Chances are you would recognize a Banjo if you heard one played. The distinctly twangy sound that resonates with the essence of an open field or a back mountain cabin is a memorable one, regardless of your knowledge of Banjo music. The sound isn’t the only unique feature that distinguishes the banjo from other stringed instruments. Most would recognize it for its very simple application of the theory of addition, being that the banjo is just a stringed instrument and a drum tacked together. It is this quality, however, that gives it that distinct country ring. The origin of the 5-String Banjo as it is today is widely disputed, though Jay Bailey suggests that it has its roots in West Africa, having been brought over and developed in the Americas by enslaved peoples (Bailey 3). Aside from the 5-String Banjo, which became a standard in mid 19th century America, its 3 and 4 string predecessors have existed in cultures all over the globe for centuries (Seeger 68).
The construction of the 5-String Banjo has varied over time, but there is a standard look to most modern versions of the Banjo (figure 1.1). Starting with the bottom section of the Banjo is the body, consisting of the drumhead, rim, tailpiece, bridge, and armrest. The Banjo pictured in Figure 1.1 has the resonator removed, a hollow wooden drum that encloses the space behind the drumhead altering the resonance. In earlier iterations of the Banjo, the body was often made by stretching animal hide over an empty gourd, but most modern Banjos are simply plastic over a metal or wood rim (Bailey 8). Going up the banjo is the neck, fretboard, head, strings, and tuning pegs. The stringing of the 5-String banjo is unique, as shown in figure 1.1, the strings are tensioned between the tailpiece and the head, and the high 5th string is pegged three-quarters of the way up the neck.
The structure of the Banjo is essential to its distinctive sound and playing styles. The primary element of the sound is the pairing of the floating bridge and the drumhead. Theoretical physicist David Politzer was the first to study the function of these paired elements, determining that the vibrating drumhead and the floating bridge modulate the acoustic frequencies of the string, an interaction specific to the elements of the Banjo (Politzer 1). The other defining feature of the Banjo sound is the offset 5th string. The one that leads to the awkward tuning peg three quarters up the fretboard. Contrary to most stringed instruments, which move up in pitch down the strings, the Banjo’s 5th string is its highest pitch string, 4th lowest, and so on. The result is high strings on either side of the neck. This feature was essential to the development of the Banjo’s various unique picking styles, such as the clawhammer and the two-finger pick. Evidence of these playing styles are seen faintly in figure 1.1. There are two clean sections on the drumhead, on either side of the strings, where my nails have etched a little pattern out of the finger grime from playing.
- Bailey, Jay. “Historical Origin and Stylistic Developments of the Five-String Banjo.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 85, no. 335, 1972, pp. 58-65.
- Politzer, David. “Banjo Timbre from String Stretching and Frequency Modulation.”, 2014.
- Seeger, Pete. How to Play the 5-String Banjo: A Manual for Beginners. Homespun Music Instruction, 2012.