A dictionary and guide to banjo type instruments

Douglas banjo.JPG (39563 bytes)


There are a wide range of banjos with different tunings and they can be used for a variety of music styles. On this page I have tried to simplify the main types and their uses. Strung with plain steel or steel wound strings. Below this a dictionary of banjos and banjo parts.

Banjo Type


Common tunings

5 string or G Probably the most common banjo and the "original" standardised banjo. Most start on this one. Used for folk music, Bluegrass and more. There are a number of styles of 5 string banjos (see below) There are numerous tunings for these. octave G. CGBD standard
GDGBD. open chord. Bluegrass
Tenor 4 strings with 19 frets for jazz playing, or 17 frets (short neck) for Irish music as a melody instrument. 19 fret CGDA  Standard tuning
17 fret GDAE  Irish tuning
ukulele A ukulele with banjo body. Partly popularised by George Formby. Popular first in 1920s. Nylon strung. D tuning  A D F# B
C tuning  G C E A
mandolin A mandolin neck and tuning with banjo body, popular early 20th century.  GDAE 8 strings. 4 sets of two tuned in unison.
Plectrum 21 or 22 fret, like a 5 string without the octave peg. Used mostly for chord + playing in jazz bands. Tune as 5 string or many use top 4 of a guitar. GCBD  or DGBE (guitar)
Guitar 6 string guitar banjos are generally used by guitarists not wanting to learn a new instrument ! Not generally approved of by the purists, although there were guitar tuned banjos in the 19thC.   EADGBE
6 & 7 string  19th century Minstrel banjos often used gut strings, later examples steel.  Tuning often as 5 string (with octave peg) plus extra low end strings tuned to suit, as drones. 7 string often   gGCDGBD

Why buy an old banjo

1. Modern banjos rarely have the mellow plunky sound of a mature banjo.
2. As soon as you purchase a new banjo it de-values, especially as more come on to the market. Old banjos generally hold their value.
3. An antique banjo is a piece of history, and a collectors item with character

Instruments for sale....

A dictionary of banjos              

Banjo geige A German invention of the 19th century combining the scroll, neck and strings of the violin with a banjo head.
Banjo harp A 19th century American zither made in the form of a harp with 18 strings.
Banjolin The four-string counterpart of the Banjo-mandolin; i.e. having the same tuning as the mandolin but in single courses instead of pairs.  It was devised to enable mandolinists in the BM & G orchestras to replace the banjorine (qv) in the lead, thereby simulating, to some extent, the required banjo tone.    To this end, the banjolin hoop was made to the same size as that of the banjo, 10 inches or 11 inches in diameter, which gave extra volume.  Normally played open-backed but occasionally fitted with a wooden or metal resonator.  It is still used in BM & G orchestras and in some quartets and quintets.
mandolin banjo An eight-string hybrid, having a mandolin neck attached to a zither-banjo type (closed hoop) of from 5.9 inch diameter.  Played mandolin fashion, like the banjolin, it provided a "doubling" instrument for orchestral players who were already familiar with "fifths" tunings.  Less incisive than the bajo, it is also more likely to produce unwanted overtones. Open back and resonator types also made.
Banjo mandolin Confusingly. August Pollman. USA had a  a 5string banjo produced with a mandolin body circa 1895 (Pamela's collection) There are earlier examples of this style of instrument by other makers. A modern version now on the market called a banjola.
Banjolele See "Banjulele"
Banjorine A small five-string banjo, tuned a fourth higher than the normal type.  Introduced by the American banjo maker SS Stewart for use as a lead instrument in BM & G orchestras, and called by him "the banjeaurine", it was eventually displaced by the banjolin and is now obsolete.
Banjo zither A type of zither (not to be confused with the zither-banjo) invented by CL Steffen, of Stettin, in 1879; it had a banjo type body with "f" sound holes and a long neck.
Banju A banjo-type instrument, with four strings, believed to have been brought into Cuba from North America.
Banjuke See "Banjulele".
Banjulele The registered trade name coined by the Keech brothers for their adaptation of the ukulele neck to a banjo-style hoop, in order to produce a greater carrying power than that of the quiet-voiced ukulele.  It enjoyed a boom period in the 1920s and was popularised by Kel and Alvin Keech, Roy Smeck, Arthur Godfrey, George Formby, Billy Scott, Tessie O'Shea and other professionals.    Other makers quickly produced their own versions of the instrument, for which various names were coined, notably "Banjuke"  (Clifford Essex) and "Gemuke" (Windsor), but to the majority it was the ukulele-banjo or banjolele.       Originally gut-strung, it is normally strung with nylon, almost invariably has a resonator and is now enjoying a revival.  The George Formby Appreciation Society, and the Ukulele Society have increasing membership numbers, with the accent seemingly on banjolele rather than ukulele.  Great interest is being shown in pre-war models such as those of Ludwig and Abbott.
Banshaw An 18th century name for the African gourd banjo.
Banza A guitar-like instrument found in Haiti, having four strings, a skin soundboard and a half-gourd body. First recorded in Martinique in 1678
Banzie A Congolese stick-zither.
Banzu A Congolese board zither, unusual in that it has a resonator.
Bapili A Congolese board zither.
Barbat A Persian member of the lute family, its name being possibly an Arabic corruption of Barbiton.  From about AD 600 until the 11th century it was unfretted.  It is probably of Byzantine origin.
Bass banjo A banjo with cello tuning (CGDA) often - and rightly - called the cello banjo.  Designed for use in the BM & G orchestra, it also provides an ideal bass voice in quartets/quintets.  It has a 15 inch hoop, sound board of vellum, and is played with a plectrum.    The bass banjo was used with conspicuous success by the Emile Grimshaw Quartet in the 1920s ans in the filmed and recorded performances of Raymonde's Band of Banjos when it was played by Bert Bassett. There are also contra bass banjos usually three strings double bass size. A 5 string zither bass banjo is also in evidence (Pamela's collection !)
Frailing banjo  A playing style with an open back 5 string. Frailers  often have fewer frets as picking is done over the lower fingerboard. Also clawhammer banjo, a style of playing.
Fretless banjo Banjos were first commercialised in the 1840s, had no frets... although appearing with frets on some examples from 1860s often continued fretless to 1890s. Later examples had satinwood or boxwood fret markers inlaid. Fretless banjos of the 1850-80s typically had 6-7 strings, gradually standardised to 5 string examples. There are examples of early  banjos with many more strings. Some decorated with Tunbridge ware inlays others with mother of pearl.
. The fifth  short drone string or chanterelle distinguishing the banjo is said to have appeared in the 1700s. Most instruments had three strings at that time the drone making the fourth. 1769 white players were performing with blacked faces. By 1830s solo blackfaced performers were a popular entertainment.
Piccolo banjo A small version of a 5 string (See banjourine). Some early examples of 6 & 7 string also. (Pamela's collection)
Seeger banjo A 5 string folk banjo with a longer neck. 2 extra frets before the 5th string peg. Popularised by Pete Seeger in 1950s.
Minstrel banjo  An early usually  backless, fretless wooden 5, 6 or 7 string banjo
Tack head. A very early banjo without tensioners. Vellum was tacked onto the wooden pot. 1850s and before.
Zither banjo The zither banjo became popular towards the end of the 19th century. Usually 5 string (often with 6 tuners). Typically  featuring an a wooden resonator encompassing a cast metal pot, and no perch pole. The 5th string usually was diverted through a metal tube under the fret board from the 5th fret to the tuning head. Considered a superior design of banjo at the time. Examples of 6 string , 7 string, tenor and mandolin banjo also made.

A simple guide to banjo parts

Stick  Neck
perch pole  A bar through the pot to stabilise and strengthen the pot and neck.
tuners To tension the strings. Can be like violin pegs. guitar geared machine head tuners or friction adjustable.
brackets/ hooks Tensioners to tighten and hold the head in place.
Shoes Holds the tensioners or hooks to the pot.
head  The skin like a drum, can be made of vellum or plastic/nylon . Please note: confusingly the top of the neck where the strings are tuned can be called the head.
pot The round body of the banjo the head is stretched over.
resonator  The back, usually wooden, often detachable. Makes the banjo louder
Bridge  A movable wooden support for the strings. Transmits the string sound to the head.
Frets  Metal inlaid wire on the neck to locate correct finger position.
Handle Neck
Home page
Links New additions
 "Me page" !  Douglas


email pamela@pamelasmusic.co.uk .

On-line museum of musical instruments

springerslogo.JPG (3406 bytes)

Traditional music.  Playing music from Ireland, England, Scotland, Europe & America, including a bit of Ragtime and Swing.