Despite the frequent use of banjos in traditional Irish music, it’s a common misconception that banjos originated as indigenous Irish instruments. However, the banjo didn’t originate in Ireland, or America, in fact, its roots lie in the continent of Africa.
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. These shows consisted of having white American performers paint themselves black and depict the African slaves in quite a derogatory way. 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.