banjo ukulele

Also:       ukulele banjo      banjo-uke      uke-banjo      banjulele      banjouke      

Contextual Associations

The banjo ukulele is a plucked and strummed box-lute chordophone created to capitalize on the popular consumption of ukuleles in early 20th century America. Alvin D. Keech claimed to have conceived of the ‘Banjulele’ as a fusion between the ‘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, in order to augment the former’s notoriously quiet sound, thus making it more conducive to Hollywood studio recording. While we have not been able to substantiate this claim, 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.


The banjo ukulele is a hybrid instrument comprising the body (head section) of a banjo with the fretboard, 4 strings, and tuning of an 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 The traditional gut or nylon-gut strings have been replaced by steel to produce a louder and more strident sound.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 soundtables 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) appears to be carved from one solid piece of stained maple. Three mother of pearl position indicators are inlayed 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 1.75 in. apart and terminating in a nut (see detail 1). A hex-head truss rod is visible from underneath (see detail 2). The instrument’s four wire strings run from a common nut at the base of the resonator, over a wood bridge on the soundtable (see detail 3), 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.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The instrument is held at stomach height as the musician stands or is rested on the player’s upper thigh when seated. Fingers of the left hand depress the strings just above a fret while fingers from the right hand, or a plectrum, strum/pluck the strings, on the pegbox side of the bridge, above the head. In this way individual notes, or up to 4 voice chords may be sounded. This instrument is set up for a right handed player and uses the ukulele tuning commonly referred to as ‘my dog has fleas,’ G4 - C4 - E4 - A4. Its total range spans from the open second string (C4) to the highest stop on the fourth string (D5). The first string, tuned an octave higher than guitars of the same P4- M3- P4 configuration gives ukuleles their distinctive chord voicing.  The banjo head and steel strings give this lute a louder sound and a twang associated with banjos.


During the Hawaiian music craze of the 1910s and 1920s, several guitar makers began to flood the market with ukuleles and ukulele-hybrids. Alvin D. Keech claimed to have conceived of the banjo ukulele, and by 1924 Gibson Inc. had released its first low-price model, the UB-1. During the decades to follow, the ukulele banjo was adopted by several famous musicians including George Formby, Roy Smeck, and Wendell Hall, gaining popularity across the United States and in France.

Bibliographic Citations

Drowne, K. M., and P. Huber. 2004. The 1920's. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Odell, Jay Scott. 1984. "Ukulele [ukelele]." NGDMI V. 2:.696-697.

Schenkman, David E. "The Banjo Ukulele Haven." Accessed October 10, 2010.


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: ring with membrane soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: bushing peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)


19.3 in. length 2.3 in. depth 6 in. diameter of body

Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
string - wire
pegs - bushing


Gibson Inc., Kalamazoo MI



Entry Author

Gaelyn Hutchinson