- How does the banjo differ from a regular guitar?
- The types of music can you play with a banjo?
- Find out whether the banjo or guitar is right for you.
The time has come to pick up an instrument, and you know you want it to have strings and frets, but you can’t decide between the banjo and the guitar.
They are very different, each carrying its own history and character.
In this article, we’ll help you to get to know the instruments and the differences between them a bit better based on the following factors:
- Sound quality, which instrument sounds better?
- Physical features, is the banjo easier to play than a guitar?
- Genre, what styles of music can you play with a banjo?
- Transferability, do banjo skills transfer to other instruments?
There are all sorts of factors to consider when choosing an instrument to learn. Sound quality ought to be first and foremost among these considerations, as learning an instrument takes a lot of time and the player ought to like the sound they are making, or at least the sound they aspire to make.
There is no such thing as an easy instrument to learn, as one can always find something more difficult to play once they learn the fundamentals.
When it comes to the question of learning to play the banjo or the guitar, two of the most important factors to consider are the sound quality and the question of physically navigating the instruments.
The genres most associated with each instrument and transferability to a player’s next instrument, among others, are also worth considering.
Banjo vs Guitar: Which Should You Learn First?
Unless you are positive that the tone and style of the banjo is what you want, it’s best to start with the acoustic guitar. For one, it’s applicable to a wider range of genres and offers opportunities to learn more songs. You’ll also be in higher demand as a musician when it comes to finding a band to play gigs with.
Plus, the technique that you develop on the acoustic can absolutely transfer over to the banjo. So you’re not wasting your time and the banjo’s always an option for later on if you decide you want to try your hand at it.
Banjo vs Guitar: Sound Quality
The Banjo and Guitar are both string instruments, but the sounds they make are quite distinct from one another. The primary reason for this difference is in the materials from which the instruments are constructed.
The body and neck of the guitar is made from hardwood, whereas the only hardwood on the banjo is the neck and the resonator (in the case of resonator banjos, which are the same as open-back banjos except that they have a resonator attached to the body of the instrument).
The body of the banjo consists of a pot, typically made of metal, and a mylar or goat-skin head, essentially the same as a drumhead, on which a bridge sits, held in place by the pressure of the strings.
The warmth of the guitar’s sound comes from the particular way in which the vibrations of strings resonate inside a body made of hardwood. This kind of sound is appropriate for a myriad of styles from pop, rock, classical, and country to name a few.
The body of the banjo resonates in such a way as to project a distinctive twanginess that we typically associate with genres such as country and bluegrass. It’s a very unique and distinctive kind of sound that no other instrument can really replicate.
If, on the other hand, you find the banjo’s tone obnoxious, you will have a hard time bringing yourself to put in the 30 minutes per day that instrument teachers the world over recommend for building skills with your instrument.
Don’t forget to check out How Many Strings Does A Banjo Have?
A Full-Sized Instrument For Half-Sized Hands
While the typical guitar has six strings, most banjos have five, and most of the time the left hand is only concerned with four of these, as the string closest to the player’s nose is a drone string that is shorter than the rest and is attached to a tuning peg midway down the neck.
Two fewer strings to worry about allow for significantly easier chords.
If you find you struggle to fret chords on the guitar because your hands are too small or your fingers do not yet have the strength to hold down so many strings, you might find the banjo is a welcome relief.
The fretboard is significantly thinner, making it much easier for a small hand to fit around the neck.
The tuning of the banjo, typically GDGBD, which means a single barre across the DGBD strings will yield a major chord anywhere on the neck. The non-barre chords are fairly simple as well, with only four strings to keep track of. While you can tune an acoustic guitar to a chord (which we refer to as an ‘open’ tuning), it’s not the default tuning and probably isn’t something you will encounter early on, so banjo is the winner here.
As with any instrument, the sky is the limit in terms of finding difficult material to play, but learning the fundamentals on the banjo is significantly easier than doing the same on the guitar, especially for someone with hands on the smaller side.
Banjo vs Guitar: Genre Considerations
Instruments are not indelibly associated with one particular genre, but they do have history.
The banjo’s history has been severely misunderstood and misrepresented in some contexts, which may contribute to the fact that it is typically associated with a fairly narrow field of genres.
The guitar, on the other hand, is one of the most versatile instruments in the world. Whether you are listening to Afropop, technical death metal, or a folky singer-songwriter, you will likely hear some guitar.
The banjo may be the quintessential Americana instrument, but it originated in Africa. A predecessor to the banjo as we know it today is the Akonting, an instrument similarly constructed of plucked strings stretched over a gourd frame and skinhead.
In response to rising demand, manufacturers began producing banjos in industrial quantities, overshadowing the instrument’s humble origins as a homemade instrument.
The fifth string was added sometime in the mid-eighteenth century and the standard tuning was established for the five-string banjo and it found a home in country music at the turn of the century and, later, bluegrass music, with which it is most commonly associated today.
If you are a fan of bluegrass, country, or old-timey music, then the banjo might be your perfect instrument. If not, there is no rule written that the banjo must be played with these few, specific genres. You could always be the innovator here and start the first ever banjo-led Norwegian black metal band.
The guitar does not come across as out of place in practically any musical setting. Whereas the banjo, because of its heavy association with those genres such as bluegrass or country, can be hard to escape those styles. Essentially limiting the scope of genres you will generally play on a banjo.
Banjo vs Guitar: Skill Transferability
An important consideration for aspiring multi-instrumentalists is the potential for skills learned on one instrument to transfer well to another instrument.
Plucked strings players who get the hang of making music on a fretted neck find that they can play all sorts of instruments reasonably well.
The banjo strings are typically plucked with the fingers of the right hand or with picks that are attached to the fingers. The clawhammer style is a well-known variation used with the banjo but is also a style of finger-picking.
The banjo is not the only string instrument that is finger-picked, which means nimble, dexterous picking fingers have their uses on a few other instruments as well.
Most notably, classical guitar is strictly finger-picked, and fingerpicking makes its way into other genres of guitar music as well.
Essentially these core fundamentals of being able to navigate a fretboard, irrespective of tuning, and be able to pluck the strings in a way that sounds nice will transfer to almost any stringed instrument exceptionally well.
So don’t sweat your choice too hard, technique development on one type of guitar like an acoustic will give you a huge leg-up if you decided you want to learn something else like the banjo or bass later on.
When it comes right down to it, only you can decide the best possible instrument for you. If you feel drawn to the sound or the physicality of an instrument, then pick it up and see if it’s a match.
If you love the way it sounds in a genre that you also love, give it a shot!
Chances are whatever you learn on the instrument will go a long way toward your next instrument, whether it is your perfect instrumental match or not.