In this article, you will learn just about everything you need to know about the different types of banjos. This guide includes which type is the most popular, and details even the more obscure variations of the instrument!
So, what types of banjos are there?
Let’s start with what is a Banjo. A banjo is a stringed instrument that looks similar to a guitar but with a longer neck and a circular body made of thin materials (usually plastic).
The banjo and its many different types are popular as instruments of folk, parlor, and professional entertainers. The term banjo is said to be derived from the Portuguese or Spanish word “bandore”.
What are the Different Types of Banjos?
Before you can start your adventure with the banjo, you should ensure that you’re traveling with the right kind of equipment.
In the following sections, you will learn the different instruments in the banjo family. You will read through the various types of banjos according to their body type, the number of strings, and other variations.
Types of Banjos According to Body Type
There are two different kinds of banjos according to body type: resonator banjos and open-back banjos.
A resonator banjo has a wooden back attached to it, usually using thumbscrews. This type of banjo produces a louder and brighter sound. The reason is that the resonator reflects the sound off of its inside surface, and then it projects the sound out of the front of the instrument.
In contrast with a resonator banjo, an open-back banjo does not have anything attached to its back. Because of this, open-back banjos produce a more mellow tone. This type of banjos is also lighter in weight, and generally less expensive than resonator banjos.
Tip: You can easily identify a banjo by simply checking the back of the instrument. If it doesn’t have a resonator, then the banjo is an open-back.
Types of Banjos According to the Number of Strings
A five-string banjo has a short fifth string that makes it distinguishable from other types of banjos (and probably from any other instrument out there!) Usually, you can instantly identify a five-string banjo when you see a tuning peg sticking out about halfway up the neck of the instrument.
Its fifth string is an important distinguishing feature both in terms of appearance and musical tone. The fifth string of the banjo is not just shorter than the other four, but it also has the highest pitch.
Four-string banjos generally look similar to five-string ones aside from their lack of a fifth string. They are usually played with a flat guitar pick instead of with the fingers. You can encounter four-string banjos in traditional jazz and Dixieland music.
There are primarily two different kinds of four-string banjos: plectrum and tenor. During the early 20th century, these two four-string banjos were the most popular types.
Tenor and plectrum banjos use different tunings and playing techniques, and banjo enthusiasts view these two as different instruments.
- Plectrum Banjo – The plectrum banjo is almost similar to a five-string banjo but without the drone string. Plectrum banjos are usually strummed with a guitar pick. You can also hear this instrument being played in Dixieland bands.
- Tenor Banjo – A tenor banjo has a shorter scale. You can hear this instrument being played in jazz and dance orchestras, as well as Irish traditional music.
Examples of tenor banjos are the 17-fret tenor banjos that have shorter necks for a brighter, snappier sound. Another variation is the 19-fret tenor banjos with longer necks that are usually around a 23″ scale, compared with 17-fret ones that measure 20″.
Six-string banjos, also known as banjo guitars, are made by combining a six-string guitar neck with a body of a banjo. This construction allows guitarists to play a banjo sound without having to relearn the fingerings.
The six-string banjo was first invented more than a century ago. It was back when the mandolin was the most popular fretted instrument in the United States and the jazz banjo was close to replacing it.
Just like six-string banjos, a twelve-string variant is made to be played and tuned exactly like a twelve-string guitar. However, changing upon this type of banjo is extremely rare nowadays.
Other Banjo Variations and Hybrids
Before the days of electronic amplification, versions of other instruments were made with banjo bodies. After they combine them, they tune it like the parent instrument, creating a banjo hybrid.
Today, these obscure kinds of banjos are mostly regarded as novelty instruments. You may occasionally hear banjo hybrids in early jazz or blues, or by a jug band.
- Mandolin banjos – These are banjos with mandolin necks, and have eight strings. They are also known as mandobanjos or banjolins. These unique instruments are smaller than most five-string banjos.
- Ukulele banjos – These banjos that are tuned like the ukulele are also known as banjuleles or ukulelebanjos.
- Guitar banjos – These are banjos with guitar necks and have six strings. Guitar banjos can be a little larger than most five-string banjos.
What’s the Most Popular Type of Banjo?
The five-string banjo is the most popular kind of banjo played today. This type is mostly played in bluegrass, folk, and country music, but it’s also currently popular in jazz, rock, and classical music.
However, in the first half of the 20th century, the most popular banjos were actually the four-string tenor and plectrum banjos. Although the bodies of four-string and five-string banjos look the same at first glance, you will notice their difference when you look closely at their necks.
Reminder: Four-string and five-string banjos are not interchangeable! Meaning, you can’t play five-string banjo music on a four-string tenor or plectrum banjo.
Different Styles of Playing the Banjo
Other than the different kinds of banjos that you can choose from, there are also different styles of playing the banjo.
The two most popular styles of banjo playing are the bluegrass and clawhammer styles. These two commonly refer to the different ways of striking the strings of your banjo with your right hand.
The clawhammer style is often called the down-picking technique in playing the banjo. In this style, the fingers of your right hand strike the strings in a downward motion.
Clawhammer is older than the bluegrass style. Its historical roots can be traced back several centuries to the African ancestry of the banjo.
Bluegrass style is known as an up-picking technique since you will use your right-hand index and middle fingers to strike the strings in an upward motion. In using this style, your right-hand fingers move in towards the palm of your right hand, and the thumb moves in a downward direction.
Earl Scruggs, a notable banjo player from North Carolina, largely developed the bluegrass banjo style. He made it popular during the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Whether you’re looking at a beginner’s model or a professional type of banjo, you will need to know the different types first before you spend your hard-earned cash.
Don’t worry if the differences between the various types of banjos can be difficult to understand at first. Usually, researching them well can help your buying search be more enjoyable and effective.
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.