Nothing says bluegrass quite like the banjo, though it is also associated with country, folk, and traditional Irish music. Historically, banjo playing is characterized by a fast arpeggiated plucking, and with its iconic round body and tensioned head, it delivers an unmistakable twangy tone—a mainstay of American old-time music.
The modern banjo comes in a variety of forms, most commonly a 4- and 5-string version, though a 6-string version has recently gained popularity. The body of a modern banjo consists of a circular rim and a tensioned head, similar to a drumhead. Resonator banjos have a separate resonator plate on the back of the pot, designed to project the sound forward and give the instrument more volume (this type of banjo is usually used in bluegrass music). Open-back banjos generally have a mellower tone and weigh less than standard banjos.
The modern 5-string banjo is the most widely played type of banjo. The fifth string is usually the same gauge as the first, but starts at the fifth fret, which allows the string be tuned to a higher open pitch than a full-length string. Unlike many stringed instruments, string pitches on a 5-string banjo do not go in order from lowest to highest across the fretboard. The most common tuning for a 5-string banjo is the “Open G” tuning. American old-time music typically uses the 5-string open-back banjo, and is commonly played with a thumbpick and two fingerpicks, or with bare fingers.
The plectrum banjo and tenor banjo are popular types of 4-string banjos. The plectrum banjo is a standard banjo without the short drone string, and was originally tuned C-G-B-D. It can also be tuned like the top four strings of a guitar, which is known as "Chicago tuning," and as its name suggests, it is usually played with a pick. The shorter-necked, tenor banjo is also typically played with a plectrum. The usual tuning is the all-fifths tuning C-G-D-A, in which there are exactly seven semitones (a perfect fifth) between the open notes of each string. The tenor banjo was a common rhythm-instrument in early 20th-century dance-bands. Its volume and timbre suited early jazz, and could both compete with brass instruments and be heard clearly on acoustic recordings.
Today, musicians as diverse as Keith Urban, Rod Stewart, Taj Mahal, Joe Satriani, David Hidalgo and Doc Watson play the 6-string guitar banjo. Tuned and played similarly to a guitar, the 6-string banjo appeals to guitarists desiring the banjo’s distinctive sound but with familiar playability. Whatever your style or musical preference, a banjo makes a great addition to any player’s arsenal.