The banjo gets a bad reputation. People dismiss the instrument as a cheaper version of the guitar, meant only for rednecks who live next to the bayou and live off catfish while wrestling ‘gators. However, the banjo is more than just a guitar with some twang.
In fact, did you know that famous comedian Steve Martin is also an incredible banjo player? He has played the banjo as his monologue on Saturday Night Live multiple times, including this amazing 1979 performance, and has even released an album of banjo songs.
This 5-stringed instrument is definitely unique compared to its 6-stringed relative, the acoustic guitar. But why does it look so different? And why are those distinctions so important?
Simply put, the key difference between a banjo and a guitar is the body of the instrument. The body of the banjo is round and covered with a sheet of animal skin or plastic, similar to a drum head. The sound reverberates off of the sheet instead of wood with a hollow inside. The strings are also made entirely of metal, compared to the acoustic guitar’s being made from steel. The metal and drum head combined create the high pitched, twangy sound associated with the banjo.
Though we might think of the banjo as an American instrument, the instrument actually originates from Africa. The banjar, as it was originally named, was a simple instrument made from a hollowed-out gourd, a horsehair string, animal skin, and a long stick.
"The Old Plantation", an anonymous folk painting from the 1700s depicting slaves dancing to banjo
When Africans were forcefully brought to the New World, so were their culture and traditions. Over time, the instrument was adopted by white people, particularly with the Appalachians, thanks to the instrument’s simple design and relatively easy playing style.
It wasn’t until the minstrel shows of the 19th century, though, until the banjo broke into mainstream popularity. These minstrel performers, typically white men who would paint their faces black, would depict stereotypes of African American culture through singing and dance. The banjo was one instrument utilized during these performances. As minstrel shows rightfully died out, the popularity of the instrument still remained, utilized in jazz bands and bluegrass bands during the 20th century.
More recently, though, the banjo is most commonly associated with genres of music like blues, folk, and country. But the high pitched sound of the banjo has a place in more than just country music. Even rock legends like Led Zeppelin and The Eagles have utilized the sound of the instrument-- including one my favorite musicians to utilize the instrument, Sufjan Stevens.
If you’ve been interested in learning a stringed instrument, perhaps you should brave the banjo. Idaho State University's Continuing Education and Workforce Training will be offering a Beginner’s Banjo/Mandolin course.
Dr. Bryan Barclay will teach you how to read banjo and mandolin tablature, along with Scrugg's style techniques to recreate that classic bluegrass sound. Before long, you will also be a banjo master-- though probably nothing to Steve Martin’s caliber.
For more information on this course, or to see other courses available this semester, check out the 2020-2021 Fall semester catalog by clicking here.