Embark on a captivating journey through the history of the banjo, an instrument that speaks volumes about cultural fusion and musical evolution. From its humble beginnings as a gourd instrument in Africa to its vibrant resonance in the pubs of Ireland, our blog weaves a tale that captures the essence of the banjo’s transformative journey. Unlock the secrets of its African roots, American innovations, and Irish rhythms. This isn’t just a historical exploration; it’s an insightful guide that enriches your understanding of the banjo’s unique place in world music. Join us in discovering how this seemingly simple instrument became a symbol of cultural confluence and a beloved icon in folk traditions.

The Early African Origin of the Banjo

Despite banjo-like instruments being independently invented in various cultures (such as the Chinese Sanxian, or the Japanese Shamisen), the first instrument that showed any sort of resemblance to modern-day Western banjos can be traced back to Central and Western Africa. There, the local indigenous people made a number of stringed instruments using hollowed out gourd bodies as a sort of resonator, similar to the body of a guitar. 

One of these instruments however, the ‘Akonting’, certainly shows the prototype instrument of what modern banjos evolved from. The akonting was a 3 to 5 stringed instrument played by plucking and pressing the strings on the circular neck shape fretboard. Since fretboards weren’t a thing in Africa though, all of these akontings were/are fretless instruments. The sound produced was amplified by a gourd body with an animal hide stretched over it underneath the strings.


How did this African Instrument become a staple in American Culture?

Unfortunately, the history of the banjo (as you can imagine) has some dark details involved with its development. Banjos were first introduced to the U.S. by their slave trade a few hundred years ago. This led to depictions and descriptions of a particular stringed instrument sounding very similar to banjos (sometimes referred to as a banza, bandore, or bangoe), popping up in different parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean.

That being said, as a result of the connotation made between African slaves and banjos in general, it was seen as a lower class instrument and rarely received interest from the upper class.

However, over time this began to change. This may have been due to older slave generations teaching banjo playing skills to the younger generation. One of these children to eventually end up popularising banjos by playing them on stage was Joel Walker Sweeney. Sweeney was the first person to replace the gourd body with a wooden sound box with a tone ring instead. This development brought the instrument one step closer to the modern incarnation we know today as banjos.

However, it should be noted that Joel Sweeney became famous playing at ‘minstrel shows’ which were a series of crude shows that took place all across America at the time. Through these shows however, banjos became very popular instruments and started getting recognition from the general southern U.S. population. It is unfortunate that banjos gained notoriety through these shows, but it’s important to acknowledge this dark period in the banjo’s history as well as how it was responsible for the banjo’s widespread popularity.

It was during these times that the banjo evolved into its classic format of having 5 strings (4 strings with one drone string) and being in tune in open G – GCGBD and being plucked with the fingers by players such as Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith

The banjo was also changed from traditionally being an open backed instrument to adopting the resonator design, making it much louder and more present in a musical group as a result. This was huge at the time as being loud was a crucial component for instruments, and especially being in a Dixieland jazz band, as banjos had to be powerful enough to still be heard over the brass instruments playing the melody (purely because brass instruments are obnoxiously loud).

In time, the banjo became recognised as an ‘American Instrument’ which follows the general perception of the banjo. It has often been used in genres such as bluegrass and folk, which carry on to this very day.

The Banjo’s Evolution and Integration into Jazz and Irish Music

At the turn of the century, the banjo began to be played differently in ragtime and later jazz groups. The birth of Dixieland jazz in New Orleans, Louisiana in the early 1900s meant that the banjo had to evolve to keep up with the changing times. Eventually, the banjo started to be used as more of a rhythm instrument designed for strumming and playing chords (similar to how a guitar is often played). This led to it losing its fifth string (as it got in the way of strumming) and being used with a plectrum. Thus, being known as a ‘plectrum banjo’.

This variation of the banjo eventually made its way across the Atlantic to Ireland in the 1920s, where it started to be used as a melodic instrument instead. It was tuned down as well and became known as the Irish tenor 4-string banjo, which is the most commonly used variation in traditional Irish music today.

However despite the 4-string version being commonplace in Irish music nowadays, 5 string banjos are sometimes still used and can absolutely be used for playing traditional Irish music. The most famous example is the legendary folk singer Luke Kelly of ‘The Dubliners’, as he was well known for playing a 5 string banjo instead of the typical 4 string tenor banjo.

Playing Techniques of Five String Banjos

Did you know that five-string banjos are super versatile instruments? They offer a wide range of playing techniques to explore. Let’s talk about the two dominant styles: the “clawhammer” and “bluegrass”.

The clawhammer approach (a.k.a. “frailing”), has you strike the strings downward in a rhythmic and percussive style using your thumb and index or middle finger. It’s perfect for old-time and traditional folk music, bringing that awesome rhythm to life!

On the other hand, the bluegrass style, (also called “Scruggs style” after the legendary Earl Scruggs) is a technique that involves a unique fingerpicking method. You use a thumb and two fingers (usually index and middle) with picks to pluck the strings in a rolling, cascading pattern. That’s what gives the banjo its distinctive, rapid-fire twang! It’s perfect for fast-paced genres like bluegrass and country.

Another cool technique called ‘two-finger style’ has your thumb and index finger pick out the melody while the other fingers stabilise the instrument. It creates a smoother, more melodic sound, often heard in early country and gospel music.

Interested in Buying a Banjo?

If you’re looking to purchase a banjo yourself, make sure you check out our range of high quality banjos, made from all sorts of tonewoods including curly maple and mahogany, all on our online banjo shop as we’ve plenty of incredible quality new, and vintage banjos from all sorts of popular brands for sale! Most of our selection is geared towards playing traditional Irish music, but our banjos are absolutely capable of playing folk, bluegrass, or any other style as well. As a matter of fact, we also sell an impressive collection of other instruments such as bodhráns, guitars, mandolins, violins, bouzoukis, and many more.

If you’re a banjo playing beginner, be sure to check out our other blog posts on tuning and holding the banjo as well as the 3 best beginner tunes for Irish tenor banjo.

Share your thoughts

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked

  1. I only heard a banjo for the first time when I was 11. A teacher in my school played 5 string and I'd never heard a sound or seen anything like the "roundy weird guitar" (as I called it), like it before. I asked the teacher, who I knew, what it was and he told me it was called a banjo and I told him I love the sound of it. A year later I bought my first tenor banjo and eventually starting playing 5 string as well. McNeela, your shop is amazing and I bought a mandolin off yous about 6 months ago and it's great. Yous really are the best shop for irish music. By the way, I thought the banjo was Aisan haha 🪕

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Ryan! Its great to hear your journey. We might have to start renaming our banjos to “roundy weird guitar” ha!

  2. I am sad to see the banjo in Irish jams now. It is too loud an instrument and overpowers all. The sound does not seems authentic to the Celtic sounds of traditional Irish tunes. It seems out of place and almost like an American intruder. Please know I PLAY the banjo and own many of them! I just dont feel they belong in traditional Irish jams.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Join Our Mailing List

Get all the latest Irish music news right in your inbox!