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Anatomy of an Instrument: The Banjo

Laura  Barnes
Anatomy of an Instrument: The Banjo

For some people, hearing the banjo reminds them of disturbing scenes from the film Deliverence, for others, they reminisce about the tongue-in-cheek ditties from George Formby and his banjolele. More recently, for many the banjo can be heard in modern folk music from the likes of Mumford and Sons.

While you may be familiar with all three of these references, you may be surprised when you find out about the instrument's origins.

In the latest instalment of our Anatomy of an Instrument series, MI Pro outlines everything you need to know about the banjo.

What is a banjo?
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The banjo is a four-, five- or six-stringed instrument with a thin membrane stretched over a frame or cavity as a resonator (called the head). The head is typically made of plastic, although animal skin is still occasionally but rarely used, and the frame is typically circular.

Although the banjo is frequently associated with country, folk and bluegrass music, the modern banjo derives from instruments that had been used in the Caribbean since the 17th century by enslaved people taken from West Africa.

The six-string version of the banjo, which is tuned and played similarly to a guitar, has gained the most popularity in modern day use.

The banjo is usually tuned with friction tuning pegs or planetary gear tuners, rather than the worm gear machine head used on guitars.

Frets have become standard since the late 19th century, though fretless banjos are still manufactured and played. Modern banjos are typically strung with metal strings. Usually the fourth string is wound with either steel or bronze-phosphor alloy. Some players string their banjos with nylon or gut strings to achieve a more mellow, old-time tone.

How do you play it and what does it sound like?

In almost all of its forms, banjo playing is characterised by a fast arpeggiated plucking, though there are many different playing styles.

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 play single note melodies.   

Historically, the banjo was played in the clawhammer style by the Africans who brought their version of the banjo with them. Clawhammer consists of downward striking of one or more of the four main strings with the index and middle fingers while the drone, or fifth string, is played with a 'lifting' motion of the thumb – usually stuck on the off beat of the rhythm.

Here are some of our favourite banjo videos:

Why should I stock them?

There are a lot of different banjos brands out there in a wide variety of price points. Whether you have customers looking for more traditional instruments to add to their collection, young musicians just getting into the ever-growing modern folk scene, or someone looking for interesting hybrid instruments such as the banjolele, banjo mandolin and banjo guitar, a selection of banjos added to your stringed instrument offering might be an interested talking point for your customers.

Who makes them?

Here’s a selection of popular banjo brands:

Gold Tone
Recording King

Check out all of our previous Anatomy of an Instrument features here.

Tags: banjo , banjos , Anatomy of an Instrument

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