It can be hard to tell musical instruments apart when you’re new to them. While everyone knows what a guitar or a ukulele looks like, the differences between a banjo vs. mandolin may be less obvious. This can be difficult if you’re trying to learn about different instruments to determine which one is best suited to your needs.
Before investing money in an instrument, lessons, and accessories, it’s important to know what to expect when you pick it up. That’s why we’re breaking down the banjo vs. mandolin debate here. In this article, we’ll discuss the two instruments and the similarities and differences between them. This way, you won’t just be able to tell them apart – you’ll also be able to determine which is the right choice for you.
Banjo vs. Mandolin: Similarities and Differences
If you’re familiar with musical instrumentals, you’ll know exactly how different banjos and mandolins are. However, if you remove the details and look at the bigger picture, you’ll see some similarities as well. Both banjos and mandolins are stringed instruments and have the same parts, including a soundboard, strings, and neck.
However, this is probably where the similarities end. Both instruments are unique. They’re shaped differently, consist of a different number of strings, and most importantly, have completely different sounds. Let’s explore these differences below so you have a better idea of what to expect from banjos as compared to mandolins.
Body and Shape
This is one of the main banjo vs. mandolin differences. Both instruments have completely different shapes and are built using different materials. Mandolins have hollow wooden bodies with two f-shaped holes cut in them to allow sound through. Most modern mandolins also contain a plastic pickguard in the shape of a triangle under the strings. This keeps the wood from getting scratched and protects it.
The banjo is completely different. A banjo is primarily a ring of wood with a tone ring inside. It also consists of a drumhead on the front and a resonator in the shape of a bowl in the back.
As a whole, banjos are more circular, and mandolins are an overall teardrop shape. Banjos also have flat bottoms, while mandolins have flat tops. If you keep these differences in mind, you’ll easily be able to tell the two apart.
Genres and Versatility
The banjo’s soulful sound makes it great for country and folk music. It’s especially known for its use in bluegrass music. On the other hand, the mandolin isn’t restricted to just western-style music. It’s also used in classical music and other genres. Thus, when it comes to versatility, the mandolin is the clear winner.
Another big banjo vs. mandolin difference is the strings on each instrument. Mandolins usually consist of eight strings. However, there are some 10-string and 12-string options available as well. The strings are tuned in unison (in pairs) to make the sound is consistent. This is why mandolins have a distinct sound.
Most banjos, however, only have 4 or 5 strings. All these are individual strings. Players who want more flexibility usually prefer banjos with five strings. While banjos players use their fingers, plectrums, and picks to strum the strings, mandolin players usually stick to picks.
The number of strings on each instrument affect the sound produced. Both the banjo and the mandolin have very distinct sounds. While the banjo is known for its twang, the mandolin is more like a higher-pitched guitar. The sound is similar to a guitar but with a limited to higher pitch or octave. Thus, the banjo has a brighter sound while the mandolin has a richer sound.
Both banjos and mandolins are similarly priced. Therefore, if you’re looking for a more affordable instrument, there’s no differentiating factor available. You can opt for affordable versions of both instruments, and upgrade once you’ve mastered the instrument.
Both banjos and mandolins come in many different sizes, but the two instruments are very different when compared to each other in standard sizes. Banjos are more prominent because of their longer necks. These long necks are reminiscent of guitars.
On the other hand, mandolin necks are much shorter. Mandolins are also smaller and resemble the violin more than they do the guitar. This is one of the reasons that musicians with smaller hands prefer the mandolin over the banjo.
It should be noted that while mandolin necks are shorter, they’re also thicker than banjo necks. This is because they need to accommodate eight strings instead of just four or five. The frets in a mandolin are also shorter than those in a banjo.
Both mandolins and banjos come in many different sizes. However, portability doesn’t depend on size alone. Weight is a huge part of the equation. This is where the mandolin shines, since most mandolins are much lighter than banjos. The average mandolin may weigh around 500-600 g. On the other hand, the average banjo weighs about 10 lbs – almost ten times the weight of the average banjo.
This makes mandolins a better option for those looking for an instrument that’s easy to travel with. In addition to being smaller, they’re also lighter, and can be transported from one location to another easily. Portability is an especially important consideration for seniors and children, which is why many from these groups favor the mandolin over the banjo.
Mandolins are usually tuned lower than banjos and have a higher pitch. When it comes to stings on mandolins, they’re usually spaced in fifths. Banjos, on the other hand, are tuned in fourths. This is true for both four-string banjos like the Irish banjo and the tenor banjo as well as five-string banjos. Therefore, while mandolins produce high-pitch sounds, banjos usually produce a more soulful sound.
Banjo vs. Mandolin: Which Is Easier to Learn?
Both the banjo and the mandolin are relatively easy to learn. Both are easier to learn than the guitar because both have fewer strings. When it comes to ease of learning between the banjo vs. mandolin, they both have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, a mandolin could be perceived as more difficult to learn because the strings hold more tension. Banjos have less tension and are therefore more comfortable to fret. However, mandolins also have simpler and more evenly tuned chording, which makes them easier to adjust. Some people could find them easier to master because of this.
Both instruments can be learned fairly easily, especially if you take advantage of the excellent resources available online. As long as you get a good instructor and put time and effort into the instrument you choose, you’ll get the hang of it.
If you didn’t know where you stood on the banjo vs. mandolin debate before, we hope you do now. This article covered the similarities and differences between the two instruments, clarifying any misconceptions you may have had.
If you enjoyed this type of breakdown, you might enjoy our article on the difference between mono and stereo – check it out here. You can also let us know which instrument you plan on picking up in the comments below!
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.