Plucked stringed musical instrument of African origin. It has a tambourine-like body, four or five strings, and a long fretted neck. The fifth string (if present) is pegged at the fifth fret and acts primarily as a drone plucked by the thumb. In its original form, the banjo had only four strings and lacked frets. Slaves introduced the instrument to the U.S., where it was popularized in 19th-century minstrel shows and thence exported to Europe. It has been an important American folk instrument, especially in bluegrass, and it was used in early jazz.
Learn more about banjo with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The banjo is a stringed instrument developed by enslaved Africans in the United States, adapted from several African instruments. The name banjo commonly is thought to be derived from the Kimbundu term mbanza. Some etymologists derive it from a dialectal pronunciation of "bandore", though recent research suggests that it may come from a Senegambian term for the bamboo stick used for the instrument's neck.
The banjo can be played in several styles and is used in various forms of music. American old-time music typically uses the five-string open back banjo. It is played in a number of different styles, the most common of which are called clawhammer (or "claw-hammer") and frailing, characterised by the use of a downward rather than upward motion when striking the strings with the fingers. Banjo picks are usually inserted onto the fingers for a smoother playing. Frailing techniques use the thumb to catch the fifth string for a drone after each strum or twice in each action ("double thumbing"), or to pick out additional melody notes in what is known as "drop-thumb." Pete Seeger popularised a folk style by combining clawhammer with "up picking", usually without the use of fingerpicks.
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; and three-finger style with single string work, also called Reno style after Don Reno, legendary father of Don Wayne Reno. In these styles the emphasis is on arpeggiated figures played in a continuous eighth-note rhythm. All of these styles are typically played with fingerpicks.
Many tunings are used for the five-string banjo. Probably the most common, particularly in bluegrass, is the open G tuning (gDGBd). In earlier times, the tuning gCGBd was commonly used instead. Other tunings common in old-time music include double C (gCGcd), sawmill or mountain minor (gDGcd) also called Modal or Mountain Modal, old-time A (aDAde) a step up from double C, often played with a violin accompaniment, and open D (f#DF#Ad). These tunings are often taken up a tone, either by tuning up or using a capo.
The fifth (drone) string is the same gauge as the first, but it is generally five frets shorter, three quarters the length of the rest. One notable exception is the long necked Pete Seeger model, where the additional three frets are not added to the fifth string. The short fifth string means that unlike many string instruments, the strings on a five string banjo do not go in order from lowest to highest from one side of the neck to the other. Instead, in order from low to high the strings are the fourth, third, second, first, and then fifth.
The short fifth string presents special problems for using a capo to change the pitch of the instrument. For small changes (going up or down one or two semitones, for example) it is possible simply to retune the fifth string. Otherwise various devices, known as fifth string capos, are available effectively to shorten the string. Many banjo players favour the use of model railroad spikes or titanium spikes (usually installed at the seventh fret and sometimes at others), under which the string can be hooked to keep it pressed down on the fret.
While the five-string banjo has been used in classical music since the turn of the century, contemporary and modern works have been written for the instrument by Béla Fleck, Tim Lake, George Crumb,Modest Mouse, Jo Kondo, Paul Elwood, Hans Werner Henze (notably in his Sixth Symphony), Beck, J.P. Pickens, Peggy Honeywell, Norfolk & Western, and Sufjan Stevens.
Petite variations on the 5-string banjo have been available since the 1890s. S.S. Stewart introduced the banjeaurine, tuned one fourth above a standard five-string. Piccolo banjos are smaller, and tuned one octave above a standard banjo.
The plectrum banjo has four strings, lacking the shorter fifth drone string, and around 22 frets; it is usually tuned CGBd. As the name suggests, it is usually played with a guitar-style pick (that is, a single one held between thumb and forefinger), unlike the five-string banjo, which is either played with a thumbpick and two fingerpicks, or with bare fingers. The plectrum banjo evolved out of the five-string banjo, to cater to styles of music involving strummed chords. Eddie Peabody was possibly the greatest exponent of the plectrum banjo style in the early to mid twentieth century.
A further development is the tenor banjo, which also has four strings and is also typically played with a plectrum. It has a shorter neck with around 19 frets and a scale length of 21 3/4" - 23" on shorter models, and 25 1/2" to 26 3/4" on longer ones. It is usually tuned CGda, like a mandola, but has also been tuned Gdae′ like an octave mandolin which produces a more mellow tone. Tenor Banjos also come in short scale with 17 frets and are used by players who use fiddle fingering, in the Gdae′ tuning. These tunings became popular around the turn of the century due to the growing popularity of the mandolin. Another alternative, called "Chicago" tuning is DGBe (like the first four strings of a guitar) which is now regaining popularity due to the number of guitarists who double on banjo. The tenor banjo has become a standard instrument for Irish traditional music.
The tenor banjo was also a common rhythm instrument in early jazz and dance bands throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Its volume and timbre suited early jazz (and jazz-influenced popular music styles) and could both compete with other instruments (such as brass instruments and saxophones) and be heard clearly on acoustic recordings. However, as the guitar gained in popularity in the 1930s, the tenor banjo moved out of mainstream jazz and popular music finding a place in traditional jazz and Dixieland jazz.
Harry Reser was arguably the best tenor banjoist of the early twentieth century and wrote a large number of works for tenor banjo as well as instructional material.
The tenor banjo is regaining popularity as Dixieland jazz finds its way back into experimental improvisational music. Its rise to popularity is being supported by the recent manufacturing of tenors at a working musicians price.
Rarer than either the tenor or plectrum banjo is the cello banjo. Normally tuned CGDA, one octave below the tenor banjo, it matches the cello and mandocello in range. It played a role in banjo orchestras in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Bass banjos have been produced in both upright bass formats and with standard, horizontally-carried banjo bodies.
Four-string banjo playing (in addition to rhythm playing) can include single string playing, chord melody (in which a succession of chords are played where the highest note forms a melody), a tremolo style (both of chords and single strings) and a complicated technique called duo style which combines single string tremolo and rhythm chords.
Roy Smeck was an influential performer on many fretted instruments including banjo. He also wrote a number of solos and instructional books. Johnny Biar and Buddy Wachter are prominent four-string banjoists currently working professionally.
A British innovation was the 6-string banjo, developed by William Temlett, one of England's earliest banjo makers, who opened his shop in London in 1846. American Alfred Davis Cammeyer (1862-1949), a young violinist-turned banjo concert player, devised the 5-string zither-banjo around 1880, which had a wood resonator and metal "wire" strings (the 1st and 2nd melody strings and 5th "thumb" string; the 3rd melody string was gut and the 4th was silk covered) as well as frets and guitar-style tuning machines. British opera diva Adelina Patti advised Cammeyer that the zither-banjo might be popular with English audiences, and Cammeyer went to London in 1888. After convincing the British that banjos could be used for more sophisticated music than was normally played by blackface minstrels, he was soon performing for London society, where he met Sir Arthur Sullivan, who recommended that Cammeyer progress from writing banjo arrangements of music to composing his own music.
(Interesting to note that, supposedly unbeknownst to Cammeyer, William Temlett had patented a 7-string closed back banjo in 1869, and was already marketing it as a "zither-banjo.")
The first 5-string electric solid-body banjo was developed by Charles (Buck) Wilburn Trent, Harold "Shot" Jackson, and David Jackson in 1960.
The six-string or guitar-banjo was the instrument of the early jazz great Johnny St. Cyr, as well as of jazzmen Django Reinhardt, Danny Barker, Papa Charlie Jackson and Clancy Hayes, as well as the blues and gospel singer The Reverend Gary Davis. Nowadays, it sometimes appears under such names as guitanjo, guitjo, ganjo, or banjitar.
A number of hybrid instruments exist, crossing the banjo with other stringed instruments. Most of these use the body of a banjo, often with a resonator, and the neck of the other instrument. Examples include the banjo mandolin; the Banjolin; and the banjo ukulele or banjolele. These were especially popular in the early decades of the twentieth century, and were probably a result of a desire either to allow players of other instruments to jump on the banjo bandwagon at the height of its popularity, or to get the natural amplification benefits of the banjo resonator in an age before electric amplification.
Instruments using the five-string banjo neck on a wooden body (for example, that of a bouzouki or resonator guitar) have also been made, such as the banjola. A 20th-Century Turkish instrument very similar to the banjo is called Cümbüs.
Rhythm guitarist Dave Day of 1960's proto-punks The Monks replaced his guitar with a six-string, gut-strung banjo upon which he played guitar chords. This instrument sounds much more metallic, scratchy and wiry than a standard electric guitar, due to its amplification via a small microphone stuck inside the banjo's body.