Types of Banjo (All Types, Differences & More)

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  • Consider this the ultimate guide to all things banjo!
  • Learn about all the different types of banjo, plus what makes each of them unique!
  • Also, check out our post on Banjo vs Ukulele

As you may already know, the banjo is a plucked string instrument commonly associated with American country and folk music.

Several different types of the banjo are used to create different sounds and effects, that can cater to different playing styles. 

Banjos are commonly made from a wood frame covered in a plastic head or taut skin, although older banjo models would sometimes be made using a steel frame.

It has a long neck with four strings that stretch the length of the instrument, which produces a unique sound that boasts a ton of twang and brightness. It’s made from many small, interchangeable parts which is a trait unique to the banjo.

Although they are known as American instruments, banjos originated in Africa, but became incredibly popular in the US during the 19th century as many slaves who were brought into the country would play the Banjo.

Later it became the most important instrument of American folk and country music due to its unique sound, appearance, and playing styles.

What Are The Types Of Banjos?

There are six main types of banjos that we see commonly played today in American country and folk music:

  1. Resonator (Bluegrass) Banjos
  2. Open Back (Clawhammer) Banjos
  3. Tenor Banjos
  4. Plectrum Banjos
  5. 6 String Banjos
  6. Electric Banjos
  7. Other Banjos (Ukulele Banjos – Mandolin Banjos – Cello Banjos – Bass Banjos)

All types feature different characteristics making them cater to a particular playing style or tones.

In addition to these six main types, there are also some unique specialist types of banjos, mostly customized instruments, that do not fit into a category.

They are called Ukulele Banjos, Mandolin Banjos, and Cello Banjos, but they can also be examined in the category of other banjos.

1. Resonator (Bluegrass) Banjos

Resonators, or Bluegrass Banjos, are traditional banjos with 5 strings. The 5th string is added to the left of the fifth fret, and it has the same thickness as the first string.

Bluegrass banjos are the most popular banjo type and if the name didn’t already give it away, they are very commonly used in Bluegrass music.

Resonator banjos are quite heavy, weighing on average about 8-12lbs, but you can find lighter ones around 5lbs and ones as heavy as 16lbs.

Resonator banjos produce a very loud and proud sound thanks to the hard surface of the resonator projecting all the noise back out to the listener.

They sound amazing and are great for live performances and professional studio use.

They are also versatile thanks to their fret count, which can go up to 22 frets making them great for both rhythm and single-note lead lines. The tuning of these banjos is G4, D3, G3, B3, and D4.

Check out Earl Scruggs and Béla Fleck to see the Resonator Banjo in action as they are some of the best banjo players around!

2. Open-Back (Clawhammer) Banjos

Open-back banjos are another banjo type that uses five strings. The main difference between open-back banjos and resonator banjos is that open-back banjos have the back of the body open while resonators have them closed for a louder sound.

Open-back banjos are not as loud as resonator banjos, but they are lighter and more portable. As such, they are often preferred in American folk and country music thanks to their bright and twangy sound. Like the resonator banjos, open-back banjos also typically feature 22 frets.

The tuning form is the same as the resonator banjos as it is G4, D3, G3, B3, and D4. Some famous open-back banjo players are Pete Seeger and Dolly Parton.

3. Tenor Banjos

Tenor banjos feature four strings and shorter scales compared to 5-string banjos as they come with 17 to 19 frets. Tenor banjos have their strings tuned to true fifths and are commonly used in the jazz, trad, and Dixieland circles today.

The tenor banjo has four strings, each with a tonal difference of seven frets from the other. So, the tuning goes as C3, G3, D4, and A4. 

Tenor banjos are considered the second most popular banjo type after the resonator.

They are also widely used in the Irish folk music scene, with big names like Eddie Peabody and Roy Smeck being considered some of the most famous tenor banjo players.

4. Plectrum Banjos

As the name suggests, plectrum banjos are played with a plectrum or a pick.

They are pitched lower than tenor banjos and are mainly used by people who use lots of chords instead of a fingerpicking playstyle. They have four strings and around 22 frets, much like 5-string banjos.

Plectrum banjos are also preferred by guitarists as the tuning is similar to a guitar’s standard tuning: C3, G3, B3, and D4. So the transition from guitar to the banjo is much smoother if you use a plectrum banjo. 

They can be used across various genres, from country and bluegrass to jazz and rock. Emile Grimshaw is arguably the most famous dedicated plectrum banjo player, but many other banjo players will just use it from time to time as a bit of extra spice.

5. 6-String Banjos

6-string banjos, or guitar banjos, are often criticized by traditionalists as they feature an unconventional design that is very similar to the guitar.

These banjos are created for guitar players who don’t want to learn to play with the 5 or 4-string traditional banjo layouts.

The tuning is the same with a standard tuned guitar as it goes as E2, A2, D3, G3, B3, and E4.

This way, the transition from the guitar is made very easy as you do not need to learn any new chord shapes, fingering positions, and scales. Plus, you get that classic banjo sound while still being able to play it like a regular guitar.

They are used in many genres, especially rock, country rock, and bluegrass. Some famous 6-string banjo players are Django Reinhardt, Neil Young, and Johnny St. Cyr. 

6. Electric Banjos

Electric banjos are a category of different banjo types that feature some sort of pick-up transducer on top to adjust the banjo’s volume to the player’s liking. 

They are commonly used in modern music, and there are many electric banjos, from 4-string layouts to 6-string designs.

Banjos, especially the resonator banjos, feature unique sound with plenty of output volume. However, they are still not enough for the modern music world where many instruments are played simultaneously on the stage. For these occasions, electric banjos are the solution.

Artists like Taylor Swift, The Avett Brothers, and Will Champlin frequently use electric banjos on their stages. Country-pop, country, and rock musicians like the help of those extra pickups for louder sound on the stage.

7. Other Banjos 

Throughout history, different styles of banjos were created for different needs.

These banjos are mainly an amalgamation of other instruments like the mandolin or ukulele and banjos. They blend the features of both worlds for unique sounds.

Ukulele Banjos

The ukulele banjo, banjo ukulele, or banjolele is a small four-stringed banjo with a fretted ukulele-style neck.

This way, the instrument is played like a ukulele but provides a unique banjo sound. The first banjolele was created in the 1910s but the instrument remains relatively popular even today.

Banjo ukuleles were highly popular during the 20s and 30s as they were easy to play like ukuleles but had a loud and unique sound like banjos.

Popular rock artists like Brian May and George Harrison used ukulele banjos on stage during their concerts.

Mandolin Banjos

Mandolin banjos, or bandolines, are unique instruments that are both hard to find and rarely used. They are another hybrid instrument blending the mandolin neck with a small banjo body.

They are considered soprano banjos and have different variations depending on the country they originate from.

  • Banjoin – English
  • Bandoline – French
  • Cumbus – Turkish

They are all similar instruments that were born in different cultures.

As they have four strings, they have the same tuning as a mandoline: C2, G2, D3, and A3.

Bandolines are very hard to find and are rarely used in any form of popular music. But, they have a bright, unique sound and are pretty easy to identify if you ever were to encounter one.

Cello Banjos

Cello banjos are similar to tenor banjos with their four strings tuned to the tuning of a cello, hence the name.

They were highly popular in the first days of the banjo but over time have lost some popularity. But they are slowly making a comeback these days as the Gold Tone banjo brand started manufacturing some new models.

They look pretty similar to the tenor banjos. However, there is a unique part that differentiates them from the tenor banjos: The strings of cello banjos are tuned to one octave lower. This way, they are great instruments for tenor solos. Marcy Marxer and Abigail Washburn are considered some of the greatest cello banjo players.

Bass Banjos

The family’s largest member is the bass banjo.

Invented in the early 20th century, they were designed to take the place of the double bass in banjo orchestras, so they are quite large instruments but are played vertically, not horizontally, much like the double bass.

The tuning of bass banjos is E1, A1, D2, and G2, like an upright bass guitar. They fell out of favor for the longest time, but are experiencing a revival these days as there are new models with more compact designs being offered.

FAQs

Which Banjo Is The Easiest To Play?

The 5-string banjos are considered to be the easiest string instrument to play.

However, if you already know how to play guitar, the 6-string banjos would be the best choice as they feature the same tuning and string count as the guitar.

Similarly, if you play ukulele or mandolin, ukulele banjo or mandolin banjo would be the easiest ones to play for you.

What Is The Most Popular Banjo Brand?

There are some famous banjo brands to choose from.

Gold Tone is the best all-around manufacturer, Deering is the best brand for high-end banjos, Recording King had a rich history to it, Ibanez is the most accessible one, and Oscar Schmidt offers some of the best value for money banjo’s around.

What Is Clawhammer Banjo Playing?

Clawhammer is a playing style in which the player strikes the string using the back of their index or middle finger nail before plucking it with the thumb.

It is a 3-finger playing style from where the clawhammer name comes from. The strings are plucked separately by the thumb, index, and middle fingers.

Wrapping Up

Banjos are unique-sounding instruments with their amazing look and diverse range of sounds. There are many different types of banjos that most people are unfortunately unaware of.

So we hope this article has given you some insight into his surprisingly deep world of banjos and has given you a newfound appreciation of this classic instrument.

Before you go, check out our article on the number of strings a banjo has.