The membrane is typically made of plastic, although animal skin is still occasionally used. Early forms of the instrument were fashioned by Africans in the United States , adapted from African instruments of similar design. 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.
It is also very frequently used in traditional "trad" jazz. The modern banjo derives from instruments that had been used 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.
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: The Oxford English Dictionary states that it comes from a dialectal pronunciation of Portuguese bandore or from an early anglicisation of Spanish bandurria. Various instruments in Africa , chief among them the kora , feature a skin head and gourd or similar shell body. Instruments similar to the banjo e. Another likely relative of the banjo is the akonting , a spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of Senegambia , and the ubaw-akwala of the Igbo.
Early, African-influenced banjos were built around a gourd body and a wooden stick neck. These instruments had varying numbers of strings, though often including some form of drone.
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Although Robert McAlpin Williamson is the first documented white banjoist,  in the s Sweeney became the first white performer to play the banjo on stage. Banjos were introduced in Britain by Sweeney's group, the American Virginia Minstrels , in the s, and became very popular in music halls. In the antebellum South , many black slaves played the banjo and taught their masters how to play.
The Autobiography of a Soldier and Surgeon , Confederate veteran and surgeon John Allan Wyeth recalls learning it from a slave as a child on his family plantation. Two techniques closely associated with the five-string banjo are rolls and drones. Rolls are right hand accompanimental fingering pattern[s] that consist of eight eighth notes that subdivide each measure. Historically, the banjo was played in the clawhammer style by the Africans who brought their version of the banjo with them. Clawhammer consists of downward striking of one or more of the four main strings with the index, middle or both finger s while the drone or fifth string is played with a 'lifting' as opposed to downward pluck motion of the thumb.
The notes typically sounded by the thumb in this fashion are, usually, on the off beat. Melodies can be quite intricate adding techniques such as double thumbing and drop thumb.
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In old time Appalachian Mountain music, a style called two-finger up-pick is also used, and a three-finger version that Earl Scruggs developed into the famous "Scruggs" style picking was nationally aired in on the Grand Ole Opry. While five-string banjos are traditionally played with either fingerpicks or the fingers themselves, tenor banjos and plectrum banjos are played with a pick, either to strum full chords, or most commonly in Irish traditional music , play single-note melodies.
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. In almost all of its forms, banjo playing is characterized by a fast arpeggiated plucking, though many different playing styles exist. The body, or "pot", of a modern banjo typically consists of a circular rim generally made of wood, though metal was also common on older banjos and a tensioned head, similar to a drum head. Traditionally, the head was made from animal skin, but today is often made of various synthetic materials.
Most modern banjos also have a metal "tone ring" assembly that helps further clarify and project the sound, but many older banjos do not include a tone ring. The banjo is usually tuned with friction tuning pegs or planetary gear tuners, rather than the worm gear machine head used on guitars. Frets have become standard since the late 19th century, though fretless banjos are still manufactured and played by those wishing to execute glissando , play quarter tones, or otherwise achieve the sound and feeling of early playing styles. Modern banjos are typically strung with metal strings.
Usually, the fourth string is wound with either steel or bronze-phosphor alloy. Some players may string their banjos with nylon or gut strings to achieve a more mellow, old-time tone. Some banjos have a separate resonator plate on the back of the pot to project the sound forward and give the instrument more volume.
This type of banjo is usually used in bluegrass music, though resonator banjos are played by players of all styles, and are also used in old-time, sometimes as a substitute for electric amplification when playing in large venues. Open-back banjos generally have a mellower tone and weigh less than resonator banjos. They usually have a different setup than a resonator banjo, often with a higher string action.
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 short fifth string presents special problems for a capo. For small changes going up or down one or two semitones, for example , retuning the fifth string simply is possible. Otherwise, various devices called "fifth-string capos" effectively shorten the vibrating part of the string. Many banjo players use model-railroad spikes or titanium spikes usually installed at the seventh fret and sometimes at others , under which they hook the string to press it down on the fret.
Five-string banjo players use many tunings. Tunings are given in left-to-right order, as viewed from the front of the instrument with the neck pointing up.
In earlier times, the tuning G4 C3 G3 B3 D4 was commonly used, instead, and this is still the preferred tuning for some types of folk music and for classic banjo. These tunings are often taken up a tone, either by tuning up or using a capo. Dozens of other banjo tunings are used, mostly in old-time music. These tunings are used to make playing specific tunes easier, usually fiddle tunes or groups of fiddle tunes. The size of the five-string banjo is largely standardized, but smaller and larger sizes exist, including the long-neck or "Seeger neck" variation designed by Pete Seeger.
Petite variations on the five-string banjo have been available since the s. Stewart introduced the banjeaurine , tuned one fourth above a standard five-string. Piccolo banjos are smaller, and tuned one octave above a standard banjo. Between these sizes and standard lies the A-scale banjo, which is two frets shorter and usually tuned one full step above standard tunings.
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Many makers have produced banjos of other scale lengths, and with various innovations. American old-time music typically uses the five-string, open-back banjo. It is played in a number of different styles, the most common being clawhammer or frailing, characterized by the use of a downward rather than upward stroke when striking the strings with a fingernail. Frailing techniques use the thumb to catch the fifth string for a drone after most strums or after each stroke "double thumbing" , or to pick out additional melody notes in what is known as drop-thumb.
Pete Seeger popularized a folk style by combining clawhammer with up picking, usually without the use of fingerpicks. Another common style of old-time banjo playing is fingerpicking banjo or classic banjo. This style is based upon parlor-style guitar. Bluegrass music, which uses the five-string resonator banjo almost exclusively, is played in several common styles. These include Scruggs style, named after Earl Scruggs; melodic, or Keith style , named for Bill Keith ; and three-finger style with single-string work, also called Reno style after Don Reno.
In these styles, the emphasis is on arpeggiated figures played in a continuous eighth-note rhythm, known as rolls. All of these styles are typically played with fingerpicks.
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The five-string banjo has been used in classical music since before the turn of the 20th century. Frederick Delius wrote for a banjo in his opera Koanga. Viktor Ullmann included a tenor banjo part in his Piano Concerto op. Four-string banjos, both plectrum and tenor, can be used for chordal accompaniment as in early jazz , for single-string melody playing as in Irish traditional music , in "chord melody" style a succession of chords in which the highest notes carry the melody , in tremolo style both on chords and single strings , and a mixed technique called duo style that combines single-string tremolo and rhythm chords.
The plectrum banjo is a standard banjo without the short drone string. It can also be tuned like the top four strings of a guitar, which is known as "Chicago tuning". As the name suggests, it is usually played with a guitar-style pick that is, a single one held between thumb and forefinger , unlike the five-string banjo, which is either played with a thumbpick and two fingerpicks, or with bare fingers.
The plectrum banjo evolved out of the five-string banjo, to cater to styles of music involving strummed chords. The plectrum is also featured in many early jazz recordings and arrangements. The four-string banjo is used from time to time in musical theater. Joe Raposo had used it variably in the imaginative seven-piece orchestration for the long-running TV show Sesame Street , and has sometimes had it overdubbed with itself or an electric guitar. The banjo is still albeit rarely in use in the show's arrangement currently. The shorter-necked, tenor banjo, with 17 "short scale" or 19 frets, is also typically played with a plectrum.
It became a popular instrument after about The usual tuning is the all-fifths tuning C3 G3 D4 A4, in which exactly seven semitones a perfect fifth occur between the open notes of consecutive strings. Other players particularly in Irish traditional music tune the banjo G2 D3 A3 E4 like an octave mandolin , which lets the banjoist duplicate fiddle and mandolin fingering. The tenor banjo was a common rhythm-instrument in early 20th-century dance bands. Its volume and timbre suited early jazz and jazz-influenced popular music styles and could both compete with other instruments such as brass instruments and saxophones and be heard clearly on acoustic recordings.
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George Gershwin 's Rhapsody in Blue , in Ferde Grofe 's original jazz-orchestra arrangement, includes tenor banjo, with widely spaced chords not easily playable on plectrum banjo in its conventional tuning s. With development of the archtop and electric guitar, the tenor banjo largely disappeared from jazz and popular music, though keeping its place in traditional "Dixieland" jazz. Some s Irish banjo players picked out the melodies of jigs, reels, and hornpipes on tenor banjos, decorating the tunes with snappy triplet ornaments.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, the rise of ceili bands provided a new market for a loud instrument like the tenor banjo. Use of the tenor banjo in Irish music has increased greatly since the folk revival of the s. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in vogue in plucked-string instrument ensembles—guitar orchestras, mandolin orchestras, banjo orchestras—was when the instrumentation was made to parallel that of the string section in symphony orchestras.
Thus, "violin, viola, 'cello, bass" became "mandolin, mandola, mandocello, mandobass", or in the case of banjos, "banjolin, banjola, banjo cello, bass banjo".