When you hear the familiar twang of a banjo, you may think that there couldn't be a more distinctly American sound. Early design of the banjo blended West African and European instrument forms, and even today there is a great diversity in the shape and size of this plucky instrument. The banjo is associated with many styles of music, including old-time, bluegrass, jazz, and even pop music today. That being said, the banjo is appreciated all over the world, and many cultures have adopted it into their own traditions.
In terms of construction, a banjo typically has 5 strings (one being a shorter drone string), with a circular frame covered by a membrane (much like a drum head). Hybrid forms of the instrument abound, such as the 4-string Ukulele-Banjo, the 6-string Guitar-Banjo, and the 4-course Mandolin-Banjo. The banjo is itself a hybrid instrument. While it bears a strikingly close resemblance to the akonting of the Jola people of Gambia, the gourd-lute family of instruments dates back at least as far as Ancient Mesopotamia, and related instruments exist around the world (with the Chinese sanxian, the Japanese samisen, and the Persian tar). So while the banjo is not an entirely groundbreaking invention, it is an instrument that developed from a blending of traditions, and is a living product of American history (Read more on this here).
Earliest references to the banjo date from the 1700s, when it was played almost exclusively by African-Americans. Enslaved Africans brought the early forms of this instrument from West Africa to the Caribbean, and from there to North America, onto slave plantations (Read more here). For these slaves, the banjo was not only a welcome distraction from the hardship and toil of daily life on the plantation, but a connection to the homelands they were taken from, as well as a spiritual connection to their ancestors and gods.
While the banjo's drum-like body and strings of different lengths take after African instruments (such as the Kora and the Moroccan Sintir), the flat fingerboard and tuning pegs hail from European instrument design (Read more here). Before the widespread commercial availability of the banjo, they were handmade with a gourd body, an animal-skin head, a stick without frets for the neck, and some gut strings. Many different kinds of banjos exist today, and different styles of playing, but each one carries with it a resemblance to these earliest American banjos.
As the banjo continued to develop in form and style, it became increasingly popular within American culture. By the 1820s, white minstrels were performing with the banjo in blackface, often mocking slaves. While these early performances were culturally insensitive at best and incredibly racist at worst, this too is a part of the banjo's living history, as this practice continued up into the 1950s. An unfortunate side effect of this was that many black musicians were driven away from playing banjo, not wanting to associate themselves with the negative stereotypes portrayed by those blackface minstrels (Read more here).
As popular demand for the banjo increased, the fretless gourd instrument with gut strings was developed into a more standardized factory-built form with metal strings. Cross-cultural adoption of the instrument did bring about further advancements in terms of design, with a wooden resonator on the instrument and a more drum-like head as we have today. Frets were added sometime during the late 19th century, and the 5-string banjo was patented in 1849. Some fretless or gourd-based models still exist today, although they are far less common.
After the Civil War, banjo and fiddle became ubiquitous, and incredibly popular among Appalachian musicians, who adapted old European folk songs and fiddle tunes for banjo, which by this time was becoming known for its melodic – rather than strictly rhythmic – qualities. This set the groundwork for bluegrass and old-time styles that are still played today. Around the time of World War I, the banjo could be found in early jazz performances, often as a 4-stringed instrument to accompany large musical ensembles with a clear and cutting tone. Banjo was gradually supplanted by the acoustic and electric guitar following the Great Depression, with guitars being less expensive, and electric guitars being even louder, and better suited to rock and roll and blues music (Read more here).
In the mid-1900s, Earl Scruggs popularized a 3-finger "roll" picking style that is considered characteristic of Bluegrass today, and more closely resembles classical guitar finger-picking. Before Scruggs, the frailing or clawhammer technique was most common (with fingers in a "claw" shape, strumming downward on the strings with the middle fingernail, and striking the thumb like a "hammer" on a single string). This style is still popular among old-time players today. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Irish musicians took up playing a 4-string banjo with a pick/plectrum (as one would do with mandolin). The banjos played by pick tend to be 4-string instruments, without the chanterelle drone string. As in Dixieland jazz banjo, melody is the main focus in this context, with some occasional use of chords.
Today, banjos can be heard all over the world, and while they can vary in their size, shape, number of strings, and material construction, they have a distinct sound which lends a wonderful rhythmic and plucky quality to any musical ensemble. Some examples of banjo playing can be found in the video links below, but the best way to get acquainted with this instrument may just be to try one for yourself!
Browse our collection of banjos online here:
Fretless Gourd 5-String Banjo
Fretless 5-String Banjo
Fretted 4-String Tenor Banjo
Fretted 5-String Banjo
Instruction and History
African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia by Cecilia Conway
The Banjo: America's African Instrument by Laurent DuBois
Close-up of The Old Plantation, c. 1785–1795 (earliest known American painting to picture a banjo-like instrument; thought to depict a plantation in Beaufort County, South Carolina)