A brief history of banjos
The banjo derives from various African instruments that arrived here via the West Indies in slavery days. The original five-string banjo had no frets, the horizontal position markers that tell the player where to place his/her left hand fingers. There are reports of slaves playing banjos on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, as well as a number of ads for runaway slaves who were identified as being fine banjo players.
During the early 19th century, white entertainers learned banjo techniques from black players. This era became known as the “Minstrel Era.” White musicians blacked up their faces, and typical ensembles included a banjo, a tambourine, and a fiddle. By mid-century, some black players followed suit, not necessarily because they wanted to “black up,” but because there was work available. By the time the 19th century ended, banjo was used in ragtime. Ragtime-flavored songs became very popular at that time.
By the 1920s, there were banjo bands. Manufacturers began to produce five-string banjos with frets. In addition to the normal-sized five-string banjo, banjo bands included the banjeaurine (which is tuned a fourth or a fifth higher than the regular banjo tuning), piccolo banjos (which are miniature instruments tuned an octave higher than the normal five-string tuning), and even bass banjos. Banjo-mandolins — mandolins with a banjo head — had four double strings and were used in black jug bands.
The banjo became an important rhythm instrument in Dixieland banjo. Typically, the banjo used was a tenor banjo. This instrument had four strings and was played with a pick rather than with the fingers. Some players also utilized six-string banjos, which are tuned and played like a guitar but have the skin head that was typical of banjos at the time. The most common tunings for the five-string banjo are GDGBD (the fifth string is actually the highest one in pitch,) or GCGBD. Tenor banjos are tuned CGDA. Another four-string banjo, the plectrum banjo, is tuned exactly like the five-string, but it omits the fifth string.
Some excellent five-string banjos players like Vess Ossman and Fred Eps played the five-string, and recorded everything from piano rags to symphonic works. By the 1930s, the banjo had gone out of fashion in jazz and was replaced by the guitar. Both white and black banjo players continued to play folk and country music in the Appalachian mountains. In 1945, Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s bluegrass band. Scruggs refined and developed a new technique often called “Scruggs picking.” This involved the use of two fingerpicks and a thumb pick. Bluegrass banjos had resonators, while the older banjos had open backs. With resonators and fingerpicks, the volume of the banjo became much louder, and the banjo and the fiddle became the dominant voices in bluegrass music.
Today’s five-string players, like Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, have branched out into many musical styles. Several prominent country artists, including Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, play the six-string banjo as well as the guitar. Other players specialize in the string band music of the 30s or write new music based on old-time music styles. There are also players who are exploring minstrel banjo techniques, including composer-singer Rhiannon Giddnes.
Because there are so many dedicated craftsmen building instruments these days, it is also possible to encounter seven-, nine- and 12-string banjos, as well as five strings that are tuned to lower-than-usual pitches.
Also check out Making Music‘s Banjo timeline.