Banjo is one of the most popular stringed instruments for music in the United States today. However, it comes from African origins, and got popular through the slaves during the 1900s.
However, sometimes, you may be confused about how many strings does this exceptional musical instrument consist of.
There have been several kinds of banjos- the ones from the historic eras consisted of 4 strings. With time, this changed to five, and eventually nine strings. However, when talking about standard banjos, we are looking at 5 metal stringed ones.
This guide will elaborate on the different types of stringed banjos and the ways of tuning the strings well. But first, it is handy to take a look at the structure of the banjo.
The stringed banjos come with a body shaped in the form of a hoop and a screw, which helps to keep the vacuum belly, attached and hence, secure, to the body of the banjo.
These screws can be further stretched to alter the tension on the belly of the instrument. The strings, which are the main topic of this guide, are attached to a tailpiece. They cross over a pressure bridge on the body.
The body is usually round in shape. You will find it being referred to as the pot or even the shell in some places. The diameter of the round body is mostly between 11 and 12 inches. The neck is annexed to the shell, equipped with lag bolts, truss rods and other kinds of mounting equipment.
You will also find some versions of this instrument coming with an open back. On the other hand, some have a resonator connected to the shell. This resonator functions as a reflector, producing a louder and even fuller output sound.
When it comes to traditional music players, they usually prefer the open-back versions of the instrument. On the other hand, players who are more of bluegrass or jazz people, prefer the banjos that are equipped with the resonator.
Types of Banjos
To summarize the three different kind of banjo that we will elaborate in this guide, they are the four stringed banjo, the five stringed instrument and finally the six stringed banjo.
Four Stringed Banjo
As mentioned earlier, the four stringed banjos are the earliest form of the instrument, which were mostly used by the African slaves of Americans. These four stringed banjos are tuned from the top. The order they follow in the tuning is C’ – G’ – B’ – D’ towards the top, starting from the notated middle C.
The drone or the Chanterelle is what comes before the C string. This is also know as the thumb. It is the string, which is slightly shorter in size and is tied to a screw midway in the neck of the banjo.
This is further tuned to the notated G, which comes second in line, just above the middle C. You should remember the fact that the main pitch is however, an octave below the notated.
Five Stringed Banjo
Since this is the most commonly used form of Banjo, we will delve a bit deeper into this. The 5 string banjo comes with a fret scale length of 22 fret. It also has high versatility- you can play a large range of genres or styles in this instrument.
Are you wondering what the common styles that are usually played using the 5 string banjo are? It might be quite surprising to you, but the most popular choices are traditional or clawhammer, bluegrass (usually refers to more of the melodic and single-string styles), and last but not the least, jazz. If you ask who the winner is among the three- it is undoubtedly bluegrass, as per public opinion.
In terms of structure, the 5 stringed banjo is also pretty different. The first 4 of the strings go through the whole length of the neck, just as it does when talking about guitar. However, the fifth string here is much shorter, and ends at the fret that count 5th in the line. Right on the 5th fret, we can find a tuning peg mounted on the side of this neck of the banjo.
This string also produces a very high-pitched sound, (you will see very rare fretting on this string). This droning sound is the distinctive factor of the 5 stringed instrument, emitting a sound which can be very easily recognized.
Six Stringed Banjo
Though not as popular as the 5 stringed banjos, the 6 strings banjo has been gaining popularity in the recent days. The country music artists use this instrument to add a distinguished tone to the music. However, 6 stringed banjo is quite different in terms of functionality and sound production than the 5 stringed banjo.
In 5 string banjo, it is quite simple as mentioned above- you will only have to learn the 3 chords and a style of picking your fingers on the strings. The 6 stringed instrument is however a little different. The sound it produces is traditional banjo sound but the tuning it follows is same as that of a guitar.
Hence, these banjos are quite convenient and come naturally to guitar players. However, it can be challenging for those who have never played either a banjo or a guitar before.
The tuning of the 6 string banjo goes like a 6 stringed guitar, E – A – D – G – B – E.
Let’s talk About Tuning And Get Your Strings in the right order.
There are several kinds of tunings that can be used to produce several kinds of expressions and harmonics. The most popular kind of tuning is when G is open. It is important to know how exactly this is executed in Banjo.
In the order of the fifth string to the 1st string, the pattern that opens G tuning follows is: g – D – G – B – d. In most cases, you will require some kind of point as the reference. Such a reference can be a pitch pipe or an electronic tuner. This might even be some other type on tune-in instrument like the piano or the guitar.
An important point to be noted is that the fourth, the third and the second strings, which are D – G – B in that order, of the instrument are tuned in the same manner as the fourth, the third and the second strings of the guitar.
The starting string or the 1st (d) is tuned in a manner so that it is tuned higher than the open fourth (D) string by an octave. At this point, it is useful to use the twelfth fret harmonic on the fourth string as a point of reference.
Eventually, we should talk about the fifth and hence the final string, which in this case is g string. This string is tuned in such a manner that it is higher than the open third string or the G string, by an octave.
Once again, at this point, it is useful to use the twelfth fret harmonic on the third string as a point of reference for the tuning of the fifth string in banjo.
One useful point to remember is that the fourth string, which undergoes fretting at the fifth fret, must be able to match the open third string. The third string, which undergoes fretting at the fourth fret, must be able to match the open second string. And finally, the first string, which undergoes fretting at the fifth fret, must be able to match the open third string.
It is useful to note that the open G tuning only uses three distinctive pitches. These are G, B, and D. These notes constitute the major chord, G. Did you know that your ears detect the two D notes same as the two G notes? However, you are also able to hear and realize that the first and the fifth strings comes at a higher pitch.
Quite a long time ago, the musicians decided to give to the same letter name to the pitches that are heard by your ear in this way. However, these musicians also realized that the two Ds and the two Gs are not really at the precise same pitch. Instead, these are actually almost 1 octave apart. This octave is the point at which the same note is repeated every time, however, this happens at a much higher pitch.
You are now well-equipped with the required knowledge about the different banjos with the different number of strings, their suitability to different styles and the different kinds of tuning available for them.