A Taxonomy of Banjos

This is just a fun excursion into different types of banjos. Some of you know all of these variants already, but here they are for all to see: all the different types of banjos that I am aware of. I’ve also included a few notes of general interest and some styles usually played on each type of instrument.

5-String Bluegrass Banjo. The usual banjo that we think of in connection with such styles as:

  1. Scruggs
  2. Melodic
  3. Single-string
  4. 4-Finger

5-String Old-time Banjo. Also a very common banjo. This is similar to the bluegrass banjo above, but lacks a resonator on the back, and may be set up for better tone when not using picks. Styles include:

  1. Frailing, or clawhammer.
  2. 2-Finger

Mountain Banjo. A variant of the old-time banjo above, I include this as a separate instrument mainly due to the very different look (it has a rather wide wooden rim flush with the drumhead, a very small pot and is often fretless) and its even softer sound.

Folk Banjo. Similar to an open-backed Old-time banjo, but with three extra frets.This is the longest banjo you’ll see. Pete Seeger popularized this back in the 50s and 60s; it allowed him to more easily play songs in the key of E. You would just capo up to the third fret for songs in the key of G.

Tenor Banjo. Now we get into the other major variant encountered in banjos. The tenor lacks the 5th drone string of a 5-string. Like the 5-string, it has several different tunings for Dixieland Jazz and for Irish folk music (where it is tuned in 5ths like a mandolin or fiddle). At 19 frets (or sometimes, 17 frets), the tenor is also shorter.

Plectrum Banjo. Similar to a tenor, but with 4 more frets, making it as long as a 5-string, but without the 5th string. It is usually played CGBD, or else EADG (ie, like the top 4 strings of a guitar).

6-String Banjo. A more recent invention. The most common version of a 6-string banjo is the banjitar; it is uses the standard guitar tuning (EADGBE). Deering makes 12-string banjitar! I’ve also hear of a 6-string that is the usual 5-string open G (GDGBD), plus a lower bass string that also gives an open G. In this case, the 6th string is the drone, and the 5th string is the added bass string. I think you would tune that extra bass string to a B below the 4th string D, but you could also make it an octave below D.

Mandolin-Banjo. These were popular around the early 1900s. As with standard banjos, they were often played by women in that day. Like a standard mandolin, these have 4 courses, each course having 2 strings.

Ukulele-Banjo. Also popular in the early 1900s. Ukulele strings and tuning, with a banjo body.

Banjo-Dulcimer. I’ve seen a banjo dulcimer being made by McSpadden. Sounds pretty nice and quite unique.

Cello Banjo Goldtone recently started making these again. They used to be played around the early 1900s. Tuning is CGDA for the 4-string version, or GDGBD, one octave below standard open G tuning on a 5-string banjo.

Bass Banjos. These have been various versions of bass banjos down through the years. A nice one currently being made is by Brian Hefferan.

That’s it! Do you know of some other rare or oddball banjo? I’d love to hear about it!

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

About Pgibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
This entry was posted in 2-Finger Style, 4-Finger Style, Banjos in General, Dulcimers, Mandolins and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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