . 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. . An illustrated history of the banjo featuring the world's premier collection. * Webb, Robert Lloyd (1996). ''Ring the Banjar!''. 2nd edition. Centerstream Publishing. . A short history of the banjo, with pictures from an exhibition at the MIT Museum. * Winans, Robert (2018). ''Banjo Roots and Branches''. University of Illinois Press, 2018. The story of the banjo's journey from Africa to the western hemisphere blends music, history, and a union of cultures. In Banjo Roots and Branches, Robert B. Winans presents cutting-edge scholarship that covers the instrument's West African origins and its adaptations and circulation in the Caribbean and United States.


External links

*
The Banjo in Irish Traditional Music

200 banjo makers pre 2nd WW

BANJO ATTITUDES - Le banjo à cinq cordes : son histoire générale, sa documentation, Gérard De Smaele - livre, ebook, epub

19th Century Banjo Instruction Manuals

''To Hear Your Banjo Play''
1947 Alan Lomax film (16 minutes)
Fingerstyle Tenor Banjo

Banjo Newsletter

Banjo Hangout

Online, Open-Source Banjo Chord Generator
* Dr Joan Dickerson, Sparky Rucker, and George Gibson with host Michael Johnathon explore the ''African-American History of the Banjo'' through conversation and music on show 350 of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour
Both audio and video are provided

"The Physics of Banjos – A Conversation with David Politzer"
''Ideas Roadshow'', 2016 {{Authority control String instruments Banjo family instruments African-American music Bluegrass music Folk music instruments American musical instruments Celtic musical instruments Irish musical instruments Canadian musical instruments Australian musical instruments Guitars