Instruments | Banjo | Stringed

The banjo is a plucked stringed instrument with a circular body and fretted neck. Its roots lie in the French and British colonies of Africa, where instruments made from a hollowed-out gourd covered with animal skin, bamboo neck and catgut strings were popular.

Particularly associated with celebrations and dancing, these instruments went by various names including banza and banjer. Similar instruments also existed in South Africa which were possibly adaptations of the cavaquinho.

The Travelling Banjo

The journey from Africa to America was made during the slave trade. There are paintings from South Carolina in the late 1700s showing slaves dancing to the music of gourd banjos. The transition from the gourd-body to the instrument we know today is generally believed to have been due to the innovations of Joel Walker Sweeney (1810–60) in the 1830s. Some doubt has been cast on the extent of his role in the banjo’s modernization, but he certainly had a strong influence.

Sweeney’s use of the banjo was in his minstrel group the Sweeney Minstrels, a band who blackened their faces as a comedy gimmick. This rapidly caught on and by the 1850s the banjo and its minstrel musicians were popular throughout the southern states of America. During the American Civil War (1860–65), minstrel shows were a popular entertainment among soldiers, who took back home with them their appreciation of the banjo.

Playing Styles

The banjo’s big break came with the growth of parlour music. This association lifted the instrument from its links with the lower classes and brought it to almost universal attention. By this time, two distinct styles of playing had developed. The traditional, or stroke, style is today known as ‘clawhammer’ or ‘frailing’, in which the player strikes the string using a downward motion of the finger and making contact with the upper portion of the nail. In contrast, the ‘fingerpicking’ style is more akin to guitar technique, using the underside of the nail and the finger in an upward motion.

Use in Ragtime

The banjo’s staccato sound made it ideally suited to the ragtime style that developed around the turn of the century. The jagged, syncopated character of ragtime increased the banjo’s appeal and by the 1920s it had begun to play a part in the birth of jazz, appearing in the Dixieland bands of New Orleans. Surprisingly, the banjo was also used in blues, where its role was much more like that of a guitar.

Ragtime used the banjo mainly as a rhythm instrument, working together with the drum section, and its qualities as a solo voice were increasingly overlooked. It soon began to give way to the guitar, and the electric guitar in particular. The 1940s, however, saw a revival in the banjo’s fortunes with the development of bluegrass in the southern USA. A combination of dance and religious music, bluegrass showed off the best of the banjo’s attributes: strong rhythm, clear articulation and agility.


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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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