Originally from "banjar," an African string instrument. Some etymologists derive it from a dialectal pronunciation of "bandore".

The banjo comes in a variety of different forms, including four-string (or plectrum) and five-string versions. In all of its forms it is a poorly sustaining instrument and its playing is characterised by a fast strumming or arpeggiated right hand.

The banjo consists of a drum, used as a soundboard and often with a ring made of metal, a neck mounted on the side of the drum, a tailpiece mounted on the opposite side, four or five strings, and a bridge. In the five-string banjo, the fifth peg is normally on the side of the neck, but it may be on the tuning head with the others, and the string pass through a tube. Some banjos have a resonator on the back of the drum or a wrist piece on the edge of the drumhead.

The five-string banjo is tuned gDGBd. The fifth string (g) is identical to the first (d) except that it is five frets shorter (3/4 as long). The plectrum banjo is tuned DGBd, i.e. it is missing the fifth string. Other tunings are also used.

The banjo can be played in several styles and is used in various forms of music. In bluegrass music, which uses the five-string banjo extensively, it is often played in Scruggs style. American old-time music also typically uses the 5-string banjo, but it is played in different styles, notably claw-hammer or frailing. Another characteristic of old-time banjo styles is the use of a wide range of different tunings.

The plectrum banjo evolved out of the 5-string banjo to cater for styles of music involving strummed chords. A further development is the tenor banjo, which also has four strings and is typically played with a plectrum. It is usually tuned CGDA, like a viola, or GDAE, like a violin (but an octave lower), and has become quite a standard instrument for Irish traditional music.

Early Stages

Banjos belong to a family of instruments that are very old. Drums with strings stretched over them can be traced throughout the Far East, the Middle East and Africa almost from the beginning. They can be played like the banjo, bowed or plucked like a harp depending on their development. These instruments were spread, in "modern" times, to Europe through the Arab conquest of Spain, and the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. The banjo, as we can begin to recognize it, was made by African slaves based on instruments that were indigenous to their parts of Africa. These early "banjos" were spread to the colonies of those countries engaged in the slave trade. Scholars have found that many of these instruments have names that are related to the modern word "banjo", such as "banjar", "banjil", "banza", "bangoe", "bangie", "banshaw". Some historians mention the diaries of Richard Jobson as the first record of the instrument.. While exploring the Gambra River in Africa in 1620 he recorded an instrument "...made of a great gourd and a neck, thereunto was fastened strings." The first mention of the name for these instruments in the Western Hemisphere is from Martinique in a document dated 1678. It mentions slave gatherings where an instrument called the "banza" is used. Further mentions are fairly frequent and documented. One such is quoted in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians from a poem by an Englishman in the British West Indies in 1763: "Permit thy slaves to lead the choral dance/To the wild banshaw's melancholy sound/". The best known is probably that of Thomas Jefferson in 1781: "The instrument proper to them (i.e. the slaves) is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."

Minstrel Era

White men began using blackface as a comic gimmick before the American Revolution. The banjo became a prop for these entertainers, either individually or in groups. By the early part of the 19th century, minstrelsy became a very popular form of entertainment. Joel Walker Sweeney and his Sweeney Minstrels were already popular by the 1830s. By 1843 the Virginia Minstrels began to do an entire show of this blackface entertainment and this is usually the date used to mark the beginning of the minstrel era. The Virginia Minstrels had 2 Banjo players, Dan Emmett and Billy Whitlock, a pupil of Sweeney. In addition Minstrel shows usually had a fiddler, a bones player and a drum/tambourine. We know from early Banjo instruction books by performers like Thomas Briggs, 1855, Philip Rice, 1858 and Frank Converse, 1865, that the minstrel style of playing was the "downstroke", what we call frailing today. This style was learned from the slave performers themselves.

Briggs in Banjo Instructor of 1855 describes playing as follows: "In playing the thumb and first finger only of the right hand are used; the 5th string is touched by the thumb only; this string is always played open, the other strings are touched by the thumb and first finger...The strings are touched by the ball of the thumb and the nail of the 1st finger. The first finger should strike the strings with the back of the nail and then slide to....."

Frank Converse in his Banjo Without a Master describes the style of playing as follows: "Partly close the hand, allowing the first finger to project a little in advance of the others. Hold the fingers firm in this position. Slightly curve the thumb. Strike the strings with the first finger (nail) and pull with the thumb."

The Fifth string

Joel Walker Sweeney of The Sweeney Minstrels, born 1810, was often credited with the invention of the short fifth string. Scholars know that this is not the case. A painting entitled The Old Plantation painted between 1777 and 1800 shows a black gourd banjo player with a banjo having the fifth string peg half-way up the neck. If Sweeney did add a fifth string to the banjo it was probably the lowest string, or fourth string by today's reckoning. This would parallel the development of the banjo elsewhere for example in England, where the tendency was to add more of the long strings with seven and ten strings being common. Sweeney was responsible for the spread of the banjo and probably contracted with a drum maker in Baltimore, William Boucher, to start producing banjos for public sales. These banjos are basically drums with necks attached. A number have survived and a couple of them are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Other makers like Jacobs of New York or Morrell who moved his shop to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, helped to supply the growing demand for the instrument in the mid 1840s as the minstrel shows traveled Westward to entertain the gold diggers.

Minstrel to Parlor

From the 1840s through the 1890s the Minstrel show was not the only place to see banjo players. There are records of urban Banjo contests and tournaments held at hotels, race tracks and bars, especially in New York to the enthusiastic cheering and clapping of sometimes inebriated crowds. Most of the contestants were white in the early contests but there are records of black players taking part in the post-civil war era. During this time (c. 1857) metal strings were invented. It seems they were cheaper than the normal professionally made gut strings and more long lasting then the home-made fiber or gut variety. Urban bar room players, minstrel show performers, slave performers, southern country players, all these performers were to come together during the Civil War (1860-1864). Regiments and Companies formed Minstrel groups and bands to entertain themselves during lulls in battle as did sailors aboard gunboats. The most famous of the Civil War banjoist was perhaps Samuel Sweeney, the younger brother of Joel Sweeney, who was an orderly of Jeb Stuart. Stuart apparently liked banjo music and when he wanted to relax he had Sweeney play for him. Sweeney also entertained Stuart's entire regiment.

After the War soldiers carried the knowledge and appreciation of the instrument home to almost every corner of America. During most of this time the banjo was looked-down upon by the more well-to-do classes of the population. Articles in the papers of the day like that in the Boston Daily Evening Voice of 1866, classified the Banjo of the 1840s and 1850s as an instrument in "the depth of popular degradation", an instrument fit only for "the jig-dancing lower classes of the community..." By 1866, however, the instrument had become a "universal favorite" with over 10,000 instruments in use in Boston alone. The cause of this sudden popularity was the introduction of the banjo as a parlor instrument. This is the somewhat misnamed "classical" period of the banjo. The banjo was played in the "classical" style which meant that it was picked with the fingers in imitation of the popular guitar players of the day. Many outstanding performers and teachers had banjos named after them that incorporated their own changes in the instrument in an attempt to make the banjo more refined and above all louder.

The Dobson Brothers and their sons were among the most active in the early stages. Henry C. Dobson is credited with adding the first frets about 1878. He is also credited with producing the first resonator and the first attempt at the use of a tone ring. Though the designs were his, many of the instruments were actually made by the Buckbee Company located on Webster Ave, in New York City until 1897, and later on 13th St. The company was later sold to Rettberg & Lange who went on to produce the Orpheum Banjo. Lange after leaving Rettburg would produce one of the finest sounding Banjos of the day, The Paramount. George C. Dobson, the son of H. C. Dobson continued to be active in the development of the banjo and continued performing almost until his death in 1931.

A.A. Farland (1859-1954) was another famous performer and was most outspoken about the development of the banjo. His banjos were also produced by Buckbee, and later by Rettberg and Lang. About 1915 he produced Farland's Patent Banjo Head made of "annealed steel, beautifully enameled" in an attempt to give more volume to his playing. He abhorred wire strings saying that "... the z-z-z- given by the final vibrations of wire strings is so offensive that I could not bear to use them." He claimed that "all but the deaf" in an audience of 12,000 could hear his banjo when he used his new "annealed" steel head !

Perhaps the most prolific of the banjo makers and enthusiasts of this period was S.S. Stewart of Philadelphia who made a whole range of instruments to fit every pocket book. He began in 1878 and produced banjos of all sizes and models, some made especially for ladies and for children. In 1898 SS Stewart was awarded the Sears contract and teamed up with the Mandolin maker Baur. Stewart died the same year but his sons teamed up with Baur to continue the Sears contract which ended in 1901. His sons continued making banjos until 1904. It is estimated that the Stewarts produced somewhere in excess of 25,000 banjos from 1878 to 1904. In addition Stewart published his own magazine for the banjo player were he regularly expounded his "philosophy" on banjo playing. It was Stewart who spread the story that Joel Sweeney "invented" the banjo by adding the fifth string.( Mike Holmes, banjo historian and editor of Mugwumps Online Magazine >http://www.mugwumps.com < adds that it was "Louise Scruggs, in a 70's lady's magazine who perpetuated the myth, and who most everyone has read as the "source" of this misinformation.")

No discussion of this period would be complete without a mention of A.C. Fairbanks of Boston who either on his own (1870-1880) or with Cole as the Fairbanks & Cole Co. (1880-1890), or as Fairbanks Co. again (1890-1894) produced some of the most beautiful instruments ever produced. In 1890 he began producing the "Electric" (having a scalloped metal truss, usually topped with a brass rod, all set into rim), the forerunner of the Whyte Laydie. By late 1890s the company had grade designations for the Electric and names like "Special" "Imperial" Other cheaper, non-"Electric" models were the "Columbian" "Regent", and "Senator". They also made an "Electric" model banjeaurine. Metal name plates saying "Fairbanks Company" appeared about 1895-1896. About this time Fairbanks left the firm. In 1901 David Day joined the company and introduced the "White-Laydie" which had a bracket band which fit around the outside of the rim eliminating the need for holes drilled through the rim for shoe bolts. The model used the "Electric" tone ring and unstained maple wood for both rim and neck and hence the name. It was produced in two models; No. 2, a plain model; and the No.7, with carved heel and elaborate inlays.

After Fairbank's departure the company continued the production of fine instruments under David Day until 1904 when it was purchased by Vega to produce the Vega-Fairbanks Co. . Vega introduced the Tubaphone in 1909 and finally sold out to the Martin Guitar Co. in 1970.

After breaking with Fairbanks in 1890, William Cole started his own company with his brothers. They began producing the "Eclipse" which consisted of a simple tone rim sitting on small nails set into the rim. He received the patent for his Eclipse in 1894. He was also said to have perfected the banjo-mandolin around 1910.

Some of the banjo players of the "classical" period were outstanding banjoists and could indeed play anything . The great Armenian- American banjo virtuoso Harry J. Chopourian was said to be able to play any violin score at sight and performed regularly as a soloist with symphony orchestras. But the majority of the music of the period was not really classical and included popular airs, marches, waltzes and dances of the day. It could be better termed parlor music.

The First World War, like the Civil War, was a watershed in the popularity of the banjo. America entered a time of isolation and turned to "American made" music for pleasure. Jazz entered the picture and the banjo became an integral part of the early jazz bands. At first it was the plectrum banjo, a five string, without the fifth string, that led the way. This gave way to the shorter neck Tenor banjo, thought to be a corruption the word "Tango" because it rose to popularity through the Tango dance craze that swept America.

The stock market collapse of 1929 and the world wide depression that followed wiped out the banjo. To quote Robert Webb, "Demand for its bright happy sound disappeared almost overnight. Professional orchestras made a quick transition to the "arch-top" guitar, developed in the 1920s by Gibson and others which provided a mellow and integral rhythm more in keeping with the subdued nature of the times."


Some Important Dates

  • 1620- Explorer Richard Jobson mentions "gourd with neck and strings"in Africa
  • 1678- "Banza" noted in Martinique as played by blacks
  • 1769- white banjo players performed in blackface
  • 1813-1860 Joel Walker Sweeney
  • 1843-first documented minstrel show by Dan Emmett & Virginia Minstrels
  • 1840s-1850s Minstrel Craze; Banjo becomes urban instrument
  • 1830s to 1850s Boucher of Baltimore first "shop-made" banjos
  • 1850's- metal strings invented; James Ashhorn, guitar and banjo maker between 1851-56 made silver wound silk guitar strings at factory in Wolcottsville, Connecticut.
  • 1851-Stephen Foster writes "Old Folks at Home"
  • 1855-Thomas Briggs Banjo Primer published
  • 1858-Philip Rice's banjo method published
  • 1859-Dan Emmett writes "Dixie"
  • 1859- Stephen Van Hagen patents 7 string (1 short) guitar banjo with frets
  • 1860s-1870s first closed back banjos and first top tension banjos marketed by Dobson (i.e. Buckbee) in US & England
  • 1865- Frank Converse Banjo primer published
    1863-1897 James H. Buckbee Co., of New York largest maker.
  • 1870-Uncle Dave Macon born in Tennessee
    1878-Henry Dobson produces 5 string with frets (made by Buckbee)
  • 1880-1890 Fairbanks and Cole of Boston.
  • 1881-Dobson patents a tone ring
  • 1890s-Steel strings widely available: cheaper than gut
  • 1890-1904 Fairbanks Co.
  • 1878-1904. SS. Stewart Co. of Philadelphia Made 25,000 banjos !
  • 1880s- first banjos documented in "the hills"
  • 1892-Charlie Poole born in North Carolina
  • 1894-first patent for a banjo mute
  • 1894-first Grover bridge patent
  • 1898-Dock Boggs born
  • 1901-Whyte Laydie introduced by Fairbanks
  • 1904-1970 Vega of Boston
  • 1907- J. B. Schall of Chicago invents Tenor Banjo or 4 string banjo tuned like a mandolin.
  • 1909-Vega Tubaphone introduced
  • 1910- Tango craze reached America. Tenor, corruption of Tango Banjos; Cole said to have perfected Mandolin-Banjo
    1914-Dave Akeman "Stringbean" born.
  • 1918- First Gibson Banjos
  • 1921-first modern flange and resonator by William Lange & Paramount Banjos
  • 1921- Mc Hugh of Gibson company patents adjustable truss rod for guitar and Mando, adjustable tension rods for banjo & adjustable bridge
  • 1923-first geared tuners patented by C. Kremp
    1924-Earl Scruggs born
  • 1925-31-Charlie Poole popular rural recording artist
  • 1925- Gibson "Mastertone" introduced
  • 1927-Ralph Stanley born
  • 1929-modern banjo arm rest invented by L.A. Elkington
  • 1929- Stock market collapse
  • 1930-1945 5 string Banjo almost disappears. No strings available
  • 1939 -Bill Monroe & Bluegrass Boys on Grand Ole Opry without banjo
  • 1940s- Earl Scruggs develops his 3 finger style based on classical style
  • 1941-Bill Monroe adds banjo to band-"Stringbean" Ackeman. 2 finger style
  • 1940s- renewed urban interest in banjo, beginning of "folk-revival"
  • 1943- Seeger creates ,long-neck
  • 1945- Scruggs joins Monroe band with 3 finger style
  • 1948-Seeger published "How to Play 5 string Banjo"
  • 1950s-plastic heads become available
  • 1960s when folk boom hit, Gibson and Vega were only companies to still have banjos in their catalogues as compared to 200 makers in 1900, and only Vega still had banjos in production.
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