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The banjo is a stringed musical instrument, usually played in folk music or bluegrass music. The instrument features a long fretted neck and a body that looks like a drum, with a (usually artificial) skin stretched over a circular frame. While strongly identified with American musical traditions, the ancestor of the modern-day banjo most likely comes from West Africa, brought by slaves in the late seventeenth century to Jamaica and the southern American colonies. It reached its present form in the second half of the nineteenth century, when it began to be commercially sold throughout the United States.[1]

Most banjos have 5 strings (though the shorter tenor banjo has only four), one of which is shorter, and is played as a drone in the background. Banjos with 4 strings are tuned as DGBD, and banjos with 5 strings are tuned as GDGBD.[2] Thus a banjo strummed with no strings fretted sounds a G major chord.

There are two main ways of playing the banjo, bluegrass style (also called Scruggs style, or three-finger style) or clawhammer (also called old-time, or frailing) style.

Bluegrass banjo requires the player to play a series of complex patterns ("rolls"), picking individual strings in quick succession, emphasizing the notes of the melody. To achieve this, a player wears picks on two of his fingers and the thumb, with his hand held stationary over the strings. This style was developed in the mid 20th century by bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs. It is more common in the United States than clawhammer, but is sometimes considered more technically difficult.

Clawhammer has the player picking the notes of the melody interspersed with strumming all the strings together. This style is older than bluegrass style and is usually easier to learn. In the usual style, only the thumb and index finger are used, and strings are struck by the back of the fingernail.

The banjo is also popular in Ireland where it is often played in Celtic music. The banjo was brought to Ireland from the United States by returning emigrants. In addition to its use in bluegrass and old-time music, the banjo was an important instrument in early jazz, and in recent times has been used in a variety of genres, including classical music and rock and roll.

Notable banjo players include Eddie Peabody, Grandpa Jones, "Stringbean" Akeman, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Bill Keith, and more recently Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck. Comedian Steve Martin is also a talented banjo player, and won a Grammy in 2002 for a performance with a group that included Earl Scruggs.

Banjo players


  1. Jay Scott Odell and Robert B. Winans. "Banjo." In New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed January 12, 2010).