What is a Banjo?

Banjos produce some of the most beautiful music in the world. If you’re a fan of banjo music, then you’re probably familiar with its bright and rhythmic waterfall of short, cascading notes that can elicit different kinds of emotion.

In this article, you will discover everything you should know about the banjo, including its history, the difference between its various types, and the many parts that make up the instrument. You will also learn about its materials, as well as the most influential banjo players you should listen to as a beginner.

Banjo, defined

The banjo is a fretted stringed instrument with a slender neck and a hollow circular body. It has a thin covering of plastic (or sometimes animal skin) on which the part where the bridge rests. The contemporary American banjo is usually five-stringed. This standard model has four strings plus a short fifth string that you pluck with your thumb.

When you play the banjo, the strings stretched over the circular body will cause the covering to vibrate, giving a unique banjo sound. You will often hear banjo being played in the country, folk, Irish traditional, and bluegrass music.

Brief History of the Banjo

Historically, the banjo originated in Western Africa. It came to North America when it was brought by enslaved Africans a few hundred years ago.

The banjo then became widespread in American popular culture through the minstrel shows of the 19th century. Different regional playing styles of banjo music have since then evolved, making the instrument a staple of American old-time music.

Types of banjos

The five-string banjo is considered the most popular type of banjo today. Under this, you can choose from its two main kinds: resonator or open-back. At its most basic description, a resonator banjo has a wooden back, and an open-back banjo doesn’t.

  • Resonator banjos: It has a shallow, wooden, bowl-shaped addition that attaches to the instrument’s back.
  • Open-back banjos: From the name itself, this kind of banjo has no attachment at the back, making it quieter than resonator banjos. You can easily see the inside of the instrument from its rear.

Aside from the five-stringed resonator and open-back banjos, there are also many other kinds of banjos out there. You will identify its various styles depending on the number of strings and their relation to other instruments. Read more about the multiple types of banjos.

Parts of a banjo

The banjo has two main sections called the neck and pot.

The major section called the “neck” is a long piece of wood that attaches to the banjo body. You will notice that it supports the strings and tuners along the instrument’s fretting surface. It also consists of many other components.

  • Frets: These are thin metal bars on the banjo neck positioned at precise intervals along the fingerboard.
  • Fingerboard: It is a thin, flat, wooden strip glued to the neck that holds the frets
  • Peghead: Also called the headstock, it is an elaborately shaped wooden piece mounted at the end of the neck. It holds the tuning pegs for the four lower strings of the banjo.
  • Tuning pegs: These pegs are used to increase or lower the pitch of the strings by turning the buttons located on the backside of the peghead.
  • Nut: This block, usually made of ivory, bone, or plastic, is bonded with glue at the end of the fingerboard where the peghead begins.
  • Truss rod: This part is the adjustable metal rod that stabilizes the neck to keep the strings from buzzing when playing. Not all banjos have a truss rod.

The other main section is the round lower body of the banjo called the pot. Like the neck, it also includes several constituent parts.

  • Head: It is the membrane at top of the banjo that is made of plastic or skin. It serves as the vibrating soundboard of the instrument.
  • Rim: Also called the shell, it is the circular wooden ring that serves as the centerpiece or assembly base of the pot.
  • Tone ring: This is the circular collar made of metal fitted on top of the wooden rim.
  • Brackets: brackets (hooks) are ringed around the banjo pot and are responsible for tightening the head via the bracket screws
  • Tension hoop: This circular ring made of metal fits over the outside edge of the banjo head. As the brackets are tightened, it aids in uniformly stretching the head down across the top of the tone ring.
  • Bridge: It transmits the vibrations of the strings to the head. This part is movable but is held fast to the banjo head through the tension of the strings.
  • Tailpiece: It holds the strings on the pot end of the banjo.
  • Armrest: The armrest is fastened to the pot and extends over the top of the banjo head to provide for more comfortable right-hand playing while also protecting the head.
  • Coordinating rods: Attached at opposite rim ends, parallel to the banjo strings. It keeps the neck securely attached to the pot.
  • Resonator: The bowl-shaped piece of wood that projects the sound out and away from the instrument. (Open-back banjos don’t have resonators).
  • Resonator screws: These pieces are around three or four in number, and they keep the resonator attached to the rest of the pot.
  • Flange: A circular metal piece connects the pot to the resonator to keep the resonator in place.

What is a banjo made of?

Traditionally, banjos were made out of a hollow gourd, a neck made of wood, a thin covering made of animal skin, and strings made from animal gut, horsehair, or other similar materials.

Nowadays, you will commonly find contemporary banjos that are constructed out of a combination of wooden, metal, skin, and plastic parts. These parts are held together by rods, screws, brackets, and nuts to allow the banjo to produce its unique and beautiful sound.

How many strings does a banjo have?

Since five-string banjos are the most popular type of banjo being played today, you will commonly encounter banjos that have five strings.

Other banjos with a different number of strings also exist, such as four-string, six-string, and even twelve-string ones! In fact, during the early decades of the 20th century, four-string banjos were the most popular, particularly the tenor and plectrum banjos.

Notable banjo players

Whether you’re studying the banjo instrument or just want to listen to banjo music, you will benefit significantly by recognizing contributions from some of the most influential banjo players.

  • Earl Scruggs (1924–2012): The most famous banjo player in history. His lightning-quick three-finger technique is the most widely imitated banjo approach in the world. For the past 70 years, his technique has been the defining characteristic of bluegrass music.
  • Don Reno (1927–1984): Don Reno developed his famous three-finger approach to banjo playing in South Carolina around the same time Earl Scruggs learned to play in nearby North Carolina.
  • J. D. Crowe (b. 1937): J. D. Crowe is widely regarded as the most important banjo performer of the modern era of bluegrass music. Crowe’s Scruggs-inspired bluegrass banjo playing has a powerful right-hand technique and a bluesy passion.
  • Bill Keith (1939–2015): Bill Keith, the banjo’s Renaissance man, was instrumental in the development of the melodic style of banjo playing, which allowed players to play scales while still maintaining the characteristic three-finger roll patterns.
  • Béla Fleck (b. 1958): Béla Fleck blazed trails and set new standards for the banjo in modern rock, jazz, classical, and world music in the 1980s, emerging from the progressive bluegrass scene.