The Folk Banjo

The banjo is the "grandfather" of all early original American folk instruments. It was introduced into the United States from the west coast of Africa during the era of slave trade. Thomas Jefferson mentions in his notes in 1782 that the "BANJAR" was the chief instrument of the African-American artists. In the early to mid-19th Century, the banjo became a staple of thousands of American music performers and the instrument nearly dominated all of Southern mountain music. The first banjos consisted of three strings with maybe just a possum hide stretched across a gourd for the drum. The drum itself was open to the back; hence, the name "open-back banjo. Then in 1831, a Virginian named Joe Sweeney invented the five-string banjo, in which the 5-string was shortened and fastened half-way up the neck and tuned a 5th higher than the 1st string, giving the banjo its characteristic sound. It was this version that became fantastically popular and was picked up by folk musicians all across America. The instrument traveled West in the covered wagons and a 5-string banjo could be found hanging on any farmhouse wall or mining shack. The 5-string open-back was commonly played by back-country folks, especially in Appalachia, to accompany ballads or play for square dances and the popular style of playing was the characteristic "clawhammer" strum. Later, a resonator device was added to the banjo and the playing style changed from clawhammer to finger picking. Pioneered by Earl Scruggs, the pick and roll style soon emerged as one of the staples of modern bluegrass bands. With the advent of ragtime and jazz around the turn of the 20th century, the 5-string banjo gradually gave way to the shorter neck 4-string tenor banjo, which was tuned differently and which used much heavier strings to compete with the louder brass instruments in the jazz bands. In the early 1950s, a long-neck version of the 5-string banjo became very popular among the Folk Revival artists, such as Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio. The longer neck allows for the use of longer strings and hence the addition of three frets provides the artist with 3 lower tonal keys. The shorter neck banjo is usually tuned to a G major chord (g D G B D) and so the long-neck allows for playing in the keys of E, F and F#, giving the artist more versatility. Other variations of the banjo have been introduced over the years, such as the banjo mandolin or the guitar banjo, but there is no question that the 5-string banjo was a brilliant invention and contributor to many different styles of American folk music.