Folk & Acoustic Musical Instrument Specialists

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Banjo Information and FAQs



DEFINITION


American development of African origins (related to the Kora etc., but with a guitar type neck). Found with 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 or more strings, popular types are the 5 string, Tenor (4 string), Plectrum (long neck 4 string), Banjolele (Ukulele Banjo), Banjolin (Mandolin Banjo).

INTRODUCTION


The Banjo developed in America from its African origins, and is now immensely popular, due to its unique sound, suitability for a wide variety of music, and because it is so easy to play. Common types include the 5 - string, the tenor with four strings, the mandolin banjo or banjolin with eight and the ever popular uke banjo with four nylon strings.

SOME TYPES OF BANJO


5-String Banjo | Guitar Banjo | Mandolin Banjo or Banjolin | Plectrum Banjo | Tenor Banjo | Ukulele Banjo

5-String Banjo

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Introduction: The 5-String G Banjo is used for Bluegrass music, usually in the style popularised by Earl Scruggs, and players look for a resonator and tone ring. For old time clawhammer or frailing styles, an open backed simpler model is better. Finger style classical banjo also uses the 5 string, but is less common now. Used for bluegrass and country music, and for old time and song accompaniment in the British Isles.
Read the full 5-String Banjo FAQ Page.

Guitar Banjo

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Introduction: The Guitar Banjo is a modern invention, we haven't seen any older than the late 20th century. They have a regular pot the same size as a 5-String and an 11 inch head. Most have a shorter scale than a guitar and are best played above the normal pitch as they sound dull with the thicker strings needed to get down to guitar tuning. We now have models with full length necks as well.

Mandolin Banjo or Banjolin

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Introduction: The Mandolin Banjo dates from the early 20th century and has a small body with a 6 to 10 inch head. It has 8 strings tuned the same as a mandolin and is about the same size as a uke banjo. They are seen in both zither style and normal construction with or without a resonator.

Plectrum Banjo

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Introduction: The Plectrum Banjo or 4-String G banjo has the same tuning and neck length as a 5-string G banjo but omits the 5th string. The lack of a 5th string peg facilitates quick thumb movement up and down the neck and as the neck is longer than on the tenor banjo a lot more chord inversions are available to the jazz player.

Tenor Banjo

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Introduction: The Tenor Banjo is used extensively in both Irish traditional music, and Traditional Jazz. It has a shorter scale than the G Banjo, and 4 strings tuned CGDA, but it is common for Irish musicians to retune down to GDAE using thicker strings. Used in jazz and popular music earlier this century, the tenor banjo has 4 strings and is usually tuned CGDA.
Read the full Tenor Banjo FAQ Page.

Ukulele Banjo

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Introduction: The Ukulele Banjo as popularised by George Formby has the same tuning as the ukulele. The banjo has a small head 7 to 8 inches usually, and often a resonator. The banjo body and the resonator add a lot of volume to the Uke.

CHOOSING

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Five String Banjos
The 5 string is used for Bluegrass music, usually in the style popularised by Earl Scruggs, and players look for a resonator and tone ring. For old time clawhammer or frailing styles, an open backed simpler model is better. Finger style classical banjo also uses the 5 string, but is less common now. Used for bluegrass and country music, and for old time and song accompaniment in the British Isles.

Bluegrass players favour banjos with a resonator back. Old time players often favour the open back variety. Many tunings are used, especially in old time music, but the most common are gDGBD and gCGDB.

The long neck 5 string (almost always associated with Pete Seeger) is 3 frets longer than the usual 5 string. The fretless instrument (often strung with gut or nylon strings) was favoured by some old time players because it allows the player to follow more closely the fiddle playing. The 5 string was also used for jazz and earlier popular music.

Tenor
The Tenor Banjo is used extensively in both Irish traditional music, and Traditional Jazz. It has a shorter scale than the G Banjo, and 4 strings tuned CGDA, but it is common for Irish musicians to retune down to GDAE using thicker strings. Used in jazz and popular music earlier this century the tenor banjo has 4 strings and is usually tuned CGDA.
The Irish and Scottish traditional players put heavier guage strings on them and tune them down to GDAE, an octave below mandolin, fiddle etc.
They also favour instruments with a shorter scale length (17 frets rather than 19) because it makes using the same fingering as the fiddle possible.
Tenor banjo should not be confused with plectrum style which was used much like the tenor but has a longer neck (22 frets) and a different tuning. Jazz players like the extra frets because they can use the same chord shapes and patterns in different positions.

Other Types
Several other styles of banjos exist, the most popular are Uke Banjo (or banjulele) with 4 nylon strings tuned CGEA (or a tone above that), as popularised by George Formby, The Mandolin Banjo (or banjolin), The Plectrum or 4 string G, and even the Guitar Banjo, which makes the sound available to all guitarists, and was used again for jazz - we don't recommend it for guitar players wanting a bluegrass sound.