The banjo, a musical instrument of 4, 5, 6 or even 10 strings, is made up of a wooden ring about 35cm in diameter and covered by a patch that can be made of plastic (in its modern style) or leather (in its traditional version) ). Its sound is one of the most unmistakable and characteristic that exists.
The banjo was developed in the United States during the 19th century. Reminiscent of various instruments from Africa, the banjo developed into what we recognise today in the plantations of the American south and across the Caribbean, and even become an emblematic symbol of slavery. Although it was the African-American musicians who explored and played all its rhythmic possibilities, the banjo was created in a blended culture and it quickly became a characteristic instrument of American music.
During the 1800s and the booming plantation era of the Antebellum South, the instrument slowly filtered through the population. It became a widely used instrument in rural America. Grotesque representations of African culture sprang up during what has been labeled the “minstrel” era, where skits and songs performed by white musicians in “black face” popularised banjo playing. So much so that there was even a “banjo craze” during the 1860s. Many of the white performers creating the minstrels shows were Irish and in turn this is how the banjo also became a characteristic instrument of Irish music. After some time, the banjo lost its “raunchy” associations with the minstrel shows, and the style of playing changed somewhat too.
The banjo has a fascinating history in America, you can read more about it on Wikipedia or online.
In many parts of Africa there are very similar instruments, from their construction to their sound.
The original, or first, version of the banjo has an opening at the rear (openback). In the 20th century, the design of the instrument was renewed with a wooden resonator that serves as a closure. The latter was called the bluegrass banjo, with greater volume and resonance than its first version.
A beautiful traditional banjo musician is Doc Watson playing “The Cuckoo bird”:
Currently, both types are still in force and choosing one or the other depends on the musical style being performed. Also today we can find a great variety of different instruments that were created from the original banjo, varying the length of the neck, the number of strings, and combining it with other instruments.
In 1890 the banjo became the leading musical instrument in traditional American music. In both country music and jazz, the banjo is the characteristic instrument. Even the Charleston and the Foxtrot use this instrument in some special variants.
The modern banjo has a variety of shapes in four or five string versions (also a six-string version, tuned and played just like a guitar!). The banjo is usually played with a quick strum, however it is also possible to find many styles.
If you are interested in how the modern banjo is played and sounds, don’t miss this video of The Dead South doing “In Hell I’ll be in good company”:
Its tuning is with friction pins or gears. Its strings are currently usually metallic creating those typical twanging notes, while those who prefer more melodious or traditional sounds choose nylon or leather strings.
Bill Keith, a five-string banjo player, made one of the greatest contributions to the stylistic development of the instrument. By varying other styles, he created what would later become known as the melodic or Keith style.
Here is a video of Bill Keith playing “Caravan”:
If you are interested in learning to play the banjo you can take classes with excellent teachers.
You can contact us to coordinate a first free trial class!
And if you have some tools at home, you can be encouraged to create your own banjo and experience its sound for yourself.