The banjo is a stringed instrument with four, five or six strings and is often played as part of bluegrass bands.
Since its popularity with minstrel shows in the late 1800s, which featured Blackface actors acting out fictional minstrel roles that depicted illiterate hillbillies, banjo has long been associated with negative associations of race and class.
Though most often associated with American folk music, the banjo has an equally diverse history. From African slaves in colonial North America and the Caribbean to Scottish and Irish immigrant workers on plantations in the 1800s. Additionally, black minstrels developed their own distinctive playing style that combined African downpicking techniques with classic Scottish and Irish melodies for maximum impact when popularizing this instrument.
Hall explains that, beyond being a musical instrument, the banjo has also become a symbol of racial identity and popular icon in commercial culture. Hall asserts that its symbolic use as an important weapon in “the dialectic of cultural struggle.” This is because its symbolism is altered depending on which social field and context one considers. For instance, during slavery trade days it embodied explicitly racist ideology while at minstrel show stages it became associated with more subtle racist ideologies; therefore evoking images such as slave figures or clowns with an “innate sense of humor captures demoralization of poor white.”
As black minstrels became less popular, the banjo was taken up by middle-class whites who began playing it in their parlors – often creating their own individual styles – leading to its adoption as part of an informal folk music subculture in the 1920s, including groups like The Grand Old Opry. At this time it also saw its first five-string banjo introduction.
Although most often associated with country music, banjo has also been utilized by other genres including jazz and rock music as well as by counterculture folk singers like Pete Seeger. Furthermore, modern musicians like Mumford & Sons use it to create sounds not directly tied to traditional folk music genres.
Over time, the banjo has undergone several modifications from its original design. One significant development was the introduction of a fifth string tuned to EADG; this gave the instrument new sounds while making it more versatile as an accompaniment for other instruments.
The banjo serves as both a musical instrument and cultural icon; playing square dance music for square and contra dances as well as participatory musical culture (described by ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino as “participatory musical culture”). As part of this culture form that defies alienation by capitalist society while providing amateur community event structures. For musicians participating in this cultural form, particularly when performing clawhammer and bluegrass styles. It serves as an invaluable instrument.
Although there is no one ancestor for the banjo, its design and playing characteristics resemble those found among a family of West African plucked spike lutes. A five-string banjo has a neck separate from its body that vibrates strings that connect to its head and bridge before amplified through a tone ring or rim; neck materials vary as can rim wood tones for sound production; stringing options, tuning configurations and material choices all influence how a banjo sounds.
Maple has a brighter tone than mahogany, yet their impact of changing string tensions on rim and tone rings is relatively similar. Additionally, how a player holds their banjo has an enormous effect on its sound; for instance holding it too narrow an angle causes string noise and murky tone, while holding it more of an angle allows the picks to strike strings at more of an offset angle results in clearer sound quality.
The fifth string is one of the primary elements that give banjo music its distinctive sound. Within reach of right thumb, both clawhammer and bluegrass styles rely heavily on it for melodies. Its high pitch helps it cut through an ensemble and add energy and drive. Furthermore, this string allows finger-picking tunes originating in the Deep South that later became eclipsed by bluegrass picking styles; but recently has seen a revival.
There is an enormous range of banjo styles, spanning bluegrass to Irish traditional music and beyond. Each has its own method for playing it; some use picks or plectrum banjos while five-string banjos may require fingerpicking techniques instead.
Earl Scruggs made this signature style famous; its popularity remains widespread to this day. To play this style, thumb and index fingers act as picks to plunk strings in a rolling, cascading fashion; this technique lends the instrument its distinctive twang.
Other banjo styles include frailing, which uses two or three fingers to pluck each string separately – creating a more melodic sound which is popularly found in folk, gospel and early country music. Other techniques, like raking or thumb lead use only the index and middle fingers to play out melodies; both techniques are commonly employed during clawhammer banjo playing which has its roots among African slaves.
Rock and pop music became increasingly popular during the mid-20th century, leading to a dramatic decrease in banjo use by established folk singers; many even made the switch to guitar, and Pete Seeger rarely used his banjo anymore.
Recently, however, an increased interest in American roots music has revitalized banjo’s position as an essential instrument. Popular groups such as Mumford & Sons have brought it back into mainstream audiences’ awareness, while master musicians such as Bela Fleck have demonstrated its versatility by using it across numerous musical genres.
No matter their musical style or genre, all banjo players rely on basic fundamentals to craft their distinctive sound. Two key techniques used with 5-string banjo are rolls and drones – accompanimental fingering patterns in the right hand, respectively; short notes which fill out each measure. Together these give the banjo its iconic sound associated with bluegrass music.
Even though the banjo is associated with American music, its use has permeated other genres and cultures worldwide. From bluegrass to old-time and Dixieland jazz – not forgetting calypso and biguine from Caribbean cultures – its role can be found across genres. Even African American history saw banjo playing an integral role: in part of a tradition of folk music which focused on group singing and dancing as well as being used regularly in minstrel shows!
Pete Seeger first introduced five-string banjo into his work as a singer and activist for folk music during the late 1930s, performing it alongside The Weavers band during concerts as well as recording them to introduce it to new generations of audiences. Through Seeger’s efforts a wave of American roots music emerged characterized by traditional instruments blended with various musical genres.
Many modern musicians are drawn to the banjo’s unique sound. Some musicians utilize “finger picking,” in which strings are played with one or more fingers – an advanced form of playing that requires greater finger control and chording knowledge; this technique can be learned either by watching videos of experienced players, or taking lessons from an expert teacher.
Tuning a banjo requires different approaches; some players favor standard tuning while others use lower tunings such as those found among bluegrass and country artists. Each technique requires practice to achieve an appropriate tone.
Although banjo players can tune it to different pitches, certain chords cannot be played without using a capo (device that shortens fifth string). A capo allows them to change chords quickly without having to retune the entire instrument – saving time and reducing neck/back strain simultaneously!