The Evolution of the Banjo

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Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™

The Evolution of the Banjo

As a Folk singer/songwriter who plays banjo (as well as guitar and several other instruments), I occasionally get reader or audience questions about why there are so many kinds of banjos. It's impossible to explain that without explaining some of the history of the banjo. Recently I put on a presentation on that very subject, so I figured I'd put the meat of that presentation (and the handouts I prepared for it) into an article.

I started to introduce this topic with a list of wrong things I've been told about the history of the banjo. But the list just got too long. Suffice it to say that for a long time, white banjo players were hesitant to admit that the thing was essentially invented in Africa. But it was, really.

That the banjo - in its various forms - "came into its own" in the United States is beyond question. That white men making fun of enslaved people boosted its popularity is also, sadly, beyond question.

But questions of racism and cultural appropriation aside, there are other issues that have shaped the banjo's history, and they have led to a number of distinct traditions that remain to this day.

In explaining how that happened, I thought it would be helpful to make a sort of "family tree" picture tracing the different traditions back to their common origins. Little did I know how many people would be upset by my research, which occasionally contradicted "common wisdom" on one subject or another. Far more people have been grateful for my attempt to give some context to the overall discussion, however. So, while I'm open to tweaking things as new facts come to light or people point me to resources I am not aware of at this time, I won't apologize for making the attempt to trace the banjo's development over time.

Evolution, Intelligent Design, and "Let's Cobble a Few of These Up and See if We Get Any Takers."

Evolution isn't really the right name for what happened to the banjo, though. While it's easy to show how the Minstrel banjo grew out of the African-style gourd instruments, and the Classic banjo grew out of the Minstrel-style banjos, once you get to the late 1800s, there was a wealth of experimentation, as manufacturers started making banjos in all shapes and sizes, with a number of different tunings and various numbers of strings.

Several of the "dicier" experiments were, nevertheless, picked up by "banjo orchestras" that attempted to reproduce the soprano, alto, tenor and bass sections of conventional string orchestras (although many banjo configurations that were used this way never caught on outside of this setting). Other experiments never got farther than one proof-of-concept prototype instrument and a page in a catalog that nobody ever ordered from.

In the end, it was players who decided which configurations "caught on," and which became unused curiousities. And that depended as much on what kind of music was becoming popular as on what kind of range, tone, and playability each banjo configuration offered.

So once we get to the Classic Banjo period, where much of that experimentation occurred, we're not talking so much about the evolution of the banjo as it is about how changes in musical tastes drove to popularity of first one, then another configuration, many of which were, technically, invented about the same time.

Weirder yet, the mandolin family of instruments - also popular during the Classic Banjo era - influenced at least two banjo configurations. And one of the latter led directly to the invention of a particular kind of guitar. Though there isn't room for those instruments on the chart, we'll mention them in this account.

If you thought there was going to be one line of descent, like "Cro-Magnan Banjo learns to make bronze and becomes Modern Banjo," you'll be sadly disappointed.

Out of Africa

In West Africa there are century-old traditions of banjo-like instruments with gourd for bodies, dowels for necks, tuners and bridges for the strings, and sometimes drone or sympathetic strings. Whether any of those instruments physically came to the New World in slave ships is not known. What is known is that the ability to build that sort of instrument came over. And the basic pattern of playing seems to have come over as well - alternately strumming down with the back of the fingernails and plucking with the thumb. One example of that family of instruments is the Akonting, shown just below.
An Akonting, one of a family of African gourd-bodied instruments from which the banjo descended. Click for bigger photo.

Swedish banjo player Ulf Jagfors, who extensively researched such instruments, has published several YouTube videos of Akonting players that leave very little doubt that similar instruments were the ancestors of the American banjo. There are links to those videos in Chris Erswell's article Africans Origins of Clawhammer (republished on our page, since Chris' page went down.)

I have heard from one "expert" who claims that the Akonting and similar instruments being played in Africa today were actually invented in this country and shipped to Africa to plant evidence that the banjo traces its roots there. If you believe that, please don't waste your time reading the rest of this article, you won't like the other parts either.

A pre-1800 painting of a banjo player in the New World.  Click to see more of the painting.Crossing Cultural Boundaries

Most authorities agree that the earliest American banjos used gourd bodies. A pre-1800 painting of a banjo in the New World shows a gourd banjo with a flat, fretless fingerboard, a "slab" peghead with three tuners and one drone string.

A similar banjo discovered in Haiti apparently shows many of the same features, enough so that banjo luthier Pete Ross was able to build a replica that most people feel is faithful to the "banjars" and "banzas" of that era.

Several white musicians were enthralled by the sound of those "slave" instruments, enough so that they took the time to befriend black musicians and learn how to play the "banjars" of the day. Some were respectful of the traditions and cultures that led to the invention of the gourd banjo. Sadly, many were not.

Rise of the Minstrel Movement

Joe Sweeney who popularized the banjo in the mid-1800s, also helped start the 'Minstrel Show' movement, which cruelly misrepresented and lampooned the culture of enslaved people.One of the latter was Joel Walker Sweeney (1810 – October 29, 1860), also known as Joe Sweeney. He is generally credited with replacing the gourd with a round wooden drum-shaped "pot" sometime before 1830. He's also falsely credited with adding the drone string, something that's obvious in pre-Sweeney examples. He may have added another base string, bringing the banjo up to 5 strings from the 4-string version shown in the painting above.

Unfortunately, when Sweeney started performing banjo on public stages (by 1839), he discovered that he attracted bigger audiences and made more money if he appeared in blackface and cruelly lampooned the culture of the enslaved people from whom he had learned the banjo in the first place. Everywhere Sweeney went, he also promoted the banjo "behind the scenes," especially to fellow musicians.

An unknown white man mugging in a minstrel role.The photo to the right, as many photos of the period, show a white man in blackface, curly wig, and exaggerated costume holding a Minstrel banjo and making a face. No one really knows who this fellow is, but he's an example of the performers who made white audiences laugh all over the country in the mid-to-late 1800s. Several troupes even traveled to Europe - I have no idea what those folks must have made of them.

Through the influence of Sweeney and other blackface minstrel performers, the banjo's popularity spread rapidly across the country, even among people who had no intention at all of performing in blackface.

The Banjo Outside of the Minstrel Movement

By the Civil War, the banjo was being played and enjoyed by Northerners and Southerners alike, as you can tell by many photos that soldiers had taken before they went off to war. This Civil War era photo of a young man holding a banjo backwards is typical of the era - they knew the printed photo would come out as a mirror image, and that was a way to keep it look like they were playing left-handed.  Click for bigger photo.

Assuming the photo to the right was taken before 1865, it's evident that the young soldier is holding a typical Minstrel banjo of the mid-1800s. The neck is still more or less a slab, with scalloping along the drone string side and a sidewise scroll sawn into the head. This photo is also characteristic of many photos taken in the mid-to-late 1800s in that it seems to show the young man holding a "left-handed" banjo. The fact is that in those early days, photos were mirror images of the original image captured on the plate. So when the shutter clicked, the man was actually holding a right-handed banjo backwards. That way, when his loved ones look at the photo he left behind, the picture shows him holding it correctly (if you ignore the drone strong being on the wrong side of the neck). It's very likely that the photo of the blackface minstrel shown above was "flopped" after technology improved.

As the banjo became more popular, musical instrument companies that had made guitars and violins began making banjos as well, which led toward a certain amount of standardization. Frets came to be added, and the neck became more like the D-profile necks of modern banjos.

The Classic Banjo Era

Buckeye Banjo, which could have been used for minstrel or Classic banjo. Click for bigger photo.As more manufacturers entered the Banjo manufacturing arena, there was a continuous cycle of improvement that eventually included most of the features seen on most modern banjos today. The fact that you could buy banjos from renowned musical instrument manufacturers like Lyon and Healy lent them a certain respectability. Between 1960 and 1880, many thousands of banjos found their way into homes. (The banjo to the right is a "Buckeye Banjo," showing the frets and other typical features of an early Classic banjo, although these might still have been used for Minstrel playing at the time.)

Quite a few of those banjos, however, found their way into homes that were more used to piano music than they were to banjo music. And the new owners weren't necessarily addicted to the strum-heavy styles of the Minstrel players. In fact, a "new" style of playing, somewhat analogous to classical guitar style, emerged. The term "Classic Banjo" not only describes the refined, professionally manufactured 5-strings of that era; it also describes a kind of fingerpicking that was very popular and has since fallen by the wayside. (For more information on Classic Banjo click here.)

A unnamed late-1800s-early-1900s banjo orchestra.Most "Classic Banjo" tunes were written specifically for fingerpicked 5-string banjo. As the genre became more popular, banjo orchestras sprung up, increasing the need for a greater variety of instruments. There were also mandolin orchestras, by the way, and that instrument almost eclipsed the banjo in popularity for a time.

For a time, manufacturers like S.S. Stewart and Lyon & Healy continuously expanded the kinds of banjos made. Banjos with longer and shorter necks. Banjos with five strings. Banjos with four strings. Banjos with six strings (some tuned like guitars and some tuned like 5-strings with an extra bass string). Even banjos with seven strings.

Banjos began to be used in dance bands as well, so volume became an issue. Manufacturers began experimenting with ways to make the banjo sound louder and brighter. Tone rings started out as metal circles that went between the head and pot of the banjo, to keep the wood from deadening the sound. As they became more popular, many different designs were attempted, including designs that were supposed to reflect or direct sound one way or another.

Resonators are large, shallow bowls designed to reflect the sound coming out of the back of the banjo head back around the head and out front (instead of the sound getting absorbed by the banjo player's belly).

Off to Europe

About the same time the early Classic Banjo configuration was emerging, another configuration, designed to imitate the sweet tones of the German Zither, was also emerging. Like Classic Banjo, the "Zither Banjo" was fingerpicked, but there were significant differences in the design of the two lines. Though popularized to some extent in the United States from about 1877 on, it really came into its own in Europe.

W. Temlett/H.R.Kranz 5-string zither banjo. The European manufacturers, used to making guitars and mandolins, put their own "spin" on the design of the banjo. Zither banjos used metal strings, while most Classic banjos were still using gut strings. But there were other differences that are far more obvious. For example, the Zither banjo manufacturers put the head adjustment screws on the front of the banjo, not the back. And they attached the drone string to the head of the instrument and ran it down a tunnel where it emerged at the fifth fret. Even more confusing for American banjo players looking at Zither banjo pictures is the fact that their manufacturers used the same head designs they used on their guitars, so many of them look like they should have six strings (most of them don't).

Many Zither banjos found their way into early European Jazz bands when that trend emerged, but they weren't loud enough for Jazz, even when retrofitted with steel strings, and they gradually fell by the wayside. Some of the old ones were dusted off and used during the UK Skiffle movement (somewhat analogous to the North American Folk Revival) and a few are still played today. I wrote an article about them after getting questions from some very confused folks who had inherited them. Modern American banjo players who come across them usually dismiss them as "junk," because they don't sound like banjos we're used to, but they were never intended for that.

On the chart, I show their line as something of a dead end, since - as far as I can tell - most banjos imported to or built in Europe after the Zither banjo movement tapered off were based on designs of Classic and Tenor banjos.

More Offshoots

Plectrumj banjo from the early 1900s.  Click for a larger photo. Since dance bands tended to be horn-dominated, they also tended to play in keys and use chord progressions that made having a drone string on the banjo irrelevant, or just plain a nuisance. So a four-string banjo with a standard neck length and tuning but no drone string began becoming popular (although it may well have been invented years, or decades earlier). To play complex barre chords at volume, its players would strum all four strings with a "plectrum" (what we would call a "flat pick" today). Since almost all mandolin players used plectrums as well, this may well have been borrowed from the mandolin orchestras of the day. So the 4-string banjo that was otherwise tuned and configured like a 5-string banjo came to be called a Plectrum banjo.

S.S. Stewart six-string banjo from the late 1800s.  Click for a slightly larger photo.By 1888, S.S. Stewart was making 6-string banjos that played like guitars. At the time these were chiefly for the home market, although with the rise of Jazz, they found other uses.

As banjo became more popular in some regions than mandolin, a mandolin with a banjo head was invented to make easier for mandolin players to transition to something like a banjo. Today these are typically called mando-banjos or banjolins. Back in the day, they were called a few other things, not always nice.

The fact that so many of those have survived to this day says less about how successful they were in their own right than it does about how many mandolin players were anxious to move to or "double on" banjo. A banjo body on a mandolin neck was called a mando-banjo and a bandolin, among other things.  What could go wrong?  Click for bigger photo.. Many of these were "budget" instruments that had intonation problems built in. And, unfortunately, the overtones produced by the banjo head and metal tension ring emphasized those problems. Many of the second- and third-tier instruments were just set aside, which is why so many have survived. A few of the better ones have been refurbished in recent days, and their owners find them useful.

A Paramount Melody banjo, one of only a few survivors.  This one was better made than the average, and may still be useful today.An even less popular solution was the 4-string "Melody" banjo, still tuned like a mandolin but with only four strings. In theory it was supposed to be used to play the melody in banjo orchestras (analogous to, say, the violin, the mandolin, or the clarinet). In practice, it was not well received. Many people thought its tone was too harsh or strident, and many of the less-than-first-tier instruments seem to have had intonation problems, in part due to the very short scale length, and in part, due to the rush to market.

In some circles, the Melody banjo is considered a direct predecessor to the Jazz Tenor banjo (below); it is tuned in fifths and was designed to play in dance bands. True, it was an experiment that may have helped pave the way to the Jazz Tenor but a relatively forgotten member of the mandolin family may have been more influential.

The Jazz Age

As dance orchestras continued to grow in popularity, the need for a banjo that could keep up in volume without sounding as dissonant as the Melody banjo arose. Four-string banjos, like the Plectrum had been made for some time, but the (admittedly short-lived) popularity of the Melody Banjo showed that there might be more interest in banjos that mandolin players could adjust Jazz Age Tenor banjo with resonator and tone ring.to easily.

About 1910, a new kind of 4-string banjo emerged, pitched a fifth lower than the ill-fated Melody banjo.

That made their tuning the same as the Mandola, then a popular member of the mandolin family. (The Mandola had borrowed its tuning from the Viola, in case you wondered.). Pitching A Gibson Mandola, model H-1. Such instruments were popular in mandolin orchestras around the turn of the 19th century. Click for bigger photo. the new 4-strings lower made their tone less strident. And, frankly, the longer scale length made them easier to keep in tune.

At the moment they emerged, the Tango was the newest dance craze, so early manufacturers called them "Tango" banjos. But the Tango was soon supplanted by early forms of Jazz. Manufacturers changed the banjo's name to "Tenor" and never looked back.

That said, the Tenor banjo saw continues adjustment and improvement. Scale lengths lengthened to 21" and beyond, and 19-fret versions were added to the earlier 17-fret configuration - they've stood alongside ever since.

Jazz Age Tenor banjo with resonator and tone ring.As the Tenor banjo became the predominant stringed instrument of the Jazz Age, many other improvements helped it keep up in volume with the growing Jazz orchestras of its day. At the high end of the spectrum, there were constant improvements in tone ring and resonator design. Today's "Dixieland" banjo ensembles still use Tenors that have the improvements of the Tenor banjos of the late Jazz Age.

By the early 1920s, Tenor banjo was as popular in the U.S. as electric guitar was in the 1970s. Many thousands of "student" Tenor banjos were made at the lower end of the price spectrum, usually lacking tone rings and resonators (which, to be fair, made it possible for kids to learn banjo without driving the rest of the family out of the house). Even after early forms of Jazz had been supplanted by Swing and Modern Jazz, Tenor banjos continued to be made, although mostly at the low end of the scale.

A style of playing developed that is still used by Dixieland banjo players today. The banjo was/is strummed with a flat pick, but the chords were/are structured so that the top note of the chord plays the melody.

By the way, the first banjo I ever played was a Tenor, a Kay made in the 1960s. I never stuck with it, though, liking the sound of a 5-string better.

Six Strings Join in the Fun

Johnny St. Cir, who used a 6-string banjo to play bass lines in King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.As the Tenor Banjo was redefining Jazz, it's big brother, the 6-string banjo got in on the fun, too. After all, they had been around since the 1880s, and it wasn't that hard for folks who already played guitar or 6-string banjo to adjust to playing Jazz. One of the most notable Jazz 6-string players was Johnny St. Cyr, who used his 6-string to play bass lines with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. No, a 6-string banjo doesn't usually play bass, but it does go almost half an octave lower than a Tenor banjo, so it is closer at least.

There's no evidence that Tenor banjo engineering significantly affected the design of 6-strings at this time, but I wanted to throw this in to show that the latter was still of some use, and a few fine examples from this era have survived.

An Unexpected Offshoot - the Tenor Guitar

A 1950ish Gibson Tenor guitar showing a typical mid-century Jazz guitar configured for banjo players.  Click for bigger photo.By the 1930s, most Swing orchestras had guitars, sitting with the drums, piano, and bass, helping to keep the beat steady. With the demand for Jazz banjo declining rapidly, many professional Jazz banjo players ordered four-string guitars, so that they could make the transition. Of course, they took along their technique of playing the melody on the top note of the chord. And that in turn, influenced early Jazz guitar styles. For more information about Tenor Guitar history, click here.

Irish Tenor Joins the Fray

Irish Rovers always featured 4-string banjo tuned an octave down from a mandolin.Somewhere in the early 20th century, Tenor banjos followed the Zither banjo across the Atlantic and were adopted by Irish string bands. But that entailed more changes: The Irish banjo players put on fatter strings and lowered the tuning still further, making it one octave below the mandolin. They also tended to flatpick the melodies (and sometimes arpeggios) rather than strumming the things.

Some manufacturers have tried to pretend that the 17-fret banjos were "Jazz Tenors" and the 19-fret banjos were "Irish Tenors" or vice versa. But the truth is that both have been used in "Irish" and Jazz tuning, although among modern Irish banjo players, there seems to be a preference for 19-fret banjos.

Yes, I realize that the Irish Rovers, shown right, were commercially successful, but they weren't phonies. The way they used the banjo was reflected in countless Irish pub settings and coffeehouses from the mid-19th century on.

By the way, the world's premier manufacturer of Irish banjos is actually in Ireland. Galway, in fact: Clareen Banjos. I learned about them from We Banjo 3, currently the world's premier Irish banjo-based touring group. If you want to hear the Irish banjo driven to its limits, listen to a few of their tracks.

Open-Back Banjos Find New Uses

In the meantime, the five string was still popular among "working class" people, especially south of the Mason Dixon line. Up north, the popularity of Classic Banjo playing (classical-guitar-inspired fingerpicking on a 5-string) faded. For one thing, it had taken a back seat to strumming 4-strings in Jazz styles. For another, early phonographs, then radio, made it easy to have music in the home without making it yourself. Many musical instruments, not just banjos, started gathering dust (not a good thing, in my opinion).

Among those who continued to play 5-string, the playing syle that had originated in Africa and expanded during the Minstrel banjo age had morphed into the family of styles that currently go under names like "frailing" and "Clawhammer." Like the earlier styles, they include strumming with the back of the fingernails and picking with the thumb.

In the Deep South, black and white "Clawhammer" players used the same range of techniques and often borrowed from each other. In Appalachia, where drone strings on instruments were still common (for example, the Appalachian dulcimer), the banjo easily fit into the cultural heritage, playing everything from dance songs to spirituals to old-timey ballads (the kind where at least one of the principals is dead by the end).

Though later overshadowed by Bluegrass picking (below), Clawhammer playing heavily influenced the early Folk Revival movement. In the late 20th century, there was a revival of Clawhammer playing among fans of traditional music, and it is still going strong.

Clawhammer players seldom use banjos with resonators - they, frankly, muddy the sound. Some use banjos with tone rings, though.

Because they tend to strum over the neck instead of the bridge, some Clawhammer players have requested "scooped-out" necks from manufacturers (like the scoop on an Appalachian dulcimer). If you see this on a banjo, know that it's a modern 5-string invented to be played this way. Old frailers and Clawhammer players like Pete Seeger and Grandpa Jones never needed this accommodation, but it seems to be growing in popularity in certain circles.

The Rise of the "Folk Banjo"

Pete Seeger, whose songs and relentless hard work were hugely instrumental in the Folk revival movement.  Click for bigger photo.In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Folk singer Pete Seeger used his banjo in thousands of settings, eventually becoming the "front man" for the Weavers, the group that essentially started the "Folk Revival" in the late 1950s. Pete kept the old "Frailing" tradition alive, but he played many other styles as each song demanded, including classical-guitar-style picking.

Pete always used a backless banjo, but he made one adjustment - to be able to play in keys that banjo players usually avoided, he lengthened his banjo neck, adding extra frets.

When playing to large crowds with poor amplification, Pete would hold his banjo with the head pointing forward, so the sound from the back of the head would be heard as well. If you ever have an open-back banjo and are concerned about it being too quiet for some settings, try this; you'll be surprised at the difference in volume and tone.

Always outspoken on political issues, Pete was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and for years later. As a result, Pete did not get the exposure he could have, but he influenced countless younger musicians, many of whom sang his songs.

An early Kingston Trio photo, showing them holding two banjos, although they almost always stuck to one. Click for bigger photo.The Kingston Trio, arguably Folk music's first big commercial group, also featured 5-string banjo on most songs. And they, quite frankly, started a rush to the music stores. (Here's an irony: the Kingston Trio also featured Tenor Guitar, but very few people seemed to notice at the time.)

By the early 1960s, there was an explosion of interest in Folk-style music, and banjos - mostly 5-strings - began to be used in almost every conceivable way, including borrowing from the "Bluegrass" picking styles that Earl Scruggs was popularizing in Appalachian and early "Country & Western" circles.

I learned banjo in this era, where every group brought a different range of playing styles and there was no "right or wrong" way to play the 5-string banjo. So in the early 2000s, when I started playing banjo "out" again, after some years of neglecting the thing, I was a little surprised when a whole bunch of folks a generation younger than me all started telling me I was "doing it wrong." Recently I picked up one of those Time Warner CD sets with hits by most of the biggest Folk groups of the early 1960s, and I listened carefully. No, I wasn't mistaken; there were almost as many ways to play the banjo in those days as there were banjo players.

A Sears Silvertone banjo, probably made by Harmony, typical of the low-end banjos that were thrown together by the hundreds of thousands during the Folk Revival.As the demand for affordable (cheap "student") banjos rose, countless thousands of low-end instruments were thrown together, both by low-end companies like Kay and Harmony, and in new Asian factories, using names like Lotus, Global, and Cameo. The picture to the right shows a (Sears) Silvertone of that era, almost certainly built by Harmony, with narrow frets, a Bakelite (plastic) pot, a neck made from furniture wood, and no neck adjustment mechanism at all.

Today, a very large proportion of "what is my banjo worth" questions I get relate to low-end banjos from that era. I love banjos, you know and it makes me sad to tell people that if they put $300 into it they'd have a $100 banjo, but that's sometimes the case.

By the way, after typing out the same answer to so many people, I wrote an article called "How Much is My Banjo Worth?". Ironically, now I get even more of those questions. So I ask folks to read the article and report back to me on what they found out. Turns out that's too much trouble. I should do it for free. Sometimes I have, for really unusual pieces I want pictures of anyway, but mostly I don't.

That said, "Bluegrass" playing styles were on the rise. Even though Bluegrass didn't affect Folk Revival banjo players all that much, it did affect the way banjos were built. So the 1960s saw resonator-equipped banjos gradually supplant backless banjos, although in many cases, the quality of both was debatable.

Global Pop-Top banjo. Click for bigger photo.Also, cheap banjos with metal pots (shells) had been built for decades, but the 1960s saw the rise of "pop-top" banjos - these are banjos that have a metal pot with spikes sticking out to look like a resonator flange. They may sound tinny, but they are loud, and generally represent a step up from the bottom-line instruments of that era. They are still made today.

Banjo Fades From the Folk Scene

Within a few years, though, the "serious" Folk singers like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary were using guitars exclusively. It's easy to blame the Beatles and Rock & Roll for supplanting the banjo with the guitar, but that change was already on the way. By the mid-1960s, relatively few of the established, touring Folk groups were using banjos to any great extent. They had big, important things to say about drafts and wars and the like, and the banjo seemed like it was too much fun for such messages. Pete Seeger was always the exception, of course.

Banjo did survive for a while in "Folk-Rock" music, including bands like Poco and the Eagles. But as Folk-Rock faded, Folk banjo fell from most people's radar.

The Bluegrass Era

As alluded to already, there was already a new wind blowing in the world of banjos. In the late 1930s, the Carter Family was still going strong and "Mountain Music" was beginning to get national attention. A mandolin player named Bill Monroe was breaking new ground for the genre by incorporated Blues licks he had picked up from other musicians, including African-American fiddler and guitarist Arnold Shultz. In 1938 when he formed a new band, the Bluegrass Boys, he added a traditional banjo player for a while. but in 1945, "Stringbean" was replaced by Earl Scruggs, who was already getting attention in some circles for his unique style.

Bill Monroe (on the left) and the Bluegrass Boys.  Scruggs is on the right.Scruggs almost singlehandedly turned the banjo from an accompaniment/rhythm/chord instrument to a lead instrument, picking instead of strumming. (Don Reno was also doing something similar, as were several others, but Scruggs' association with Monroe brought him to more notoriety quicker.) Of course, picking one string at a time wasn't as loud as strumming, so Earl worked hard to get enough volume from his banjo to be heard over the rest of the band when necessary. He:

  • Wore metal fingerpicks,

  • Sought banjos with the best tone ring and resonator technology he could find, and

  • Planted his pinky and ring finger on the banjo head to get maximum leverage and precision when plucking.

Although there were 5-strings available with state-of-the-art tone rings, resonators, etc., when people started imitating Scruggs, it turned out that the vast majority of used first-tier banjos with those features were actually Tenor banjos left behind when the guitar took over for banjo in Jazz orchestras. A Gibson TB-3 Tenor converted to 5-string for Bluegrass playing.So hundreds - if not thousands - of would-be "Scruggs-Pickers" found good quality Gibson Tenors and had custom-made necks for them. The banjo to the right is a first-tier Gibson Tenor, a TB-3, that has been so converted. In this case the neck is very professionally done, so the banjo is still considered "Mastertone"-quality.

One more way Tenor Banjo contributed to the overall picture, I suppose.

Here's a caveat if you want a vintage Gibson for your Bluegrass playing: You can still find "Gibson" 5-strings on the used market that started out as Tenors but got custom necks to convert them to 5-string. Many of those necks were very well made, but not all of them were.

The Gibson Mastertone RB250, for decades many professionals' favorite Bluegrass banjo.  Click for bigger photo.Of course, manufacturers like Gibson also made fully-equipped 5-strings that were suitable for Bluegrass. The Gibson RB-250 Mastertone was so envied that many off-brand manufacturers attempted to copy it perfectly, leading to a host of instruments called "Masterclones." Of course, putting the same features on a banjo and shaping resonator flange and headstock the same way are a lot simpler than putting the same craftsmanship into a banjo that Gibson did.

I've heard the term "Masterclone" used disparagingly as in "cheap rip-off," but these days, the term mostly seems to be descriptive, as in "This banjo's manufacturer tried to make it look, play, and sound like a Gibson. It doesn't play or sound like one of course, of course, but now you know what it looks like and what its features are."

By the late 1970s, Fender was having high-end "Leo" banjos with Bluegrass features built in Japan. Alvarez and a few other Asian companies were making "Masterclones" that didn't suck (although many, if not most brands, did).

In 1975, Greg Deering started building American-made banjos that had the quality of the first-tier banjos without all the fancy inlays and other showy features that added much to the cost but nothing to the sound. His offerings included fine models that had all the "bells and whistles" that Bluegrass players needed, even if it seemed to be lacking in mother-of-pearl inlays. Plus there were and still are custom builders who make great banjos for Bluegrass, if you can afford them.

Sadly, Gibson no longer makes banjos. All of the other "brand name" banjos (besides Deering) are built in China these days, which means that they hold the price down, but require a thorough inspection and setup when you get them home. In the meantime, Deering has expanded their line both with high-ticket items and with lower cost "Goodtime" banjos that still play like pro instruments. (By the way, Greg Deering has figured out how to put some of that "flashy stuff" on his banjos without significantly raising the cost, so you can get Deering banjos that look as good as they sound these days.)

By the way, if you want to know more about what makes a Bluegrass banjo a Bluegrass banjo, click here.

Revivals

For decades, the only banjo playing most non-musicians were exposed to was Bluegrass. It was everywhere, on Beverly Hillbillies, in the movies Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance, and on the long-running syndicated television show Hee Haw. Unfortunately, those contexts made the average American associate all banjo playing with illiterate, foolish, and, sometimes dangerous people. Nevertheless a few brave souls began bringing Clawhammer back to life, epecially in Internet forums, banjo camps, and the like.

But by the time Mumford & Sons' broke the pop charts with an album featuring Irish-style banjo picking, most of the generation born after Hee Haw went off the air lacked the cultural references to consider the sound dated or ridiculous. Then again, it was out of the context of the American cultures so often associated with banjo playing. M&S was cool, period, and that helped make the banjo cool again.

Even if you can't credit M&S directly, there is a growing interest in banjos in general. Which is why I answer so many reader questions, and why I finally decided to put together this article.

Where Things Stand Today

At this time:

  • 4-string banjos tuned like mandolas (or violas) are still played by Dixieland-style ensembles.

  • 4-string banjos tuned an octave down from mandolin are played by many Celtic groups.

  • 5-string banjos are played in Bluegrass and Country circles and have begun to be accepted in some singer/songwriter circles.

  • 6-string banjos are widely accepted in Country and Western and could be making inroads into other genres.

That's why the chart ends up showing modern iterations of almost every kind of banjo that's ever been popular - they are all being played.

The following chart shows a very streamlined version of the content of this article. To get a full-page hi-rez PDF of the thing, just click on the picture.

A high-level chart of the changes and additions that led to today's variety of banjos. Click to see the printable PDF version.

The following table gives a little more information in compact form. Again, you can see a hi-rez printable PDF of the thing simply by clicking on the picture.

A high-level chart of the changes and additions that led to today's variety of banjos. Click to see the printable PDF version.

Conclusion

Since I first started writing about banjos a few years ago, several things I "knew" and many things I was told "on good authority" have turned out to be wishful thinking or worse. Plus attitudes toward banjos have changed in some circles. I expect they will change again.

For this article, I researched original sources as much as I could. But some of those original sources conflict with each other. Moreover, "connecting the dots" between different historical trends often demands an "informed interpretation" of the facts that no everyone will agree with.

So I am open to additions, corrections, and other comments. Reader feedback is the reason I started this project in the first place. And I wouldn't be surprised if I find myself going back to change details as old, but buried facts come to light.

On the other hand, I've already received my share of comments like "Great-Uncle Fezziwig always told me such-and-such, so you're wrong." As much as I may admire your great-uncle Fezziwig personally, I have to distinguish unsupported assertions from facts.

In the meantime, I love getting questions and interacting with fellow musicians of all stripes. So please stay in touch. The Contact page has further information on ways to do that.

Other Articles about the Banjo

  • Acoustic Instrument Primers, including:


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