A Brief History of the Banjo

What do you think of when you imagine a banjo? If you're like most folks, you usually see a picture of a 5-string banjo being played by a white southern man, perhaps in a rural mountain setting or at a bluegrass festival. The banjo-trained ear will also notice the tuning: GDGBD (the usual G tuning), and the banjo is set up to be loud and clear, not deep and mellow.

That's the current take on the banjo, but we would be amiss to neglect the multitude of other styles, many of which others will think of before the above scenario: Dixieland Jazz, Clawhammer in all its' wonderful varieties, Irish folk tunes, classical renditions, etc. But beyond one of these styles, the general population hasn't gone much farther in thought. Jobs beckon, dinner must be prepared, lawns mowed. Musical history, especially that of a banjo, is easily forgotten.

It seems the banjo has always represented something a bit different from what is currently considered mainstream. Back when it was first introduced to America, it came over (either physically or, more likely, in the minds of its' makers) as the primary instrument of African slaves. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, and these early American banjos were hobbled together using what was available. Catskin stretched over a hollowed-out gourd, with a suitable wooden neck and gut strings - this is the usual description of a banjo from this time period. If you find these really old-style banjos fascinating, as I do, check out David G. Hyatt's ‘The Art of GOurd BanjO Construction' and Jubilee Gourd Banjo . For more links, just google ‘gourd banjos' .

1810 - 1890
And what did the people of that time think about banjos? Of course you can never lump all of society into one or even two or three viewpoints, but some generalities can be stated. After about 1810, banjos were well-known enough to no longer need a description when writing about them. Starting with an initial use strictly by slaves, it wasn't long before traveling minstrel bands, the popular yet low-brow form of entertainment in those days, had included them. You'll notice that neither of these groups were considered ‘the way to be' by middle and upper class society. By 1840 or so, commercial enterprises were making banjos, so they are well-documented after this time.

1890 - 1910
A curious thing happened next that, upon closer examination, reveals much about how society to this day categorizes the banjo. By about 1890 or 1900, much of society was moving away from Victorian ideals of behavior. Although this ‘official' culture was still in place, the more sentimental notions of people held sway in ordinary life. As a show of moving from this Victorian lifestyle, upper class ladies began taking up the banjo. So much so, that for the age, the banjo was seen largely as a feminine instrument. If you ever look at newspapers and magazine from 1890 to 1910, you'll frequently see women playing the banjo.

1910 - 1945
The early 20th century saw a sea-change in society and culture, begun in the post-victorian days of the late 1800s. Central to musical expression was the question: 'What shall we do with our roots?' Thus was the birth of the blues and jazz. This brought the 4-string banjos, tenor and plectrum to the forefront of popular music. The 5-string banjo was almost forgotten.

1945 - Present
1945 was a year that bluegrass banjo pickers will always remember. That's the year Earl Scruggs, newly joined to Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, would introduce the world to Scruggs style banjo playing at the Grand 'Ol Opry. Three-finger Scruggs style was ripe for exposure to the world by this time; some players were already adopting this style, especially around the area of North Carolina where Earl was from. Earl Scruggs was the first to bring it to a national audience, hence its name.

Since that day in 1945, banjoists have continued to improve and innovate stylistic changes in the banjos' repertoire. Although Scruggs style continues to dominate on the 5-string, others have contributed much to further development of techniques. Don Reno gave us Reno style with its single string techniques; Bobby Thompson and Bill Keith independently introduced melodic style. And so styles of playing the banjo continue to advance and improve.

Type of Banjos
The banjo comes in perhaps more variations than any other musical instrument. Here's a bried descrion of each.

Modern 5-String Banjo - The usual instrument of choice in bluegrass.

Folk Banjo - a variation of the standard 5-string, but with 3 extra frets - it's noticably longer and is often capoed at the 3rd fret to put it in standard G tuning.

Tenor Banjo - A shorter modern banjo, with 18 frets. Used most commonly in Irish, Celtic, Jazz and Dixieland Jazz.

Plectrum Banjo - Similar to a standard 5-string, but without the 5th string drone. Typically with 22 frets.

Interesting Variations:


Gourd Banjo

Minstrel Banjo

Mountain Banjo

6-String Banjo

Electric Banjo

Bass Banjo

Cello Banjo

Piccolo Banjo





A Philosophy of Banjos

Charles Schulz once wrote a Peanuts comic strip which seems to be the origin of the now-famous quote:

"The way I see it, every baby born should be issued a banjo."

That sums up, in a simple way, my approach to banjos. (Afterall, would you give a bad thing to a baby?)

Of course, given enough people, you'll get all kinds of options, banjos and otherwise. Nonetheless, I think most folks nowadays see the banjo in much the same way; as genuine, down-to-earth (or folksy) and symbolic of contentment. Certain fads and stereotypes have come and gone. But I believe these three qualities have remained with our perception of the banjo and have stood the test of time.

As someone who plays such an instrument; one that is genuine, and carefree, I'm pleased if I also reflect some of these traits. I know I could do worse. We could all do worse than to be banjo players.