The five-string banjo (hereafter simply ‘banjo’) is a plucked spike-lute chordophone of the United States. Derived from African prototypes, it was considered iconic of black slave culture until the early 19th century when white performers stared appropriating it for their own music making. Initially associated with blackface minstrelsy, over time it became used by white musicians for a wide variety of other vernacular forms of American music. It was picked up by rural white southern folk musicians, associated with a popular amateur musical pursuit in the late 19th century, the BMG (banjo, mandolin, guitar) movement, part of the ragtime craze, and the first generation of commercial recording artists included banjoists. In the 20th century it came to be used by country, old time, and bluegrass musicians, and post WWII it became an icon of the folk music revival movement. While many of the above mentioned genres were centered in the urban white domain of American life, the banjo has continued to be played by rural and professional black musicians. Today there are many amateur and professional players of the banjo, including a few with international notoriety.
The banjo’s primary resonator shell is in the form of a ring made of laminated wood veneered with a dark stained wood (see first detail image). Twenty-four equidistantly-spaced metal brackets are bolted to the outside wall of the shell. Two holes are cut into opposite sides of the wall to receive the neck spike. A plastic membrane attached to a flesh hoop that has a slightly larger diameter the shell rim is placed over the shell opening. A steel counterhoop with the same diameter as the flesh hoop is lapped over the flesh hoop. The hooked ends of twenty-four metal rods catch the upper rim of the counterhoop, each rod passes through a hole in one of the side-mounted brackets located around the shell before a bolt is screwed onto the threaded bottom end of each rod. By adjusting the pressure of these bolts against the brackets, downward force is applied to the counterhoop to achieve the desired amount of tension for the membrane soundboard. The pegblock/neck component of the banjo is carved from a single piece of solid wood and has a metal rod ‘spike’ continuation added to the heel of the neck (see first detail image; traditionally, this spike is carved from the same block of wood as the neck/pegblock). The neck section has a shallow and rounded back except for its heel, which is much deeper. The top face of the neck is laminated with a flat piece of ebony wood with grooves cut across it to receive twenty-two metal frets. Mother-of-pearl dots are inlayed into the fingerboard to mark the third, fifth, seventh, tenth, twelfth, fifteenth, and seventeenth frets. At the top end of the fingerboard a bone nut (a raised ridge) is inserted into a groove cut across the neck and marks the division between the fingerboard and pegblock sections of the neck. From the heel end of the neck the long rod/spike is inserted through the holes in the resonator shell, its threaded terminus exiting the bottom side of the shell a fraction of an inch. A specially shaped nut is screwed tightly to the spike end, creating a tight fit between the neck heel and the resonator shell. A metal tailpiece is secured to the spike nut. The instrument is strung with five single course metal strings, only the lowest-pitched one being overwound. A noose at one end of each string is looped over a tab on the metal tailpiece. The strings then pass through slots in a low wooden pressure bridge (the tension of the strings holds the bridge feet against the membrane soundboard) and, in a parallel plain, pass just over the soundboard and the frets on the neck. The four main strings continue until they make contact with the nut, and after passing through slots in it each string is threaded through and wound around the exposed end of a back-mounted metal machine head with which the amount of tension on the string is adjusted. The fifth string, after passing over seventeen of the fingerboard frets, makes contact with a small nut post on the fingerboard and is threaded through and wound around the exposed end of a side-mounted metal machine head. All four main strings have the same vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut) of 27.5 inches; the vibrational length of the short string is 20.5 inches. A pan-shaped wooden reflector (a secondary resonator) designed to direct the sound of the banjo outwards from the performer is attached to the instrument with metal hardware (see second detail image).
Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production
The banjo is typically played by a seated performer with the side of the resonator resting on the right thigh and the pegblock end raised to about a 45-degree angle, the soundboard facing outwards. It can be played when standing with the aid of a shoulder strap. Depending largely on the style of music being played, the banjo is plucked using one of two basic right hand styles (each with many variations) called ‘clawhammer’ (downward strokes of the thumb on the fifth string and first two fingers on the main strings) and ‘finger-picking’ (downward strokes of thumb on the fifth string and upward strokes on main strings by the first finger, and sometimes the second and third fingers). The player uses either their fingernails to pluck the strings or fingerpicks. With both styles of sounding, the player stops the strings against the fretted fingerboard with the fingertips of the left hand and, sometimes, the thumb (for the short string only). The standard ‘C’ tuning for the four main strings is: C3 - G3 - B3 - D4 (interval sequence of P5 - M3 - m3); the fifth, shorter string is tuned to G4. The banjo’s range is C3 - C6 and is fully chromatic over this span. Other tunings are used, many of these specific to particular pieces in a particular repertoire. Tablature notations have been developed for some styles of banjo music. In comparison to other acoustic plucked lutes, the banjo is a loud instrument. The distinctive timbre and considerable volume of the banjo are largely due to the responsiveness of its taut membrane soundboard and the pan-shaped acoustic reflector attached to the back of the resonator.
Numerous theories about the origins of the banjo have been published, and while most of them are in agreement that the prototype of the instrument was brought to the Americas in the minds of west African slaves, just how, when, where, and by whom it was reconstructed is not known. The earliest illustration of a banjo-like instrument dates to 1688 and depicts long-necked lutes with skin-covered gourd resonators that were played by Jamaican slaves. Throughout the 18th and into the 19th century, homemade banjos are mentioned in association with slave life on southern plantations, and iconographic sources from the time suggest that banjos had three main strings and one short thumb string. Starting in the early 19th century white banjoists start to be chronicled, many of whom stated that they learned from black players. In the 1840s banjos were being mass produced in the northeastern United States for a white urban clientele in a design quite similar to that of the instrument pictured here. A few important differences were that banjos in those days were slightly larger, had unfretted fingerboards, were strung with gut strings, and were tuned to a lower pitch (‘A’ tuning, a minor third below the present day standard). Fretted fingerboards became common in the 1880s as did the reduction in the banjo’s size, and steel wire strings were introduced just after the turn of the 20th century. Several hybridized forms of the banjo have been created and marketed starting in the late 19th century (see tenor banjo and banjo ukulele).
Carlin, Bob. 2007. The Birth of the Banjo--Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.
Conway, Cecelia. 1995. African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia--A Study of Folk Traditions. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press.
Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. 1993. Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments: A Photographic History. San Francisco: GPI Books.
Linn, Karen. 1991. That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Noonan, Jeffrey J. 2008. The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Odell, Jay Scott. 1984. “Banjo.” NGDMI v.1: 151-154.Odell, Jay Scott, and Robert B. Winans. n.d. “Banjo.” Oxford Music Online, accessed October 15, 2014: http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/01958?q=banjo&search=quick&source=omo_gmo&pos=2&_start=1#firsthit
Region: North America
Nation: United States of America
Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)321.312 chordophone--spike box lute or spike guitar: the resonator is built up from wood, the body of the instrument is in the form of a box through which the handle/neck passes
Design and Playing Features
String carrier design: lute - spike
Resonator design, chordophone: ring with membrane soundboard
String courses: single
Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut
String tension control: machine head
Method of sounding: plucking (direct)
Pitches per string course: one and multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)
37.8 in. length 11.9 in. diameter of resonator 4 in. depth of resonator
membrane - synthetic
string - wire