If you’re considering buying and learning how to play the banjo, you will discover that these instruments have a different number of strings.
How many strings does a typical banjo have? Some have five strings, while others have four or even six. The typical banjo has five strings.
Starting with the right type is essential when learning how to play the banjo. If you have your heart set on a five-string banjo, you may be disappointed if you buy a four-string model. Conversely, if you buy a six-string banjo when you’re only comfortable playing on a five-string model, you may find that it is too different to figure out.
Let’s take a closer look at the standard banjo set-up and the various alternatives available for those who want something different.
A four-string banjo is also known as a tenor banjo. It is a lute-like stringed instrument with a long neck, a void resonator body, and four strings.
Regardless of the number of strings it has, you can’t play it like bass guitars. The four-string banjo is almost the same as the ukulele. The only differences are the banjo’s slightly larger size and four strings are thicker than four ukulele strings. Usually, tenor banjos have 19 frets. However, some four-string banjo has 17 frets, known as the Irish tenor banjo.
You can tune the four-string banjo in different ways, which is a unique feature that makes this banjo stand out. You can tune a four-string banjo like a viola, C-G-D-A with the G string an octave below the C string on a violin or a viola.
The other way to tune it is G-D-A-E, an octave below normal. Make sure you have thicker strings set to play a tenor banjo in this technique because thinner strings will break more easily.
Four-String Plectrum Banjo
The standard or tenor banjo is the most popular four-stringed instrument with five frets and is widely used in Irish, Scottish, folk, bluegrass, country music, and jazz. However, another type known as the plectrum banjo comes with 22 frets. It is almost the same with a five-string banjo minus the drone string.
It is called a plectrum banjo because of how it is typically played. Unlike the standard banjo, which is played using a thumb and two fingers, you play a plectrum banjo with a flat pick or plectrum. This type of banjo is usually played for jazz and country music.
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The five-string banjo is probably the most popular type of banjo that you will find. It has a longer neck and fretboard than the four-string banjo, making it easier for beginners to play. It fits perfectly into Jazz, Folk, Country, Bluegrass, and Irish music.
The fifth string is a low drone or bass string tuned to the same note as the first string on a six-string banjo. This string is usually played with the thumb, which gives the banjo its unique sound. If you’re a beginner banjo player, always remember to use the fifth fret, and don’t forget to study the fingerboard.
There are several ways used to play a five-string banjo. Some banjo players use fingerpicking, flat-picking style, and claw hammer style.
It is a widespread technique that uses the thumb and fingers to pluck the strings. You can use this technique to play melodies and chords. “Fingering” refers to the selection of which right-hand finger is used for which note and the order in which you play the notes using your right hand. This pattern is known as a “roll.” The choice of roles is crucial to creating the unique banjo sound that many beginner banjo players want to learn.
It’s not hard to play several other types of music using fingerpicking techniques, including Old-Time and Classical fingerpicking styles. It is typically used to play solo songs. Three-finger picking is the most common way to fingerpick a banjo. You can use your thumb, first, and second fingers to play each string.
Banjos are not easy to hold by hand, so there’s no surprise that the Flatpicking style is also tricky. You need to control the banjo in a way that you can easily access the strings with your right hand. This style is popular among bluegrass and country music.
You use a flat pick or plectrum to pick the strings instead of your fingers in this style. You can also use a thumb pick if you want, but it’s not necessary. It is a great style to play if you want to add fast and energetic licks to your playing.
Clawhammer style is also known as frailing since it’s similar to how you use your hands when using a hammer in the kitchen or garage. In this technique, you use your thumb, index finger, and middle finger to play the strings. You can also use a plectrum, but it’s not necessary.
Most banjo players use this style to play folk and old-time music. It is an excellent style if you want to add a percussive sound to your playing. You can also use this style to accompany other instruments like the guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.
This type of banjo is not as popular as the five-string banjo, but it has a growing fanbase. It comes with a longer neck and fretboard than the five-string banjo, making it perfect for beginners who want to learn how to play. It also fits perfectly into jazz, folk, country, bluegrass, and Irish music.
This instrument also comes in two different versions: resonance or an open back.
Resonance version – It is the one that comes with a resonator. It produces a loud and clear sound. You can use it to play the lead, chords, bridges, solos, rhythm, and ensemble parts.
Open Back version – The open back variant lacks the resonator found on the resonance version. The lack of this feature makes it perfect for solo or rhythm playing.
The sixth string on a six-string banjo is usually tuned, similar to a six-string guitar, E-A-D-G-B-E. This string is generally played with the thumb and gives the banjo its unique sound.
With this banjo style, you get the chance to enjoy the versatility of a guitar. You can play chords and melodies, as well as single-note riffs. You may tune the strings of your six-string banjo to sound the same as those of an acoustic guitar.
You will find it easy to play this type of banjo using the fingerstyle since you can decide on tuning that opens a new opportunity to produce top notes. A famous jazz player Johnny St. Cyr played a six-string banjo in the Louis Armstrong band.
The banjo is an extraordinary stringed instrument that combines contemporary playing techniques with the country music charm. It has a beautiful and unique sound that can be heard in different styles of music, and you can use it to play solo or with other instruments. So, how many strings does a typical banjo have?
As you can see, it depends on the type of banjo that you are playing. Most banjos have five strings, but there are also six-string and four-string banjos. Each banjo style has its own unique set of strings that need to be tuned in a specific way. So, it’s essential to do your research before you buy a banjo!
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.