Interesting facts about the banjo

The banjo is a stringed instrument of African origin.

The defining characteristic of the banjo is the use of a stretched membrane, originally an animal skin, to amplify the vibration of its strings. This arrangement creates the banjo’s characteristic sound and differentiates it from instruments of European origin known in the Americas.

The modern banjo derives from instruments that are thought to have been in use in the Caribbean since the 17th century by enslaved people taken from West Africa.

Written references to the banjo in North America appear in the 18th century, and the instrument became increasingly available commercially from around the second quarter of the 19th century.

In the antebellum South, many enslaved blacks played the banjo and taught their enslavers how to play.

Thomas Jefferson in his Notes on Virginia, Vol. IV (1782 to 1786) states in a footnote, “The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa….” By the middle of the 18th century the banjo was so well known that it did not require a description.

In the 1830s, the instrument was popularised by Joel Walker Sweeney, a minstrel musician who took the banjo to both sides of the Atlantic. Sweeney has been credited with adding a string to the four-string
African-American banjo, and popularizing the five-string banjo.

By the 1850s, pupils of Sweeney created training programs and books on how to play the instrument. This period could have also led to the start of modern Bluegrass, as Fiddle and Drum’s players formed bands with Banjo players.

It was estimated in 1866 that there were probably 10,000 banjos in New York City, up from only a handful in 1844. People were exposed to banjos not only at minstrel shows, but also medicine shows, Wild-West shows, variety shows, and traveling vaudeville shows.

The banjo’s popularity also was given a boost by the Civil War, as servicemen on both sides in the Army or Navy were exposed to the banjo played in minstrel shows and by other servicemen.

A popular movement of aspiring banjoists began as early as 1861. The enthusiasm for the instrument was labeled a “banjo craze” or “banjo mania.”

Historically, the banjo occupied a central place in African-American traditional music and the folk culture of rural whites before entering the mainstream via the minstrel shows of the 19th century.

Along with the fiddle, the banjo is a mainstay of American styles of music, such as Bluegrass and old-time music. It is also very frequently used in traditional (“trad”) jazz.

There is no detailed record of how early banjos were played. The first banjo tutors published in response to the popularity of minstrelsy. One such tutor is Briggs Banjo Instructor published in 1855.

The banjo became ornately decorated in the 1920s to be visually dynamic to a theater audience. The instruments were increasingly modified or made in a new style – necks that were shortened to handle the four steel (not fiber as before) strings, strings that were sounded with a pick instead of fingers, four strings instead of five and tuned differently.

The modern banjo comes in a variety of forms, including four- and five-string versions. A six-string version, tuned and played similarly to a guitar, has gained popularity.

The four-string plectrum banjo is a standard banjo without the short drone string. It usually has 22 frets on the neck and a scale length of 66 to 71 cm (26 to 28 inches), and was originally tuned C3 G3 B3 D4. It can also be tuned like the top four strings of a guitar, which is known as “Chicago tuning”.

The modern five-string banjo is a variation on Sweeney’s original design. The fifth string is usually the same gauge as the first, but starts from the fifth fret, three-quarters the length of the other strings. This lets the string be tuned to a higher open pitch than possible for the full-length strings. Because of the short fifth string, the five-string banjo uses a reentrant tuning – the string pitches do not proceed lowest to highest across the fingerboard. Instead, the fourth string is lowest, then third, second, first, and the fifth string is highest.

The six-string banjo began as a British innovation by William Temlet, one of England’s earliest banjo makers. He opened a shop in London in 1846, and sold banjos which he marketed as “zither” banjos from his 1869 patent.

Several claims as to the etymology of the name “banjo” have been made. It may derive from the Kimbundu word mbanza, which is an African string instrument modeled after the Portuguese banza: a vihuela with five two-string courses and a further two short strings.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that it comes from a dialectal pronunciation of Portuguese bandore or from an early anglicisation of Spanish bandurria.

The most expensive banjo in the world Gibson RB-7 with the price of $100,000.

Doug Young of Brooklyn, New York, USA, played the banjo for 24 hr 57 sec at the Good/Bad Art Collective, Brooklyn, New York on 13 May 2001.

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