Mandolin vs Banjo: Choosing the Right Instrument

As you embark on your musical journey, choosing the right instrument can make all the difference. If not a guitar then what? Amongst others, you may find yourself torn between the mandolin and the banjo.

Both are unique, versatile, and popular in various music genres, but these instruments have a lot of differences. This article will explore the differences between the mandolin vs banjo to help you decide which one is right for you.

mandolin-vs-banjo-what-are-the-differences-article

Choosing Between Mandolin and Banjo

When it comes to choosing between these two instruments there are a few considerations to make. Throughout this article we will look at each one in more detail, but here I wanted to provide a concise summary.

choosing-between-the-mandolin-and-banjo-infographic-diagram

After making these same considerations myself, I landed on the banjo and got myself a Deering 5 string banjo many years ago. I have played mandolin throughout the years but have always preferred the banjo as a player.

Everyone is different, however, and people have different preferences and bodies that make choosing one instrument over the other easier. As I will discuss later, comfortably playing the mandolin has always been challenging for me. Even though this is just one consideration to make between these two instruments, something as simple as size, can drive the direction of your choice.

Body Differences: Mandolin vs Banjo

Mandolin Body

The mandolin features a hollow, wooden body similar to that of a small guitar. Typically, mandolins have a rounded, pear-shaped body, but there are also other variations, such as the flat-backed or carved-top mandolins. The top, back, and sides are made from tonewoods like spruce, maple, or mahogany, which significantly influence the instrument’s tone.

Mandolins also have a sound hole usually in the shape of an oval or a pair of decorative f-holes. The sound is produced when the strings vibrate the top, creating resonance within the hollow body.

figure showing the basic parts of a mandolin

This design allows for easy handling and movement while playing. Wearing a strap with a mandolin won’t put a ton of pressure on your shoulders. Additionally, mandolins are are pleasure to travel with.

A mandolin case is not too large and given that the mandolin itself is a light instrument, it does not add a lot to the overall weight. If having a larger instrument might be a deterrent for you, then picking up the mandolin would be a great choice!

Banjo Body

The banjo, on the other hand, has a unique construction consisting of a circular, drum-like body called the pot or rim. This pot is usually made of wood or metal and is covered with a thin plastic or skin head, similar to a drumhead.

The head is tightened over the pot using a tensioning system, allowing for adjustments to the banjo’s sound and tone. The strings of a banjo pass over a bridge, which rests on the head, and the sound is produced when the strings vibrate the head and the air within the pot.

figure showing the basic parts of a banjo instrument

Banjos also have variable shapes if you consider the 4 string, 5 string and even 6 string variations! Check out this article on banjo types for more details. Overall, the banjo is simply larger, and with a more robust body.

The typical 5 string resonator banjo will weigh more than a mandolin and bear more strain on your shoulders if worn for longer periods. If carried in a case, it can wear you out on a long trip. However, it’s definitely no different than slinging a Les Paul over your shoulder for 2 hours a night then walking it to your car with a case for 15 minutes.

Now on to the strings!

Strings and Tuning: Banjo vs. Mandolin

Banjo Strings and Tuning

The most popular and traditional type is the 5-string banjo, which has a shorter drone string that starts at the fifth fret and is usually tuned to a higher pitch. The standard tuning for a 5-string banjo is gDGBD.

figure showing standard tuning on 5 string banjo

The 4-string banjo, often used in jazz and Irish music, is usually tuned to CDGA but can also be tuned to mandolin tuning, GDAE. The 6-string banjo, sometimes called the banjitar, is tuned like a guitar (EADGBE).

figure showing standard tuning on 4 string banjo

The open tunings of the 5 string banjo make it a lot easier to finger chords and start off if you have no previous musical training. Want an A chord? Just bar the 3rd fret and you are good to go. The mandolin, however, gets a bit more tricky to start with in this department.

Mandolin Strings and Tuning

Mandolins have eight strings, arranged in four pairs or courses. Each pair of strings is typically tuned to the same pitch and played together as a single string. It’s kind of like a tiny 12 string guitar, with 8 strings.

mandolin showing the strings in courses

The standard tuning for a mandolin is GDAE, and the strings are usually made of steel or phosphor bronze. This tuning is the same as a violin, which allows for easy crossover between the two instruments. Not so much easier for guitarists however.

It has to be mentioned that playing paired strings like on a mandolin or a 12 string is not easy for beginners, especially on instruments that are not of the best quality. A complete beginner should be aware, those finger tip calluses will be coming in really quickly!

Neck Differences: Mandolin vs Banjo

Mandolin Neck

The mandolin features a significantly smaller neck compared to both tenor banjos and, more noticeably, traditional 5-string resonator banjos. What does this mean for players? Well, those with larger fingers may find it more difficult to play the mandolin compared to the banjo, as I’ve experienced firsthand with my own sizable fingers.

With a short 13-14 inch scale length, the mandolin’s 20 frets become increasingly tiny, particularly as you move up the neck to the higher registers.

Banjo Neck

On the other hand, the banjo offers greater versatility in this regard, accommodating players with larger fingers more comfortably. After all, if playing an instrument proves challenging, the enjoyment of practice diminishes, and one might eventually give up.

For me, this is a major reason why I don’t play the mandolin as much—my fingers are simply too large for the higher frets. A 5-string banjo’s scale length generally falls between 26 and 27 inches with 22 frets, a much more accommodating size.

Tone Differences: Mandolin vs Banjo

The tonal differences between the mandolin and banjo are significantly influenced by the unique characteristics of each instrument’s body, strings, and neck, as we’ve discussed earlier. These distinctions contribute to their individual sound qualities and roles in music.

Mandolin Tone

The mandolin’s smaller, arched-top body and higher string tension produce a warm, vibrant, and melodic. Its paired strings create natural chorusing, resulting in a fuller, richer sound. Additionally, the mandolin’s shorter scale length and smaller frets provide a more delicate playing experience and the ability to play fast, intricate melodic lines.

The type of wood used in the mandolin’s construction can also impact its tonal qualities. For example, spruce tops are known for their bright and clear sound, while mahogany tops offer a warmer, richer tone.

Overall, the mandolin does a better job of blending into various musical genres. Its subtle warm tones make it a favorite for producers and bands alike. In my opinion, this is one of the most outstanding parts of the instrument. Now on to the banjo.

Banjo Tone

The banjo’s drumhead-like pot generates a bright, twangy, and resonant sound that can be both percussive and melodic. Depending on the type of banjo and the pot assembly, the tone can vary from sharp and crisp to warm and mellow.

For example, resonator banjos, often used in bluegrass music, have a powerful, cutting tone, while open-back banjos, favored by clawhammer players, offer a more subdued and plunky sound.

However, a banjo is still a banjo. The unmistakeable tone of a banjo can tear through a mix and stand out. In this aspect it’s very different from the mandolin.

The mandolin can hang in the background, floating in the mix. A banjo, even in accompaniment, has the ability to remind the listener of its presence. Regarding this quality of the banjo, as they say: it’s not a bug, but a feature.

Technique Differences

Mandolin players typically use a plectrum (or pick) to strum or pluck the strings, enabling fast and precise playing (think scale runs!). More advanced techniques, such as tremolo (rapid picking of a single note) and cross-picking (alternating between strings) are common in mandolin playing.

Fingerpicking on a mandolin can be tricky, given the smaller scale, but players like Chris Thile can get away with anything. Don’t let that turn you off if you are a beginner! There is still a lot you can do when you start with a mandolin. Strumming chords or picking simpler melodies can be rewarding, especially if you are in a band. Lets compare to the banjo.

Banjo players, particularly those playing the five-string banjo, use fingerpicking techniques such as the “clawhammer” or “Scruggs” style. These techniques involve plucking the strings with the fingers or thumb, creating a distinctive, rhythmic sound. Clawhammer emphasizes a down-picking motion and a percussive, “bum-ditty” rhythm, while the Scruggs style relies on rolls (continuous fingerpicking patterns) for a smooth, flowing sound. There is a lot more picking and much less strumming with the banjo!

Banjo vs Mandolin Difficulty

When it comes to choosing which instrument to play you have to look at a few factors. If you are a complete beginner, the banjo is easier to start with. As I mentioned, the simplicity of the banjo is truly one of mysterious beauties. The same instrument that a beginner can fiddle on, can awe audiences in the right hands.

The mandolin might be easier to pick up for an existing string instrument player. A violin player can shine due to the similar tuning, and a guitar player – with already calloused fingertips – can figure out chords quickly to get going.

For me the challenge of the mandolin comes from its small fret size and scale, my fingers are simply too big to be comfortable on a mandolin, especially at the higher frets. I do much better on a banjo and have played it for years with no issues due to its close resemblance to the fretting on a guitar.

Final Considerations: Banjo vs Mandolin

A big consideration is the sound of the two instruments compared to each other. You really have to ask yourself which instrument sounds better to you. Consider what music you love listening to, and if the mandolin or banjo are prominent parts of that music. The choice might be very easy once you make these considerations.

Good news is that each instrument has options within each budget and can satisfy all tastes aesthetically, so there is no quarrels there. The rest is really up to you!

Check out this fantastic song by Blackberry Blossom that does an amazing job showcasing both the mandolin and the 5 string banjo in one song. What a great tune by talented players!

The Verdict: Choosing the Right One

In my eyes, you cant go wrong choosing either option! Ultimately, you will be learning a new musical instrument and that is really what’s important. Both the banjo and mandolin have a deep rooted history and have satisfied listeners across the decades, spanning a plethora of musical genres.

Each have their own sound, difficulties, and simplicities. This is what makes musical instruments amazing, they can satisfy curiosities in a complete and and an experienced musician stepping out of their comfort zone.

I hope you enjoyed this guide and found it helpful in your musical journey! Drop a comment and let me know what you think. Thank you for reading.

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