When talking about musical instruments, a Banjo can very often be looked over. Nevertheless, it is a very important part of music.
In this article, we cover all that is known, and more about this musical instrument. We will uncover its history, it’s use, benefits and limitations, and most importantly, ad will take a deep dive into the art that is, Banjo playing.
What is a Banjo?
A Banjo belongs to the family of stringed musical instruments. To describe it well, it can be said that a banjo is a made up of a thin membrane, stretched over a hollow cavity, which resonates sound.
This membrane may be made up of plastic, or even often, out of animal skin and has a circular shape. Like guitar, a Banjo does not have a predetermined, fixed number of strings. It may have four or it may even have eight.
Why/How was a banjo invented?
This instrument, that we know as a Banjo today, is known to have its roots far back into the 17th century. It is believed, that the Banjo is a derivation of the instruments that were played back then, by the slaves taken from West Africa.
Another reference, but this time in written, shows itself in the 18th century in North America. At this time, until the second halve of the 19th century, this instrument was highly available. The idea of this particular instrument is known to have come along with the South American slaves.
Different Era’s of a Banjo
When learning about this instrument, it’s quite important to understand its history and evolution. Parts of its history can be divided as follows-
- The Minstrel Era (1830-1870s)
This era gets its name from Joel Walker Sweeney’s traveling minstrel show. In a way, Sweeney was the main advocate of the Banjo during this era and helped in stringing it’s influence out, far and beyond through his music. Sweeney’s Banjo was known to have five strings.
- The Classic Era (1880 – 1910s)
The Classic Era of the Banjo redefines it as a very peculiar guitar style banjo which is played, bare finger. This was a widely used instrument among the people late 19s and the early 20 centuries.
- The Ragtime Era and The Jazz Era
(1895-1919) and (1910 to 1930s) respectively
The ragtime music era was one dominated by music. The biggest influence here was the Banjo music and other African American instrumental and dance elemental delicacies.
The jazz era in the other hand, began right after the world war 1 got over. Here, the four stringed model of the Banjo became highly available for use and gained popularity. This is what resulted in a new wave of musical preference.
- Modern or the Present Day Era
While the influence of the Banjo may have decreased over time, this era is what became the reason for the resurgence of public interest in Banjo produced music.
How to play the Banjo?
The process of playing a Banjo is as simple as it is complex. Breaking down this process into steps may help in a deeper, and a better understanding. The steps about learning how to play a Banjo, are as follows-
- Choosing a Banjo that is the right fit for you
There are a variety of Banjos available in the market. Picking the right type for yourself as per your preference in music is the utmost, and first vital step towards learning to play.
- A four stringed banjo is often associated with, or used to play Irish and jazz music. The strings being less in number are also less complex to understand, which is why, this banjo is a great choice for someone who is just beginning to learn how to play.
- The most popular type of banjo among all is the, five stringed banjos. It is used for playing folk music. This style however, particularly offers the most range and can be used to play almost all type of music. The fifth added string is the one string that is attached halfway, near the neck. It is a great choice as well, for someone beginning to play, as it offers a better range in a less complex setting.
- A six stringed banjo, also commonly known as a Guitar banjo is what offers the highest range of all. Due to its complexity however, it is less often in use. When used, it is the instrument of those that are experienced in Banjo playing.
- Choosing the type of banjo. (Resonator/Open back)
When trying to further classify a banjo, it can be fit into these two categories. As the name suggests, an open back banjo is where there is no cover to the back of the drum like part of it. A resonator banjo on the other hand, has a wooden hollow part that in return resonates the sound better.
- Open back Banjos are a good choice for those beginning to learn. They are comparatively
Cheaper in price and are also not as loud. Making them the perfect choice if you want to learn and start playing it.
- A Banjo with a resonator is expensive. Along with that, it is loud and is a better option for someone who has played for a while and would like to take it forward.
- Choosing the right action scale can go a long way when playing a Banjo
While choosing a low action may make it easier, a high action banjo sounds better and is quite better on an advanced level.
- Tuning the Banjo
- Open G tuning in a 5 stringed banjo (gDGBD)
- A tenor banjo tuning may commonly be GDAE or CDAE.
- A plectrum banjo is commonly tuned on CGBD
- Playing the Banjo
- Figuring out and practicing the right posture can go a long way in learning how to play a Banjo. Shoulders straight, with the Banjo held at a 45-degree angle, is the right way to go about it.
- Hand placement on a Banjo is as important as it is while playing a guitar. The pinky and ring finger of the right hand should be against the head. The weight should be carried by the strap around the shoulders so that your thumb is free to strum along, to your favorite rhythms.
- Learning to pick us the key to learning to play. A Banjo can be played bare handed with fingers alone. If that is not preferable, metal guitar picks with rings are also available in the market, and a great alternative against playing bare handed.
- Learning the basic rolls of banjo playing is what will further develop this mild interest into an advanced skill. An important toll among these, which is quite worth learning is the forward role. The strings are in order, (5-3-1-5-3-1-5-3)
- Practicing the learnt rhythms and then moving onto the more intermediate or expert ones is the way to go about in case of any instrument. The key to playing any instrument is practice. More is the practice, better are the results.
Benefits of playing a Banjo
- It is good for brain development as it has a positive effect on the brain, making a person better and more alert.
- It is physical beneficial as the muscles used while playing prove to be a beneficial form of exercise.
- It is beneficial in improving one’s time management abilities as practicing takes scheduling and scheduling is highly helpful in time management.
- Banjo playing is good for concentration as getting the right pitch or playing the right rhythm requires a lot of focus. This focus applies to the sphere of general life as well.
- Banjo playing is morally beneficial too as it fills one with a sense of achievement. This can be helpful in boosting one’s confidence immensely.
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Limitations of playing a Banjo
- A Banjo can be seldom hard to play due to its different variants available, and the rarity of the instrument.
- Some people might get stuck in the very first step which is, the selection of the perfect type for them.
- Each sort of Banjo has its limitations. While one might be beginner friendly, it does not offer a great range. The one that does, is better for use on an advanced level. Choosing and prioritising out of those aspects, can prove as a challenge for those that wish to learn.
Some good Banjo brands available worldwide
- Gold tone
- Recording king
- Oscar Schmidt
- Morgan Monroe
In conclusion to learning the art of playing a Banjo there is only so much to say. Banjo is an instrument and an art that may be lost on time. True music fanatics are as in awe of it today, as they were in the olden times.
Understanding what one needs, and its execution as per what one wants is the core of learning how to play the Banjo.
There is so much more to learn, but a quick guide can be a good starting place as any. So get in tune with the musician inside of you, and start playing, today.
Hey Everyone! I’m Herbert Smith. I’m a guitar enthusiast and I love helping beginners to master their string instruments!