Tag Archives: Banjo



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 ;

Banjo Ukulele

Name: Banjo Ukulele.
Type: Chordophones > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.322.6
Country: Many.
Region: Many & North America.

Description: The Banjo Ukulele, banjo uke or banjolele is a four-stringed musical instrument with a small banjo-type body and a fretted ukulele neck. The “Banjolele”, sometimes also spelled “banjelele” or “banjulele” is a generic nickname [clarification needed] given to the instrument.

The earliest known Banjo-Ukuleles were built by John A. Bolander and by Alvin D. Keech, both in 1917. Alvin D. Keech claimed to have conceived of the ‘Banjulele’ as a fusion. The Banjo Ukulele, is a fusion between between banjo and ukulele.

A late 19th century Hawaiian interpretation of the Portuguese cavaquinho and rajão and a banjo a commercial instrument appropriated from African slaves in the New World during the second quarter of the 19th century.

History: The banjo-ukulele gained popularity during the 1920s 1930s. Combining both the ukulele and the banjo, hence its name. The development was further pushed by the need a vaudeville performers to have an instrument that can be played with the ease of a ukulele.

In order to augment the former’s notoriously quiet sound, thus making it more conducive to Hollywood studio recording. The instrument was quickly adopted by vaudeville, radio and recording due to Keech’s entrepreneurship and the release of a cheap Gibson model.

The UB-1. Reports of this instrument’s original retail value start from less than $2 and go upwards to $10, reflecting the Hawaiian music craze at the turn of the century. The instrument was most commonly employed to accompany solo voice, as a solo instrument and as a member of early bluegrass ensembles and early jazz ensembles.

Banjo Ukulele Tunings
Names Tunings
G / C / A / E
D / G / B / E
A / D / F# / B

Construction: The banjo ukulele is a hybrid instrument comprising the body of a banjo,  fretboard, 4 strings, peg box and tuning of a ukulele. The traditional gut or nylon-gut strings have been replaced by steel to produce a louder and more strident sound. The head section is circular and mirrors the membrane sound table of banjos of the period.

Attached to the 6” in diameter head section is a fretboard extending into a peg head. The neck section both peg head and fretboard is carved from one solid piece of stained maple. Occasionally position indicators of mother-of-pearl are inlaid are inlaid in the fretboard, the back of which is rounded as are most lutes.

The body of the instrument is made from 8 pieces of sawn maple glued together around a form to make a series of three stacked rings two, four, two pieces respectively. The soundtable is made from stretched hide held tightly to the body with a metal band. This band, in turn, is anchored to the body with ten metal shoes placed 4.4 cm or 1.75 in. apart and terminating in a nut.

A hex-head truss rod is visible from underneath. The instrument’s four wire strings run from a common nut at the base of the resonator, over a wood bridge on the soundtable. Over a nut at the top of the fingerboard and terminate individually where they are wrapped around the studs of the four wooden friction tuning pegs in the pegbox.

Citations: Bibliography: “Bolander Banjo Ukulele”, Tranquada, Jim 2012. The Ukulele: a History. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 37–39. ISBN 978-0-8248-3544-6 ; Whitcomb, Ian 2012. Ukulele Heroes: The Golden Age. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard Books. p. 81. ISBN 978-1-4584-1654-4 ; K. M. Drowne and P. Huber 2004 The 1920’s. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group ; Odell, Jay Scott. 1984. “Ukulele [ukelele].” NGDMI V2:.696-697 ; Schenkman, David E. “The Banjo Ukulele Haven.” Accessed October 10, 2010 ;

Banjo Guitar

Name: Banjo-Guitar.
Type: Chordophones > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.312.6
Tuning: E / A / D / G / B / E
Country: Many.
Region: Many & North America.

Description: The six-string banjo was introduced in the late 19th century. Less widespread than four and five string banjos, it was reintroduced in the latter part of the twentieth century with the modern guitar-like tuning. The original Banjo Guitars were modified five string banjos with an added G-string. Around the same time in Europe they were known as “Guitar Zither’s” they were more common than in the USA.

The six-string banjo guitar should not be confused with the five string banjo as played by Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs and others. While the five string banjo retains its tuning. The zither banjo [a separate instrument all together] had six tuners but also only five strings the short fifth string going up a hole at the 5th fret up a channel under the fingerboard, through a hole in the headstock to a tuning roller.

Banjo guitar or Banjitar is a six-string banjo tuned in the standard tuning of a six-string guitar [E2 / A2 / D3 / G3 / B3 / E4] from lowest to highest strings.

Citations: Bibliography: Websites: deeringbanjos.com [banjitar article; what is a banjitar? By Paul Race – August 31, 2016] ;

Bass Banjo

Name: Bass Banjo.
Type: Chordophones > Lutes.
Hornbostel-Sachs No#: 321.312.6
Tunings: G / D / A / E
Country: United States of America.
Region: North America.

Description: Not unlike the development of the mandolin orchestra during the 1910s the banjo went through a similar phase in which the concept of the bass-banjo arose. These instruments share a parallel to the mandolin-banjo for both relying on a spike mounted on the bottom of the instrument. This particular banjo also has frets and is played vertically like an upright bass.

This instrument is fretted and has four strings tuned usually to G / D / A / E. The strings share the same in tension and diameter. The resonator is made from steel a calf-hide skin is used as a membrane completing the body. The neck is mounted and fretted to chromatic scale.