When the banjo first developed in America from its African origins, no one knew it would grow into the immense popularity the instrument faces today. Banjos offer a unique sound you can’t find anywhere, and it’s an easy instrument to play for a wide range of music styles.
Growing in popularity in recent years, more people are flocking to the banjo for the first time. But most people don’t realize there is more to consider than just the popular 4-string and 5-string models.
In this post, we’ll show you everything you need to know to find the right type of banjo for you.
Table of Contents
The banjo for the liveliest music, 4-strings are highly versatile. Expect a 4-string to look and play like a ukulele. They use either two tenors for tuning: the same as a mandola and viola or an Irish tenor similar to the mandolin and violin. However, the sound is around an octave lower and smaller.
If you want to play the music that makes toes tap and hands clap, the 4-string banjo is for you. It’s the most versatile banjo. In the past, this was the banjo of choice for Irish, Traditional Dixieland Jazz, Bluegrass, and even Classical music.
17-Fret Tenor Banjos
A 17-fret tenor banjo is often considered the Irish tenor, and it’s tuned to G, D, A, E from the 4th to 1st string. The tuning is similar to a fiddle or mandolin. The main difference between the 17 and 19-fret tenor banjos is the number of frets as well as the scale length. 17-fret tenors have around 20 or 21 inches of scale length, making them the shorter option.
They’re also more common than any other type of banjo, and you’ll find them widely available for sale. Perhaps the reason for their popularity is due to the versatility of the strings. You can play Celtic or Dixieland music with the 17-fret, but the difference is in the type of strings and how you tune it.
If you want to play Irish music, a 17-fret is the best banjo for you. The quick-paced fiddle-like tunes are easy to play with this instrument, and most Irish banjos are open-back designs. Tenor banjos are often used in traditional Irish and Celtic, and early Jazz music from dance hall numbers to Ragtime, Dixieland, and even Tin Pan Alley songs.
You may hear the 17-fret in jazz forms like Alexander’s Ragtime Band and pup-playing Irish bands like the Clancy Brothers that inspired today’s Mumford and Sons. Kids and women may also prefer a smaller scale banjo.
19-Fret Tenor Banjos
Unlike a 17-fret tenor banjo that’s more ideal for Irish music, the 19-fret tenor is better for Traditional Dixieland Jazz. It has two notes more than the 17-fret and is the “normal” 23-inch scale length, which means the instrument sounds less like a violin and requires more of a fiddle fingering style to play.
You can still use a 19-fret in the Irish tenor, but this banjo is typically set from the 4th to 1st chords as C, G, D, A. Many musicians select the 19-fret for versatility. The symmetrical tuning of a 19-fret is similar to a mandolin, but mandolins play in the G chord. Jazz music, for example, always uses a C chord. The music you play all lies in how you tune the banjo.
The 19-fret tenor banjo is more likely played by professionals and in Dixieland Jazz. However, you can tune the banjo to the G chord to also play Irish music if you want. The 19-fret tenor banjo is popular among bands like the Dropkick Murphys, although the instrument is more common in jazz. If your goal is to interweave melody in combination with the chords (like in jazz music), you may also choose a 19-fret.
A 4-string banjo with 22 frets is called the plectrum banjo, and it’s tuned to drop-C or C, G, B, D tuning that usually only affects 5-string players. It’s longer than most banjos in the 4-string category, making it more the length of a 5-string, and this type of banjo once included flat pick banjos as well due to how you play the instrument.
It’s basically a 5-string banjo in the G chord without the fifth chord that you play in a strumming motion like a ukulele. You can also tune the banjo to Chicago tuning or D, G, B, E, which helps guitar players quickly learn how to adopt the instrument into their musical repertoire.
Plectrum banjos were the instrument of choice in the Jazz Age, particularly in dance bands. They’re common in Traditional Dixieland Jazz ensembles like the Louis Armstrong band and other jazz and dance music of the 1920s and 1930s. Plectrum banjos are also common in the stereotypical depictions of bluegrass music played by straw hat banjo pickers in places like Disneyland.
The most popular type, a 5-String is best for beginners. All five strings are typically tuned to the G chord, and while the fifth string is the shortest, it’s attached to a tuning peg that sticks out of the neck. You’ll find this banjo in Appalachian, Bluegrass, Country, and Old-Time American Folk music, from diverse bands like Mumford and Sons, the Dixie Chicks, Led Zeppelin, and the Eagles. The picking style you use drastically determines the sound this banjo produces.
A shorter type of 5-string, parlor banjos have 19 frets and are also tuned to an open G chord. However, you can tune the instrument to the A chord if you want. Parlor banjos play the same tunes as a 22-fret banjo, only with three frets less.
This means you can achieve the same sounds with a smaller length. Due to their size, they’re perfect for people with a smaller frame and learning children. They also make excellent travel-friendly banjos. Expect to find an affordable option easily. Parlor banjos are lightweight as well, with most options around 4 to 5 pounds.
5-strings are common in Bluegrass and Country music and sound great played with Earl Scruggs-style banjo rolls. If you want to play in the frailing or clawhammer style, look for a more simple, open back model. Bluegrass players will require a resonator back, while Old-Time music players keep an open back. Keep in mind that parlor banjos may need a resonator and tone ring too.
Long Neck Banjos
Unlike regular 5-string banjos, long necks offer three additional frets. Also called “big daddy,” long neck banjos have a whopping 25 frets (three more than standard banjos) and are often tuned to the E chord. What makes this banjo type special is that you can use the same chord forms as when playing a 5-string with 22 frets, only you can reach the low E tones. You could also tune a long neck to the G chord if you desire.
Playing the instrument is similar to the fiddle, making long neck banjos popular in Folk music even today. Folk icon Peter Seeger came up with the idea for this banjo, and it was used in early popular music like jazz. However, the long neck banjo was made popular by the Kingston Trio, who used the banjo in the height of folk music. Long neck banjos may also use nylon or gut strings, which make the long neck available to Old-Time players as well. If you’re looking for a limitless banjo that performs for any player, this is the banjo to try.
The best type of banjo for guitar players who want to learn a new musical instrument, the 6-string banjo is nearly as versatile. It plays like the ukelele and guitar, only with cool and smooth tones associated with the banjo. 6-strings are by no means new to the market either. One of the oldest banjo types, the 6-string is widely used and highly available in today’s market. The 6-string is fun to play, and there are some excellent models for people who want powerful sounds from pickups similar to electric guitars.
You’ll find 6-strings in many mainstream songs, from bands and artists like Taylor Swift, Taj Mahal, Keith Urban, Eric Church, John Fogerty, Joe Satriani, and so many more. Even many guitar players own a 6-string banjo to hit jazz sounds symbolic of the famous Louis Armstrong band, and it’s used in mainstream country music today as well as other musical genres.
Truly unique, the 12-string banjo is played and tuned like a guitar but offers delicate and lacey jangle sounds unlike any other instrument. It’s the ideal instrument for adding texture to your music, and some beginners even find the 12-string banjo easier to learn than the guitar. However, it’s not considered the best starter banjo. The 12-string was designed for experienced musicians in the mandolin, guitar, banjo, or ukulele to learn. You won’t find many instructors or resources to help you play the instrument.
Expect to find the unusual 12-string banjo in Folk bands, Bluegrass, or even in some Rock music.
Mandolin Banjos or Banjolin
Mandolin banjos, or Banjolins, are small-body, 8-string instruments with a head ranging from 6 to 10 inches (5). It’s similar to the mandolin, which offers tones like the violin, and around the same size as a Uke banjo. You can find mandolin banjos with zither style or conventional construction, either with a resonator or not.
Mandolins are common in classical and rock music, especially with bluegrass bands. Today’s bands like Soundgarden, Grateful Dead, the Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, REM, Punch Brothers, the White Stripes, Led Zepplin, Rod Stewart, and Nickel Creek all use the banjolin in some of their songs.
The Uke banjo is also known as a banjulele, which is a mixture of the ukelele and banjo. It’s unlike any other instrument! A Uke banjo comes with 12 frets and four nylon strings tuned to C, G, E, A or a tone or an octave above (5). The instrument is similar to a concert ukulele with a banjo body.
It’s perfect for experimenting with ukulele sounds that suit your voice. You strum the chords for background music to go with singing, and the sound is powerful and loud. Made popular by big music hall star George Formby, the Uke banjo is commonly used in old Celtic and English music. You’ll hear it in artists like Wendell Hall, Billy “Uke” Scott, and Roy Smeck.
Modern inventions like the Guitar Banjo mesh together two popular instruments in one. They started in the late 20th century, and come in models with full-length or shorter necks today. The instrument is made the same size as a 5-string banjo with an 11-inch head, only the scale is more concise than guitars, and it offers six strings. Play a guitar banjo in an above-normal pitch for the best results, as the thick strings require more tuning to reach an electric guitar’s tone. Otherwise, they may sound dull.
In jazz music, guitar banjos nearly replaced guitars. Today, these electric banjos are used by bands like Blackberry Smoke, Leftover Salmon, Folk Hogan, and Cabinet.
Finding the right banjo for you depends on two things: the type of songs (or genre) you want to play and your experience level with banjos. The banjo is tons of fun to play, but it takes time to learn how to play one to a decent level.
Just remember, a traditional 5-string banjo is the most popular and best for beginners. It also offers a range of playing and music styles, which makes the 5-string an excellent place to start.