If you’re considering purchasing a banjo, you’ll learn that these instruments have a different number of strings. You can read reviews of best banjo strings to figure out what your options are, but before you do that, you might want to know more about the differences between different types of banjos based on their number of strings. See what differentiates these instruments, how many options there are, and what to look for when getting one.
What does a banjo look like?
The banjo has become a popular instrument in recent times due to an increased interest in world music and traditional instruments. This easily recognizable instrument has a long neck and a body that’s made of a thin membrane that stretches over a frame to make the instrument’s resonator.
The instrument’s body is usually round, and the membrane is nowadays made of plastic, although originally, it was made of animal skin. The instrument’s body, which is actually the rim, is normally made of wood. The strings are generally made of metal. Alternatively, in order to obtain a more mellow sound, some instruments are provided with nylon strings.
The banjo originated in Africa but it conquered fame in America where it has played an essential role, for a long time, in the African-American traditional music.
Not surprisingly, the banjo was also used in jazz, ever since this music genre started to develop. Later on, the string instrument became popular among folk and country bands and it was even present in famous rock songs. Led Zeppelin is one of the iconic rock bands that appreciated and included this instrument in its songs.
It is yet unknown how exactly the modern banjo developed. However, according to most opinions, an early version of what we now recognize as the banjo had been used in the Caribbean as early as the 17th century. The slaves brought there from Africa were the first ones to use the instrument.
In the following century, the banjo also reached Northern America, but it was only in the second half of the 19th century that it became widely available to the general public. The banjo is nowadays extremely popular due to its unique sound and versatility.
This instrument can be used in a wide variety of music genres and it always brings a hint of mystery due to its exotic sound. Moreover, it is generally considered one of the friendliest string instruments that don’t require a lot of effort to be handled.
How many strings are on a banjo?
A banjo can have a different number of strings starting from 4 and reaching 8 strings or even more. Nonetheless, there are only a few popular models that are used and commercialized on a large scale and these are the 4, 5, and 6-string banjo.
Further on, we are going to walk you through the most common aspects that characterize each one of them, apart from the different number of strings.
The 4-string banjo
This is the tenor banjo. Despite the number of strings on these instruments, they are not played like bass guitars. These banjos are more similar to the ukulele and they are also played like them or like guitars, using a guitar pick. If you want to, besides picking out the notes, you can also play and strum the instrument’s chords.
Tenor banjos normally have 19 frets, However, there is also a tenor banjo that has 17 frets and is called the Irish tenor banjo. Those smaller models of banjo that have four strings are banjo ukuleles.
This group of 4-stringed instruments includes the plectrum banjo and the tenor banjo. The plectrum banjo has the same scale as a 5-string banjo. However, to play this instrument you need a flat pick. The tenor banjo, on the other hand, has a shorter scale length. These instruments are similar in terms of the sound they produce, which is usually a bright one.
You can tune the 4-string banjo differently. It is possible to use the tuning that’s normally used for mandolins or for ukuleles. Alternatively, these instruments can be tuned like a fiddle or like four-strings guitars. For beginners, the easiest way to tune them might be the ukulele or guitar style.
When you play this type of instrument, you will feel that you are playing a smaller banjo, but this is not detrimental in terms of the quality of the sound you can get. Four-string banjos are usually used in jazz music.
The 5-string banjo
When it comes to popularity, the 5-string banjo ranks number one. This is the most common type of banjo and the one you are more likely to encounter in music stores. Also, it is considered the standard banjo. These instruments are either manufactured with a resonator or with the standard open back. They are usually chosen for different styles of playing.
While the 5-string banjos with resonator are normally preferred in bluegrass, the open back models are more suitable for frailing style-playing. The style used in picking the instrument can also make it sound differently.
If you choose a bluegrass-style banjo, you will also need a thumb pick and metal finger picks to play it. For frailing style-playing, you will use your fingers. Another option is to get a set of plastic picks that you can fit on the nails to play the instrument.
The 6-string banjo
The 6-string banjo is more complex and versatile, which makes it resemble the guitar more. The short definition of this model is that the 6-string actually represents a guitar that has the shape of a banjo. At the same time, these instruments maintain the speed of the traditional banjo and the strong ringing sound that made it famous. The 6-string banjo is played like the guitar.
These instruments also come in two versions: with open back or with resonance. The second are suitable for bluegrass. Additionally, some models you might come across are provided with a pick-up, just like an electric guitar. In this case, the sound will be provided by the pick-up and the amplifier. For these reasons, these banjos are able to offer you a more powerful sound.
Besides these renowned banjo types, there are also some hybrid versions. Hybrid banjos mean that the instrument was manufactured with a combination of elements that were inspired by other instruments. Usually, what remains of the banjo is the body, whereas the neck is taken from a different instrument such as a mandolin, ukulele, or guitar. Electric banjos are also available.
What to look for when getting a banjo?
There are different aspects you will want to consider before investing in a banjo. First of all, you should take into account the playing style you want to use. Based on your choice, you can opt for a bluegrass banjo or one that allows frailing style-playing.
Then, there is also the construction style that can greatly influence the type of sound you will get from your banjo. The common construction types include the wood rim with no tone ring, the wood rim with a small tone ring, the all-aluminum construction, and the heavy wood rim with a regular size tone ring. Here is a bit about each one of them.
The wood rim with no tone ring, as its name suggests, has no tone ring. For this reason, this type of banjo will not have the loud and crisp sound that typically accompanies this instrument. However, this is one of the cheapest models.
The wood rim with a small tone ring has a small brass tone ring and its rim is thin. This is an ideal instrument for a beginner and it doesn’t cost a lot.
The all-aluminum construction provides great tone and volume. The instrument’s rim, tone ring, and flange are made of aluminum. The sound is loud and crisp.
The regular size tone ring is the sturdiest model, having a heavy wood rim and a large tone ring that’s usually made of brass.
In terms of string numbers, the 5-string is the typical choice for Bluegrass music. This is also the preferred banjo for country music. Jazz artists also use this type of banjo quite often. The 4-string banjo is usually used in traditional Irish and Scottish music and in traditional jazz.
If you are about to start playing the banjo for the first time, you might not want to invest in a professional instrument and start with a cheaper version until you improve your skills and realize if this is the right instrument for you.
All in all, the banjo is a fun instrument to play and it can adapt to different music genres. If you’re looking for a new hobby or you’re already playing a string instrument, the banjo can be your next challenge.