In this article, you will find out the complete history of the banjo down from its early years in the 1600s to its current status in the modern era.
1650–1830s: Banjo’s Early Years
The banjo first came to America in the 1600s. This instrument was brought by the Africans who came into the country as slaves. At the time, the string instrument was not yet called a banjo. People would refer to it as a banza, banjae, bangor, bangie, and many more other variations of the name.
During the first two hundred years of banjo’s evolution in America, slaves played it for entertainment such as in song and dance. The instrument brought respite during the intolerable situations of the African Americans.
Because people saw the banjo with an instrument of the slaves, they viewed it as a lowly instrument. During the banjo’s early years, it was not accepted as a legitimate musical instrument.
The historical evidence of the banjo in America around the 1700s is scarce. First, the folkways of people who played the banjo were not recorded. Second, the banjo was also almost invisible during that time.
The earliest historical record of the banjo in North America was from a 1736 New-York Weekly Journal article. The author John Peter Zenger (1697–1746) referred to the instrument as a “banger” played by a black man. He spotted the banjo at a New York fair and said it was being played in celebration of an unspecified holiday. His description is the oldest reference to the banjo in North America that has been discovered so far.
1830s–1870s: The Minstrel Era
You now know that the banjo is primarily the instrument of black slave culture, particularly in music and dance. When white people began to notice this, they conjured up a stereotypical image of a black person in a frolicking dance while using a banjo.
White performers began to present this stereotype in their blackface performances. Called minstrel shows, these entertainment performances had already been popular before the American Revolution. However, it was in the 1840s that the banjo-playing black caricature would take center stage.
The first person documented to bring a banjo to the stage was Joel Walker Sweeney (1810-1860), a minstrel performer from Virginia. He came to be the most popular minstrel banjoist. Although the common myth was that he had invented the banjo, as he often claimed, he is known to be the person who made the five-string banjo popular to the general public.
His traveling shows with his group Virginia Minstrels contributed to the spread of the banjo instrument, even across the world. Sweeney brought the banjo to Britain, where it also became a major instrument.
1880s–1910s: The Classic Era
As you know, the banjo was first seen as an instrument of little value, particularly by the elites of colonial America. They scorned the banjo because they considered it an instrument of the lower classes.
However, they gradually softened their opinion when the banjo began to adapt the playing techniques of its “socially acceptable cousin”, the classical guitar. Frank Converse (1837-1903) published a method book in 1865 where he outlined a new and more refined approach to the banjo. The book became widely accepted, and soon the high society began to adopt the banjo as its own.
In the late 1800s, many banjo clubs had formed around the country. Even leading colleges and universities had formed their own banjo orchestras. At this point, the socially elite began to think that it was fashionable to play the banjo! It had found finally found its acceptance in legitimate music circles during the Classic Era.
1895–1919: Ragtime Era
During the 1890s, musical tastes were changing. The black culture again played a role in the evolution of American popular music with its new invention: the ragtime. Ragtime is a musical style known as the forerunner of jazz.
Guitars were frequently used in ragtime orchestras but horns would drown them out. Since the banjo was often associated with guitars and was certainly a louder instrument, it naturally became a replacement.
However, the banjo’s drone fifth string would interfere with many of the chords used in ragtime. As a result, the guitarists used six-string banjos, and tuned and played them like guitars.
But there’s a snag. When they play the banjo, each note would contain overtones that aren’t present in guitars. The more strings they play at the same time, the more those overtones clash. Their solution was to use a four-string banjo which wasn’t particularly prevalent at the time.
1910s–1930s: The Jazz Age
World War I, like the Civil War, was a watershed moment for the banjo. American soldiers loved jazz and they craved for it while fighting on foreign soil and when they returned to the United States after the war ended.
The new four-string banjos called the tenor and plectrum banjos became linked with jazz music. The banjo became the most popular instrument in country music, and its performers became pop music icons.
The banjo also reached a level of design and workmanship during the 1920s. There was a huge demand for the instrument that manufacturers would devote all of their resources to banjo design and production. It is widely acknowledged that the finest banjos that have ever been created were those made during the jazz era.
However, the Great Depression that followed the stock market’s catastrophic collapse heralded the end of the jazz era. The jazz age marked the final years in which the banjo was a prominent figure in American popular music.
1940s–Present: Banjo in the Modern Era
Most Jazz Age banjo makers had either gone out of business or shifted their manufacturing facilities over to the war effort by World War II. As a result, it was difficult to get a new banjo or the strings and celluloid pick needed to play a prewar instrument in the 1940s.
However, in the wake of World War II, the banjo had a rebirth in America’s musical legacy.
Pete Seeger (1919-2014), a notable banjo player, popularized the traditional Appalachian “frailing” style of playing. He was also a driving force behind a renewed national interest in folk music. Seeger was influenced by the five-string folk banjo styles performed in the Appalachian and Ozark mountains.
Earl Scruggs (1924-2012), a famous banjo player from North Carolina, also gave the instrument a whole new personality. Scruggs’ rapid fingerpicking patterns developed a sound that grew to be associated with another new musical genre known as Bluegrass. He also popularized a three-finger banjo picking style, now commonly known as the “Scruggs style”.
Despite its success in a variety of specialty and nostalgia-based identities, the banjo in post-World War II America has not yet achieved the level of mainstream popularity it enjoyed during the Jazz Age. However, the banjo is still evolving up to this day and will likely remain a mainstay of American old-time music.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.