Until the turn of the 20th century, the banjo was only available in four and five-string models.
To keep up with the demands of new styles of music, both types diversified at key points in the instrument’s history. So, let’s take a look at this fork in the history of the banjo!
Five-string banjos have forever been the go-to instruments for old-time, bluegrass, country, and folk musicians.
A four-string banjo may sound like blasphemy to Scruggs-style and clawhammer players. But it’s really the pinnacle of a distinctive style for banjoists who prefer to play with a plectrum.
Today, you can also find six-string banjos and a handful of hybrid types such as the banjolele, Cumbus (banjo meets Turkish Oud), and Banjo Mandolin (banjolin).
Although there’s a general consensus that the 5 string banjo seems to be the better choice for clawhammer playing. With many arguing the 6-string feels too much like a regular guitar and lacks that magic that makes a banjo a banjo.
Here, we discuss the types of banjos based on how many strings they have.
Number of strings on a banjo
The standard banjo has five metal strings tuned D-C-G-B-D. Four strings (C-G-B-D) are tuned from the head, upward from (notated) middle C.
The fifth string is a shorter string that precedes the C string. It is called the drone or thumb string and is fastened to a screw midway in the neck.
Let’s look at each of these briefly to understand how they differ from one another.
Four-string banjos may refer to tenor banjos or plectrum banjos, two types of banjos played in Dixie Land jazz ensembles.
Four-string banjos can also be seen used in styles such as ballroom, vaudeville, and jazz music. They embody a vastly different flavor of the instrument.
4-string Tenor Banjos
The tenor banjo is a short-scale instrument with four strings, a 17-inch scale length neck, and 19 frets.
It was popular in jazz-influenced genres, dance bands, and Dixieland Jazz. Today, the tenor banjo is also used in the folk revival, Indie, and Irish Ceili bands.
The standard tenor banjo tuning is C, G, D, and A, using fifths and the same as a viola or cello.
It can also be tuned to the Irish Tuning which is G, D, A, E, once again using fourths. It can also sport the Chicago tuning, D, G, B, E, the same as the first four guitar strings.
The tenor banjo, played with a plectrum or fingerstyle, is ideal for melodic picking and chord accompaniment.
It has a fat tone that is well suited for percussive or rhythm playing. When tuned in fifths, the tenor banjo has a string symmetry that makes it easy to play scales, licks, and arpeggios.
4-String Plectrum Banjos
A plectrum banjo has four strings and a 22-inch scale length, significantly longer than a tenor banjo.
In fact, it has the same construction as a five-string banjo but without the shortened fifth string. The instrument is played with a ‘plectrum’ or flat pick, hence the name.
The standard plectrum banjo tuning is C, G, B, D, the same as ‘Drop C’ tuning.
Alternatively, it can also be tuned to the D, G, B, and E (Chicago Tuning), which guitarists will no doubt feel more at home using. The plectrum banjo is certainly easier to learn if you play the guitar or ukulele.
It sounds loud, lively, and bright and is commonly used for music styles that require strumming, tremolo playing, melodic emphasis, and embellishments.
4- String Banjolele
The banjolele is a ukulele and banjo hybrid. This four-string features a banjo-like body with a fretted uke neck, typically with 16 frets.
This musical instrument was first seen in 1917 and grew in popularity during the 1930s due to its use by vaudeville performers.
The banjolele is tuned G, C, E, and A (standard ukulele tuning) but some players also prefer to tune it to A, D, F#, B (D Tuning) with a re-entrant 4th string.
You can find several models manufactured by Luna, Deering Banjo Company, Oscar Schmidt Inc., and Recording King.
The banjolele offers the familiarity of a ukulele as it is played the exact same way you would play a soprano, concert, or tenor uke. Meaning your chord voicings and scale patterns are easily transferred over.
However, it has the look, volume, and tone of a banjo. The instrument can be picked or strummed using a plectrum.
The five-string banjo is the standard build for a banjo. It is the most common type of banjo and is widely used in old-time and traditional styles of music like bluegrass and clawgrass/frailing.
The standard tuning for a five-string banjo is G, D, G, B, D, also called ‘open G tuning’.
Four strings (D, G, B, D) are tuned from the head, upward from middle C. The fifth string is a shorter string that precedes the D string.
It is called the drone or thumb string and is fastened to a screw midway in the neck. There are several alternate tunings for 5-string banjos.
Five-string banjos can be of the open-back variety or with a resonator.
They are 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.
Six-string banjos, contrary to popular belief, have been around for over a century when the guitar was barely in the picture.