Different Types of Banjos: From the Typical to the Rare

As a banjo enthusiast, I’ve always been fascinated by the diversity of banjo types out there. In this article, I’ve decided to explore and share the various types of banjos with you, organizing them by the number of strings they have.

From the 4-string banjos that originated in the early 20th century to the more contemporary 12-string banjos, we’ll delve into the unique characteristics, sounds, and uses of each type. I will also provide video examples to give you an auditory glimpse into the distinct sounds of each banjo type. So, sit back, and let’s embark on a journey through the fascinating world of banjos.

different-types-of-banjos-a-string-by-string-guide-article

How Many Strings are on a Typical Banjo

The typical banjo has 5 strings. The 5 string banjo is widely used in various music genres, including bluegrass, country, folk, and old-time music. There are two main types of 5-string banjos: the resonator banjo and the open-back banjo. Each type of these banjos shines in unique styles of music which we will discuss in more detail throughout this article.

One of the key characteristics of the 5-string banjo is the unique high-pitched fifth string, known as the drone string. This string sets the 5-string banjo apart from other types of banjos and contributes significantly to its distinct sound. This string is often used as a drone or for playing licks and fills, depending on the style you are playing. It is also used as a reference point for other notes played on the instrument, which can be helpful when tuning your banjo by ear.

The most common tuning for a 5-string banjo is open G tuning (gDGBD), considered the standard tuning for 5 string banjo. However, alternate tunings such as double C, sawmill, and old-time D are also popular among pc layers, depending on the genre and style they prefer. Check out my article on banjo tunings for a complete understanding.

The 5-string banjo has become a staple in traditional American music, with notable players like Earl Scruggs, Béla Fleck, and Steve Martin demonstrating the versatility and expressiveness of this iconic instrument. In this article we will look at each banjo type according to their string count. As you read, you will see how uniquely versatile this instrument truly is.

4 String Types of Banjos

Now that you know how many strings are on a typical banjo, let’s start by talking about 4 string banjo types. These instruments come in various styles and are the runner-up for most popular banjo type after the 5 string. Let’s take a look.

4 string banjos

Tenor Banjo

With a shorter neck, typically around 19-23 frets, the typical tenor banjo tuning is in fifths, or C-G-D-A. This wonderful instrument rose to prominence in the early 20th century as a rhythm instrument in jazz ensembles. It later found a home in Irish traditional music, where its bright, punchy tone complements the lively melodies. Don’t let the small size fool you, this thing is not small like a mandolin! Tenor banjos usually have a scale length of 20-23 inches, medium sized compared to the other two 4 string types of banjos. Notable players include Barney McKenna of The Dubliners and jazz great Eddie Condon. Check out Barney performing in the video below!

Plectrum Banjo

The plectrum banjo has a longer neck, around 22-28 frets, and is tuned similarly to a 5-string banjo without the drone string (C-G-B-D). It gained popularity in the 1920s and 1930s as a chord-melody instrument in jazz and popular music. Plectrum types of banjos typically have a scale length of 26-28 inches and weigh around 8-10 pounds. Famous plectrum banjoists include Harry Reser and Johnny St. Cyr. Check out the video below to see Harry Reser performing “Tiger Tag” on his plectrum 4 string banjo. He really plays like the Django Reinhardt of Banjo!

Banjolele

The banjolele, or banjo-ukulele, is a hybrid instrument that combines the body of a banjo with the neck and tuning of a ukulele. It typically has 15-18 frets a scale length of around 13-17 inches. As the name would suggest the banjolele tuning is like a ukulele with G-C-E-A tuning. Popular during the 1920s and 1930s, it was often used for its bright, punchy sound in vaudeville performances and early jazz. Notable players include George Formby and Roy Smeck. Check out the video of the amazing George Formby performing It Serves You Right. The Banjolele shines in this song and is a signature of George’s sound. They sure don’t make them like that anymore…

The Cello Banjo

The cello banjo is yet another one of the types of banjos with 4 strings. However, they do make the cello banjo as a 5 string, as well. The cello banjo has a unique deep tone compared to other banjo types. It is truly beautiful to hear this instrument in person. I wont go on long about this type of banjo as I have an in-depth article on the cello banjo that will answer all questions and provide examples for those who are more interested. Otherwise, you can listen to Marcy Marxer play her Cello Banjo below!

Bass Banjo

The bass banjo is a unique and relatively rare type of banjo designed to play the bass range. It is larger than a typical types of banjos and produces deep, resonant tones similar to a bass guitar. Bass banjos usually have four strings and are tuned similarly to a standard bass guitar: E1, A1, D2, G2 (from the 4th string to the 1st string). The Gold Tone BB-400+ and the Deering Phoenix are two examples of bass banjos. Notable bass banjo players include Bill Evans and Alun Davies, who played with Cat Stevens. Check out the video of the GOld Tone BB-400+ to see the bass banjo in action.

5 String Types of Banjos

The 5-string banjo is the most common type and is strongly associated with bluegrass, folk, and country music. The 5th string, called the drone string, starts at the 5th fret and provides a unique, high-pitched sound. Lets take a look in more detail at each type of 5 string banjo.

Resonator Banjo

The resonator banjo is what most people think of when think they of a banjo. It features a resonator, a wooden or metal plate attached to the back of the banjo. This enhances projection, delivers a louder, brighter sound that is well-suited for bluegrass music and three-finger picking styles. It also reflects sound-waves back toward the audience, increasing volume and brightness. Resonator banjos typically have a scale length of about 26.5-27.5 inches and 22 frets. Common tunings include open G (gDGBD) and open D (f#DF#AD). Legendary players of the resonator banjo include Earl Scruggs, who revolutionized banjo playing with his innovative technique, and Ralph Stanley of The Stanley Brothers, among many others. Listen to Earl playing his heart out on Foggy Mountain Breakdown. He perfectly showcases where the resonator 5 string banjo really shines. What a picker!

Open-Back Banjo

The open-back banjo, without a resonator, features a mellower, plunky tone that is perfect for old-time music and the clawhammer playing style. This type of banjo is characterized by its open back, which allows the sound to escape directly from the drumhead, resulting in a more subdued, warm tone. The open-back banjo is generally lighter in weight, has a scale length of around 26-27 inches, and 17-22 frets. Some popular tunings for open-back banjos are open G (gDGBD) and double C (gCGCD). Renowned players include Dock Boggs, Tommy Jarrell, and Pete Seeger. The banjo really takes a bluesy tone in a lot of clawhammer banjo playing. See for yourself below with Dock playing Country Blues on his 5 string clawhammer banjo.

Long-Neck Types of Banjos

The long-neck banjo is a unique and specialized type of 5-string banjo that features an extended neck, typically with 25 frets instead of the standard 22. This design results in a longer scale length, which enables the banjo to be tuned down to a lower pitch, usually E or F, compared to the standard G tuning. Long-neck banjos are particularly popular among folk musicians and those who prefer to play in lower tunings for vocal reasons.

One of the most famous long-neck banjo models is the Vega Pete Seeger model, named after the legendary folk musician who popularized this banjo design. These banjos often measure around 32 inches from nut to bridge, providing additional frets for enhanced versatility. While the long-neck banjo can be heavier and more challenging to play due to its extended size, it offers a distinct tonal range and expanded chord possibilities. The Gibson long neck banjo example in the video does a great job to showcase the instrument.

Travel or Parlor Banjo Types of Banjos

The travel or parlor banjo is a smaller, more compact version of the standard 5-string banjo, designed for portability and convenience. With a shorter scale length and smaller pot (the circular body of the banjo), travel banjos make it easy for musicians to carry their instruments with them wherever they go, without compromising on sound quality or playability.

Typically, travel banjos have scale lengths ranging from 19 to 23 inches, compared to the standard 26.25 inches found on most 5-string banjos. This reduced size makes them ideal for practice sessions, traveling, or for those with smaller hands. Some popular travel banjo models include the Gold Tone Plucky, Deering Goodtime Parlor, and the Recording King Dirty 30’s series. Travel banjos might not have the same level of projection or tonal richness as their full-sized counterparts. Instead, they offer a practical and convenient option for musicians on the move or those seeking a more compact instrument for casual playing or practice.

6 String Banjo

The 6-string banjo, also known as the ganjo, banjitar or guitjo, is a hybrid between a banjo and a guitar. The 6 string banjo typically comes in 2 variations. The first variation is like a guitar and is thus tuned in standard guitar tuning (EADGBE). It makes it an easy transition instrument for guitarists looking to delve into the world of banjo playing.

The other type of 6 string banjo resembles a 5 string banjo with an extra lower-tuned drone string. These are usually tuned to a variation of Open G (gGDGBD). Its quite an interesting instrument if you have a chance to see one! The 6 string banjo with its 2 variations, offers a distinctive sound that combines the bright twang of a banjo with the familiarity of a guitar. You can read more on 6 string banjo tuning in this detailed article.

Notable players who have embraced the 6-string banjo include blues musician Taj Mahal, country artist Keith Urban, and the legendary Johnny St. Cyr, who played with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. Keith refers to his as the Ganjo, and you can watch the video below where he plays and talks in depth about this instrument and how it inspired his writing. Great watch!

8 String Banjo – Mandolin Banjo

Also known as the mandolin-banjo or banjolin, the 8-string banjo combines the elements of a mandolin with the distinct sound of a banjo. This unique instrument emerged in the early 1900s and is tuned like a mandolin (G-D-A-E), allowing mandolin players to easily adapt to its playing style. The 8 string banjo is characterized by its bright, punchy tone that perfectly complements various music genres, such as folk, Celtic, and bluegrass.

Notable players who have embraced the 8-string banjo include the legendary Ira Louvin of The Louvin Brothers, ragtime musician Vess Ossman, and the renowned British musician and composer Mike Oldfield. Ira plays his mandolin like 8 string banjo live in the video below. The video is not the best quality, but I think his soloing in the song really showcases the instrument.

12 String Banjo

The 12-string banjo is a rare and unique instrument, doubling the string count of a standard 6-string types of banjos. It offers a rich, full sound, much like a 12 string guitar, but with the unmistakable banjo twang. While it’s not a widely adopted instrument, the 12-string banjo has been embraced by a select few innovative musicians, including Bela Fleck, John Hartford, and Danny Barnes.

The 12 string banjo has had a few incantations throughout time, most made by boutique luthiers. These days Deering has their 12 string D-12 model and Dean makes a 12 string banjo, but they can run upwards of $5000.

A historic example of a 12 string banjo is this 1917 model. The banjo is marked with “Ed Bardsley, Manufacturer” on the back. A true antique instrument, and it sounds beautiful!

Electric Types of Banjos

Electric banjos are designed with built-in pickups, allowing them to be plugged into amplifiers or recording equipment. These banjos can come in various configurations, such as four, five, or six-string models, and can be tuned like their acoustic counterparts or in alternate tunings. Electric banjos are often used in genres like rock, jazz, and experimental music. Popular electric banjo models include the Deering Crossfire and the Gold Tone EBM-5. Notable electric banjo players include Béla Fleck, who has played with the Flecktones and numerous other artists, and Danny Barnes, a pioneer in blending banjo with electronic music.

Closing Thoughts: Types of Banjos

Throughout this article we discussed how many strings are on a typical banjo as well as explore every other type of banjo out there. I hope this exploration has broadened your understanding of the rich history and variety within banjo music, and perhaps even inspired you to pick up a new type of banjo to try for yourself. Remember, no matter the number of strings, each banjo type offers its own unique sound and charm. Oh and, if you already have a banjo and have interest in amplifying your instrument, check out my articles on Banjo Pickups and Banjo Cases, both invaluable accessories for your banjo. Happy picking!

frequently asked questions- types of banjos

Frequently Asked Questions

What are banjo strings made of?

Banjo strings are usually made from a combination of materials. Traditionally, they were crafted from gut (animal intestines), but today, they’re predominantly made from steel or nickel-plated steel for the thinner strings, and steel wound with phosphor bronze, stainless steel, or nickel for the thicker strings. I know, it’s a lot less, ahem, “gutsy” than the original materials!

Are there nylon banjo strings

Yes, there are nylon banjo strings available. They are commonly used on specific types of banjos, such as banjoleles or open-back clawhammer banjos, where a mellower and warmer tone is desired. Nylon strings are also popular among players who prefer the softer feel of the strings on their fingers compared to steel strings. However, nylon strings may not be suitable for all banjo types, as they might not provide the same level of projection and brightness that steel strings offer. Best to check if they are good for your banjo before buying.

Are banjo strings the same as guitar strings?

Banjo strings and guitar strings are similar in some ways, but they’re not exactly the same. Both types of strings can be made from steel or nickel-plated steel, but banjo strings are typically lighter and more flexible than guitar strings. So while they might look like distant cousins, I wouldn’t recommend using guitar strings on your banjo or vice versa.

What gauge banjo strings should I use?

Choosing the right gauge for your banjo strings depends on your playing style, desired tone, and the type of banjo you have. Lighter gauge strings (like 9s or 10s) produce a brighter sound and are easier on the fingers, while heavier gauge strings (like 11s or 12s) provide a fuller, richer tone but require more finger strength. It’s a bit like choosing between a feather pillow and a memory foam one – it’s all about personal preference!

How often should you change banjo strings?

The frequency of changing your banjo strings depends on how often you play, your personal preferences, and the condition of the strings. As a general rule, I’d recommend changing your strings every 3-6 months if you play regularly. Change the strings more frequently if you play heavily or notice a loss of tone, tuning stability, or intonation.

How much do banjo strings cost?

Banjo string prices vary depending on the brand, materials, and quality. On average, a set of banjo strings will cost you between $5 and $15. While it might be tempting to go for the cheapest option, investing in good-quality strings can make a noticeable difference in your banjo’s tone and playability.

Is tenor banjo easy to learn?

The tenor banjo, with its four strings and shorter neck, can be easier to learn compared to the 5-string banjo, especially for those who already have experience playing other stringed instruments like the guitar or violin. However, the difficulty of learning the tenor banjo also depends on the style of music you want to play and your commitment to practice. As with any instrument, consistent practice and patience are key to mastering the tenor banjo.

Can you tune a 5-string banjo like a tenor?

While it’s technically possible to tune a 5-string banjo like a tenor banjo (C-G-D-A), doing so would require a significant change in string gauges and might put additional stress on the banjo’s neck. I’d recommend sticking to the 5-string banjo’s standard open G tuning (G-D-G-B-D) or getting a proper tenor banjo if you’re looking to explore that tuning.

Does Steve Martin play tenor banjo?

Steve Martin is a versatile banjo player who primarily plays the 5-string banjo. He is well-known for his bluegrass and clawhammer banjo playing styles. While he may have played a tenor banjo at some point in his career, he is more commonly associated with the 5-string banjo. Although if he tried, he probably would be able to play it!

What is clawhammer banjo?

Clawhammer banjo is a traditional banjo playing style, predominantly used on open-back banjos. It is characterized by a down-picking technique where the player strikes the strings with the back of their fingernails while using their thumb to pluck the 5th (drone) string. This results in a rhythmic and percussive sound, which is distinct from other banjo playing styles like bluegrass or fingerpicking. The clawhammer technique is often used in old-time Appalachian music and other folk traditions. See the video example above.

Is clawhammer banjo hard to learn?

Learning clawhammer banjo can be challenging for beginners, as it requires a specific technique and coordination between the picking hand and the fretting hand. However, with practice and dedication, it is possible to learn the clawhammer style. Many players find it helpful to start with simple tunes and gradually progress to more complex pieces as they develop their skills.

Can you play Irish music on a 5-string banjo?

Yes, you can play Irish music on a 5-string banjo, although the tenor banjo is more commonly associated with traditional Irish music. To play Irish tunes on a 5-string banjo, you might need to adapt your playing style or use alternate tunings to accommodate the different melodic and rhythmic structures of Irish music. Some players even remove the 5th (drone) string to make the banjo more similar to a tenor banjo.

Can you use a capo on a banjo?

You can use a capo on a banjo, but make sure that the capo is specifically made for the banjo or a similar sized instrument for optimal results. See the guide on choosing a banjo capo for a full explanation.

Thank you for reading!

1 thought on “Different Types of Banjos: From the Typical to the Rare”

  1. I found a 4 string banjo at an estate sale for only $2. It’s an American Conservatory with the numbers 535 and 602 inside. I replaced the torn head and the old strings and it has a good sound. The odd thing about it is the size of the head. It’s only 8″ and I can’t find any information about how it would typically be used. Is it intended for a child or is there another reason for the smaller head?

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