Name: Banjo.
Type: Chordophones > Lutes > Spike.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.5
Country: Many, Diaspora & USA.
Region: North America.

Description: The banjo is a four or five stringed spike bowl lute, that is a member of the lute family of Chordophones. This instrument is a descendant from African lutes including the N’goni of Mali and the Akonting of the Jola people Gambia and Senegal and possibly many other similar lutes.

History: There are numerous different instruments that which the banjo may or may not originate from yet they share similar features in their construction. That is they are constructed from a simple design of a gourd and a neck. A membrane covers the gourd completing the resonator. The membrane is held in place usually by thumbtacks. Instruments like the Akonting, Hoddu, N’goni and Xalam share this feature in their individual constructions.

Banjos with fingerboards and tuning pegs are known from the Caribbean as early as the 17th century. Some 18th- and early 19th-century writers transcribed the name of these instruments variously as bangie, banza, bonjaw, banjer and banjar. Another likely relative of the banjo is the akonting, a spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of Senegambia and the ubaw-akwala of the Igbo.

Similar instruments include the xalam of Senegal and the ngoni of the Wassoulou region including parts of Mali, Guinea and Ivory Coast, as well as a larger variation of the ngoni known as the gimbri developed in Morocco by Back Sub-Saharan Africans [Gnawa or Haratin].

This instrument was introduced into the United States from the Caribbean by African Slaves. Similarities have been observed in the playing techniques of the banjo to its West African analogues. Notably among the lutes mentioned as the possible candidates for the origins of the banjo.  

Etymology: There are several claims as to the etymology of the name “Banjo” that have been made. It may drive from the Kimbundu word mbanza, banza: a vihuela  with five two-string courses and a further two short strings. The Oxford English Dictionary states that it comes from a dialectal pronunciation of Portuguese bandore or from an early Anglicization of Spanish bandurria. The name may also derive from a traditional Afro-Caribbean folk dance called “banya”, which incorporates several cultural elements found throughout the African diaspora.

Usage: The banjo we know today having the circular body and five strings was invented by Joel Walker Sweeney [1810 – October 29, 1860] In the context of North American music the banjo is played in Minstrel, Appalachian, Old-Time, Bluegrass, Blues, Jug-band, Ragtime, Jazz [namely the Dixieland Jazz and during the roaring 20s. Outside of the familiar genres for the banjo compositions have been written in for musics in other genres.

The banjo is quite popular and widespread throughout the neighbouring islands from Jamaica where it is played as a lead instrument in Mento ensembles. In Brazil one finds a banjo derivative under the names of Samba Banjo or Banjo-Cavaco.

4 String / Banjo Tunings
Names Nomenclature Tunings
  Reentrant C G D A
  Reentrant D G C E
    D G C D
    C G B D

5 String / Banjo Tunings
Names Nomenclature Tunings
Standard Open G g D G B D
  Open G+2 a E A C #E
  Open G-3 e B E G# B
  Open G-2 f C F A C
  Raised 5th a D G B D
  Raised 5th b D G B D
Tommy Jarrell Open A a A A C# E

Varieties: One finds the six banjo-guitar [banjitar]; the eight stringed banjo-mandolin or banjolin, or the four stringed banjo-ukulele.

The Banjo Family: A family of banjos was modelled after the mandolin orchestra this including a bass banjo that is positioned by standing up on a spike mounted at the bottom of the instrument. There are many varieties of bass banjo from individual makers. A. C. Fairbanks, A. A. Farland and Gold Tone who remains the only current manufacturer of bass-banjos in the 21st century.

Construction: Having a thin membrane that is stretched over a cavity as the resonator. This component is called the “head”, which is typically circular in shape. Currently the membrane is usually made of plastic, although in the past the membrane was of animal skin.

A fretted neck utilizing the chromatic scale is added into the body in which the bottom shaft of the neck keeps the body and neck secure in place. The bridge is moveable allowing for the fine tuning of the strings to improve melodic resonance. Four or five single strings run across the front of the banjo from tailpiece to head stock. 

Citations: Bibliography: Bob Winans, George Gibson 2018; “Black Banjo, Fiddle and Dance in Kentucky and the Amalgamation of African American and Anglo American Folk Music”; Banjo Roots and Branches. Urbana: University of Illinois. pp. 226, 231, 242–246 ;

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