Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like nowadays everybody plays guitar. Whether it’s a classic acoustic or a custom electric, in the sphere of music, guitarists are a dime a dozen. But don’t get me wrong, it’s the first instrument that got me into music, the same for a lot of us, and how can they blame us? With all those videos of Jimi Hendrix making his axe scream or Eddie Van Halen simply destroying solos… you tell me how I’d ever want to pick up a violin! But with that said, the great thing about music is the shear amount of options we as musicians have to play around with and master. So, for those of you looking to spice up your instrument skill set, why not try some of these guitar alternatives?
Sure, there are a few differences between them; an extra string or two, an alternate tuning here and there, but nothing that veterans capable of holding chord patterns should worry about. So, for all you axe-men out there check out some of the guitars less popular cousins. While they might not melt anyone’s face soon, they make great partners for YouTube videos!
Last week, we featured a nice little well known instrument known as the ukulele, a fan favorite of the online video crowd and faux guitarists everywhere. This week, we’re getting a little country, so get ready for some bluegrass and read on as we give you all the info you need to get a grip on the one… the only… the banjo!
Birth of the Banjo
The modern banjo is a 4-5 stringed instrument popular in a wide array of genres including country, bluegrass, folk and traditional Irish music. The banjo itself is made up of either a piece of animal skin or plastic stretched over a circular body frame along with a neck and tuning knobs similar to that of most stringed instruments, albeit comparatively thinner. Although it is normally associated with European and American music styles, the predecessor to the banjo came from deep within Central Africa, as many of the people there have been using variations such as the kora well before the modern banjo made its way to the Americas. Furthermore, it was the African slaves in Colonial America that actually introduced the instrument into mainstream Americana, although the banjo as we know it today came from a Western approach to building the instrument, incorporating frets and tuning knobs whereas before it featured neither.
Anatomy of the Banjo
As mentioned above, most banjos have either four or five strings although six (even seven) string variations are available that try and emulate the tuning and style of a standard guitar. There are a few differences among the two most popular variants than just an extra string.
The Four String Banjo
The best candidate for those new to the instrument is known as the plectrum banjo. Unlike the five or six stringed variation, these banjos do not have the shorter drone string. As the name suggests, these are more commonly played with a guitar pick, unlike the five-stringed banjos which typically use a thumb pick, two or more fingerpicks, or none at all. The common tuning for a plectrum banjo is CGBD, although alternate tunings such as the “Chicago Style” which uses the same tuning as the top four strings on a guitar (EADG) are also commonly used. The fret board is usually between 22 and 26 inches and contains 22 frets. Tenor four stringed banjos have a slightly smaller neck with 17 frets and a scale length of 19½ to 21½ inches.
The Five String Banjo
The main difference between the four and five stringed banjo is obviously the extra string, but more importantly, it’s the positioning of the string. The top string is the same gauge as the lowest string but has its tuning knob on the 5th fret unlike the other four which are past the fret board on the head of the neck like you would find on a guitar. This feature makes it possible for the 5th string to be tuned much higher than the rest while still using common string gauges and lengths. The higher frequency of this string is used to create drone notes, which we’ll cover in a second. Unlike most string instruments, the pitch of the strings aren’t arranged from lowest to highest as you would find on a guitar or even the four string banjo. Instead, from lowest to highest, they go fourth, third, second, first and fifth. The tuning for a five string banjo is most commonly GDGBD, although like all string instruments, alternates are also used.
Style and Technique
When most people think of the banjo (thanks in part to both Warner Bros cartoons and Deliverance), they usually attribute it to a fast paced arpeggiated plucking style like that of the quicker parts to the song “Dueling Banjos.”The technical terms for the techniques are called rolls and drones. The rolls are fingering patterns consisting of eighth notes subdividing a standard 4/4 measure, carrying the melody. Drones on the other had are also typically in eighths but are used to fill around the rolls and are always played on the 5th or shortest (highest in pitch) string on the banjo much like guitar finger picking uses the thumb to play the bass notes, just far more frequently. This combination of rolls and drones is synonymous with the banjo as well as typifies bluegrass.
Notice how the 5th string begins on the 5th fret
Now You Are Ready To Go
Alright, so you know the style, the tuning and the correct order of the stings. How about a brand new banjo? Those who are a bit newer to the world outside of the guitar should check out the Fender Five String Banjo pack. It comes with everything you need to get yourself off on the right track including the banjo itself, a gig bag, extra strings, tuner, picks and a beginners booklet. There are also plenty of standalone banjos as well, links after the break.