To the casual onlooker, the banjo is one of those instruments we seem to take for granted, even without knowing too much about it. And, sometimes, when we look at one, we don’t notice the subtle differences in design. For instance, how many strings does a banjo have?
An Essential Instrument In Some Genres
In certain styles of music, the banjo, along with the fiddle, is an essential part of the sound. This applies especially to American genres like Country and Bluegrass. It is also present in Dixieland Jazz, and it’s found in folk music both in America and Europe as well. Interestingly, the sound of the banjo has also been used by Rock and Pop bands to great effect.
“Gallows Pole” from Zep’s album, Led Zeppelin III, is an example of a Rock song with a banjo. Likewise, The Eagles used a lot of banjo in their early Country Rock days. The song “Twenty-One” is a great example from the album, Desperado.
Furthermore, Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead was a banjo player before he picked up a guitar. Hence, you will often find the banjo on Grateful Dead songs, such as “I Know You Rider.”
An Important Part Of African-American Music
From a historical viewpoint, the banjo was an important part of African-American music. It was then adopted by rural white landowners. The banjo seemed to gain popularity in the 17th Century when it was brought to the Americas by slaves from Africa.
Initially, banjos were crudely made from gourd shells that were split, a neck added, and animal skin stretched across them. The earliest references to the banjo are made by Richard Jobson in 1621 when he visited the Gambia in West Africa. He called it a “bandore.” In the 19th century, the banjo became more mainstream in the 19th as it was commonplace in Minstrel shows.
Why Is It Unique?
The banjo is unique as an instrument, and I am not just referring to its sound. As far as I can see, it is the only instrument where it is impossible to make a sad sound. Whatever you play, and however sad the lyrics are, they can still be made to sound happy.
However, in its earliest days, the banjo was always associated with lower-class people. At one time, it was not to be played in the presence of ladies. It really only achieved respectability later.
As an instrument, it became more important as virtuoso banjo players appeared, like Earl Scruggs, Gerry O’Connor, and Peter Seeger. It was always around, but it was only then that the instrument came into its own. Having considered the instrument, let’s take a closer look at the different types of banjos.
A Range Of Models
As with other string instruments, like guitars and bass guitars, you find many different shapes and sizes of the banjo. Therefore, that might explain why many people ask, “How many strings does a banjo have?”
As with the other instruments, there was a time when the number of strings on a banjo was limited. The standard was always six strings and the bass four. On the other hand, the standard banjo allowed you a choice of either four or five-string models.
However, that would depend to a certain extent on what technique you choose to use. The 4-string banjo would usually be played by those who like to strum the banjo, a bit like a guitar. Conversely, the 5-string banjo would usually be played by finger-picking players. And that would include those that use the down-stroke Clawhammer style.
There Have Been Changes in the Design
Both four and five-string options have diversified due to the demands of modern music. And, to a certain extent, the style of music banjos are used for.
The five-string model has been the standard go-to banjo for years. You will find it used in Country, Folk, and Bluegrass. It is the banjo that the majority of people learn about and have their first experiences with.
The four-string banjo is sometimes viewed as sacrilege to those who hammer away in a Scruggs picking style. But, for those who like to play with a plectrum, like a guitar, it has been their favorite banjo model.
Today you will find several variants. Especially notable is the six-string banjo. Those that disapprove say it feels more like a guitar, and those that like it perhaps should play the guitar instead. There are other types as well. One such is the banjo mandolin, and another is the banjolele. So, let’s look at each variant a little closer.
The standard 5-string banjo is probably the instrument you are most familiar with. It has five metal strings that are tuned D, C, G, B, and D. Four of the strings, namely the C, G, B, and D, are tuned using the tuners on the headstock. The fifth is the shorter string with the tuning screw on the neck. This is called the “thumb” or “drone” string.
Of course, different designs produce different sounds. You can have an open-back banjo or one with a resonator. The 5-string is used by fingerstyle players and can be played with a plectrum, clawhammer style, Scruggs style, or with finger picks. You can also find electric 5-string banjos with a built-in pickup system.
With the 4-string variation, there are three distinct types to look at. Each has its own sound and flavor. You will often find this type of banjo used in Jazz, Ballroom, Vaudeville, and Dixieland groups. Let’s consider each type of 4-string banjo.
This is a short-scale instrument with a scale length neck of 17 inches. It has just 19 frets. For some styles of playing, that would not make it suitable. It is most popular in jazz-influenced styles of playing. Especially Dixieland Jazz and Dance bands. There are three ways to tune this instrument.
The 4-string Tenor Banjo is tuned the same way as a violin or viola – C, G, D, and A. Some find this the best tuning as there is a near-perfect symmetry for the strings that allows easier scales, arpeggios, and soloing. There are two other ways of tuning the Tenor Banjo.[bl]
- Irish Tuning – Some musicians prefer what is known as Irish tuning. This is set up at G, D, A, and E.
- Chicago Tuning – This mirrors the first four strings on a guitar – D, G, B, and E.
The tone of the Tenor Banjo is rich and quite ‘fat’ sounding compared with the five-string versions. It can be played by using a plectrum or fingerstyle. It’s ideal for melody lines or for playing chord accompaniments.
The first thing you may notice about the 4-string Plectrum Banjo is the length. It has a 22-inch scale, five inches longer than the 4-string Tenor banjo. Physically, it resembles the 5-string in its look and build, except it hasn’t got the added shortened fifth string. As you may gather from the name, it is played with a flat pick or plectrum.
You can tune it to the Chicago tuning we just mentioned. However, a more common tuning is what is known on a guitar as a “drop C tuning” by dropping the D string down to C.
Furthermore, if you already play either the ukulele or the guitar, you will find this variant easy to learn. You will find that Plectrum Banjos have a very lively and bright sound, excellent for either melody or embellishments.
As you might have guessed, this is a hybrid of the banjo and the ukulele. It has a body that resembles a banjo but with a neck that is fretted like a ukulele. There are usually 16 frets, but this can vary amongst manufacturers.
The Banjolele first appeared near the end of the First World War. It was adopted by performers in Vaudeville, which gave it a presence and raised interest. Not surprisingly, it plays just like a ukulele. Chord patterns and the voicings are the same. The advantage is that it sounds like a banjo. It has a similar tone but with the added volume a banjo gives you that the ukulele lacks.
The Banjolele is usually tuned the same way as a standard ukulele – G, C, E, and A. Although, you will find some players using A, D, F#, and B tuning.
You may find this surprising, but the 6-string banjo has been with us for more than one hundred years. However, the design has changed and evolved over the years. The original “zither-style” has been replaced by a drone-less design.
These days, it is considered by many as more of a guitar variant than a banjo despite its appearance. And it is often called a ‘banjitar” or “banjo-guitar.” Another aspect that likens it to its guitar cousin is the tuning. It is tuned like a standard guitar – E, A, D, G, B, and E.
Some Other Close Banjo Relatives
This is a closer relative to the mandolin than the banjo, but it is worth including. It has a banjo body and a mandolin neck and is tuned G, D, A, and E, each paired with a higher octave string giving you eight.
Yes, there is, but you will be lucky to find one. It is made exclusively, I am led to believe, by a company called Deering. In truth, it is a 12-string guitar in the shape of a banjo. The strings are set in the same fashion as the 12-string guitar, and it is tuned the same way.
Interested in the Banjo and Other String Instruments?
If so, check out our thoughts on Easy Banjo Songs to Learn, How to Tune a Banjo, the Best Banjo Songs of All Time, the Best Mandolin Songs, the Top 12 Pop Songs With Violins, and the Best Bluegrass Songs for more highly enjoyable song selections.
Also, you’ll need to listen to them. So, have a look at our reviews of the Best True Wireless Earbuds, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, the Best Noise Cancelling Earbuds, the Most Comfortable Earbuds, the Best iPhone Earbuds, and the Best Earbuds for Running you can buy in 2023.
How Many Strings Does A Banjo Have? – Final Thoughts
Well, that was interesting. The banjo will suit all styles of playing. It is a “happy” instrument; of that, there is no doubt. Even some “funny men” were once established banjo players before comedy took over. People like Steve Martin and Billy Connolly once played the instrument to a high level and still do.
If you decide you want to learn how to play the banjo, you will be joining a very exclusive group of people. Plus, you can easily find banjos that are not too expensive. The examples we have looked at offer a cost-effective instrument.
Of course, a little help may be required, and a good place to start is How to Play the 5-string Banjo: A Manual for Beginners. And having decent strings is always important. For example, these Muscell Handmade Phosphor Bronze 5-String Banjo Strings and these Alice Silver-Plated Copper Alloy Wound Beginner Banjo Strings.
Until next time, have fun and get playing.