Skip to Content Skip to Navigation
Join the email list!

Chris Smith: Words & Music

Essay: Banjo types and history

(Chris Smith)
Initially in response to a query about the six-string banjo

The tenor banjo, like the long-necked 4-string plectrum banjo, the banjo-ukelele (banjo pot, tuned like a uke) and the mando-banjo (banjo pot, mandolin neck) is an offshoot of the 5-string instrument (4 plus the short “chanterelle” string). All the above variants were developed in the period 1880-1914, during the (mostly collegiate) craze for banjo orchestras and the “classical banjo” (playing light-classical repertoire).

Danny Barker of New Orleans played the 6-string banjo for about 60 years, as a double with his main instrument the guitar. Bluesman Papa Charlie “Stovepipe” Jackson also played the 6-string. This parallels the creation of “tenor guitars”—4-string instruments tuned like a tenor banjo—for use by early jazz players as they made the transition from the (acoustically-loud) banjo to the (acoustically- or electronically-loud) guitar. Tiny Grimes, who recorded with Charlie Parker, played the tenor guitar, as did Eddie Condon. Johnny St Cyr, who recorded with Louis Armstrong, played both tenor and six-string (as well as guitar).

The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians has this to say:

“A number of hybrid and specialized banjos were developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including cello and piccolo banjos (tuned an octave below and above the standard banjo); banjeurines; concert and ‘ladies’ banjos (tuned a whole tone above and below the standard banjo); guitar, mandolin and Ukulele banjos (strung and tuned like their parent instruments); and plectrum banjos (identical to the standard banjo but lacking the fifth string). The tenor banjo (tuned c–g–d'–a') is identical with the standard banjo but has a shorter neck and no fifth string. Like the plectrum banjo it was developed for use in jazz and dance orchestras and is played with a plectrum. It has been widely adopted by players of traditional music in Ireland and England.

In England and Australia banjos with six or more strings were common during the late 19th century, the additional strings serving to extend the compass downwards. Another English type, the ‘zither banjo’ (distinct from C.L. Steffen's ‘banjo zither’, invented in Stettin in 1879), had first, second and fifth strings made of wire (the others were gut or wire-covered silk), frets, and geared tuning machines instead of the more usual friction pegs. It had a closed back which reflected the sound outwards through spaces between the head and rim, functioning much like a modern resonator, as do two banjos now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, by the American makers Henry Dobson and George Teed of New York (US Patent 34,913, 8 April 1862).”

Also, about Johnny,

“St. Cyr was equally at home on the six-string banjo (Armstrong’s The King of the Zulus, 1926, OK 8396), on tenor banjo (Jelly Roll Morton’s The Chant, 1926, Vic. 20221), and on guitar (Armstrong’s Willie the Weeper, 1927, OK 8482). On The Chant (which Gunther Schuller has analyzed in detail) he produces a typical solo: a single-string line played on the lower strings and redolent of elements of standard tailgate trombone or double bass line clichés is juxtaposed with apposite chords on the upper strings.”

And finally, from the NGD’s bibliography:

J. Vincent: “The Banjo in Jazz,” JJ, xxx/3 (1977), 20

R. Warner: “On Banjos and Guitars,” Sv, no.73 (1977), 31

J. S. Odell: “Banjo,” Grove I

P. Oliver: Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records (Cambridge, England, and elsewhere, 1984), 119

L. H. Schreyer: “The Banjo in Ragtime,” Ragtime: its History, Composers, and Music, ed. J. E. Hasse (London, 1985), 54