Banjo vs Ukulele (Differences & Which Is Right For You?)

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  • As a beginner, should I learn the banjo or ukulele?
  • What are the key differences between a banjo and a ukulele?
  • Which is easier to play?
  • Also check out our post on guitalele vs ukulele

Let’s say you’re a plucked strings player (which is what we call anybody who plays guitar and/or any of the guitar’s relatives) and you’re looking to add a new instrument to your wheelhouse.

Unless you have a specific interest in a style or genre that only the banjo can accommodate, the Ukulele is a fantastic instrument for beginners as it’s exceptionally easy to learn. Plus ukuleles are cheap as chips!

The great thing about plucked strings is how easily players can transition from one to the other. Many of the mechanics and techniques used on fretted instruments are common, meaning if you get good at one, you’re going to find moving to another one pretty easy!

That said, there are some notable differences between the instruments of the plucked string clan. The banjo and the ukulele, for example. Despite both having frets and strings, they are quite different in terms of sound and style.

We’ll get into some of the main differences, as well as an interesting fusion of the instruments, below.

A Little History

The Hawaiian ukulele developed from the braguinha, or machete de braga, a small four-stringed guitar-like instrument of the Portuguese cavaquinho instrument family, that arrived in Hawaii in the late 19th century.

The banjo, the quintessential American folk instrument, is actually a descendant of a West African instrument called the Akonting, that came to the US with enslaved people from West Africa.

The exact origin of the instrument is not entirely clear, with some claiming that many of the slaves were brought to America by the Portuguese, who may have brought the idea of the ‘bandore’ with them.

Strings

The most important commonality in the mechanics of plucked string instruments is that there are strings and these strings are the source of the sound of these instruments.

Material

As the source of the sound, differences in the material from which the strings are made can have a dramatic impact on variations in sound quality.

Ukes have nylon strings, while banjos are typically strung with some kind of steel string, whether it be nickel-plated or stainless.

Nylon strings, like those used on classical guitars, have a softer, warmer tone. Whereas steel strings have a lot more top-end bite to them, especially when they have just been replaced.

Tuning

The most common type of banjo is the 5-string banjo, and it is most typically tuned in Open D tuning, which is GDGBD.

The fifth string (the short string, closest to your nose) is also known as a “drone” or “thumb” string, as it is not typically fretted but rather plucked as an open string with the thumb.

The standard tuning for a ukulele is GCEA, which is like tuning the four highest strings of the guitar up a perfect 4th (DGBE to GCEA) and then tuning the lowest of these strings (formerly D, now G) up an additional octave since the G and A strings are only a whole-step apart.

Long story short, the chords you learn on ukulele will not transfer directly to banjo, and vice versa.

However, there are alternate tunings for both instruments. As a result, there are a few areas in which the instruments overlap in tuning and make it possible to transfer chords from one instrument to the other.

Slack-key ukulele is aptly named because it involves tuning the A down a whole step to a G, resulting in the tuning GCEG.

While this is clearly not the same tuning as the 5-string banjo, it features the same intervals from string to string but raised a perfect 4th, which means it is like playing the four non-drone strings of the 5-string banjo with a capo on the 5th fret.

This is if we ignore the fact that the two G strings on the ukulele are in the same register and not displaced by an octave as the D strings are on the banjo.

The chords of the 5-string banjo and the slack-key ukulele would thus be transferrable, with the same chord shapes resulting in chords separated by a perfect 4th.

For example, the same chord shape would yield a G chord on the slack-key ukulele and a D chord on the banjo.

A less common relative of the 5-string banjo is the four-string instrument version, also known as the tenor banjo.

The tenor banjo is typically tuned in the standard tenor tuning CGDA–like a violin or mandolin–but it can also be tuned in the Irish tenor tuning of GDAE –like a viola or cello.

A third option for tuning the tenor banjo is known as Chicago tuning and is the same as the four highest strings of the guitar, DGBE. This tuning is a perfect 4th down from standard tuning for the ukulele.

The baritone ukulele is much larger than the soprano model, which is the instrument most people think of when they think ukulele.

It is also typically tuned DGBE, just like the tenor banjo’s Chicago tuning.

These instruments and tunings might be the easiest points of entry into playing a new plucked string instrument for a guitarist, as the chords will overlap in a predictable way and result in exactly the sound expected without any theory-heavy mental math in terms of transposition.

Body

While the material from which the strings are made does have a major impact on the sound of the instrument, it is not the only factor determining the way the instruments sound.

The ukulele will sound most familiar to guitarists, as it is made most typically from mahogany, koa, maple, and/or rosewood.

The banjo, on the other hand, has a wood neck, typically maple, mahogany, or walnut, but the rest of the instrument is a hodgepodge of materials that help to create the instrument’s distinctive sound.

The tension of the strings holds a bridge onto the surface of what is essentially a drumhead. It can be made of mylar or, back in the olden days, an actual animal skin.

The head is stretched over what is known as the pot, which is a sort of metal frame, using brackets. Banjos can be either open-back or closed-back.

The latter style features a resonator, made of some sort of wood, frequently poplar with a veneer of hardwood like mahogany. With its purpose being to let the sound bounce back off and project out of the instrument, instead of being absorbed by you, the player.

Lots of banjo players will tell you that the resonator is less a resonator and more a reflector, so the type of wood is less important than the shape of the wood. A curved resonator is far better for projection than a flat one.

All of this is to say that the banjo has an incredibly distinctive sound quality owing to the complexity of its design and construction.

The body is so important to the overall sound of an instrument that when you fuse the two (which is a real thing, believe it or not, known as the banjolele) it very much just sounds like a banjo, as that body design is so critical to its unique sound.

Even with the strings of a ukulele and the GCEA tuning, the sound of a banjolele is unmistakable in its banjo twanginess.

Which Is Best For You?

Now that you know the similarities and differences, which of these instruments are right for you?

The most important consideration is, where are you coming from?

If you are a capable guitarist and can already play some chords. The baritone ukulele and tenor banjo (in Chicago tuning) might be worth checking out!

If you are starting from scratch when it comes to plucked string instruments, the ukulele, with its nylon strings, limited range, and agreeableness to both strumming and finger-style plucking is a great option for a beginner.

That said, if you are a fan of bluegrass or any other style of music featuring the banjo, then your interest will more than compensate for the initial trickiness of picking up the instrument.

Therefore, aside from following the path of least resistance from whatever instruments you can already play, the main thing to keep in mind is that time and effort are what make people capable musicians, so you will want to pick the instrument in which you have enough interest to devote time and effort.