The Five-String Banjo: A Most Controversial of Instruments
Ramblings by Jack Chernos

"Probably no musical instrument has ever had to fight its way through such bitter antagonism as the BANJO, and the fact that it has become the most popular instrument in refined society should set at rest the mind of the most fastidious."
                                                                                                                   -- Gatcomb's Banjo and Guitar Gazette, 1887

... I'm the Prophet of the Utterly Absurd
      Of the Patently Impossible and Vain ...
I -- the war-drum of the White Man round the world! ...
                                                                 -- The Song of the Banjo, Rudyard Kipling, 1894

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The five-string banjo is commonly referred to as the only truly American musical instrument.  Certainly, no instrument has a history as tied to racism and prejudice as the banjo.  For many years its invention was attributed to a white minstrel singer, Joel Walker Sweeney, in 1831.  Contemporaires of Sweeney referred to him as such, and the renown banjo maker S.S. Stewart further propagated the attribution later in the century.  However, a watercolor from the later 1700's called "The Old Plantation" shows a five-string banjo being played by an African American.

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The African slaves introduced skin-over-gourd stringed instruments to America. They were called banjars, banjils, banzas, bangoes, bangies or banshaws.  Thomas Jefferson referred to the banjo as the "proper" (in the sense of the "popular") instrument of the slaves.

Until the 1840's, the five-string banjo was generally played by blacks and white minstrel players in blackface in the frailing style.

After the Civil War, the banjo dropped in popularity amongst blacks because of its associations with racism and slavery.  At the same time the banjo started becoming a popular parlor instrument, and a more "refined" finger style of playing, similar to finger picking on guitar, came into vogue.  To give the instrument an air of respectability, some manufacturers even began referring to the instrument as the banjeau.

By the 1880's banjos were a full-fledged craze in America.  Thousands of pieces of music, including classical pieces, were published for banjo, and many different varieties of banjo were developed and manufactured over the next few decades.

Then with the advent of ragtime, the four-string banjo became more popular than the five-string due to its better adaptability to the rhythms of ragtime.  As jazz developed over the next couple of decades, both types of banjo fell into increasing disuse.  By the early 1940's, banjo strings were no longer even marketed.

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I have a theory that portions of “Rhapsody in Blue” were inspired by the five-string banjo.  The original score did actually include a banjo, but it was a four-string.

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The five-string banjo has an odd, who-would-have-thought-of-that tuning where the short, highest-pitch string with its tuner poking midway out of the neck is next to the lowest-pitch string.  (The Indian sitar has the same sort of tuning with the highest-pitch string next to the lowest-pitched.)  The short "fifth" string is a drone string that you hit with your right thumb on off-beats, but generally do not fret with your left hand.  It sounds like you're doing a heck of a lot; but not as much as people imagine ... it's an audio illusion!

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My favorite banjo joke is
Q: What’s the difference between a banjo and a trampoline?
(See bottom of page for the answer)

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The tone ring is a tubular echo chamber that lies just below the perimeter of the circular face of the banjo.  The tone ring was invented by Henry C. Dobson in late 1800’s, and generally all but the lowest priced of modern banjos have a tone ring.

Most modern five-string banjos have a tone that is just too prettified for my taste, maybe due to the influence on banjo makers of all the banjo jokes.  I like some bite and twang in a banjo.  I play a Deering Boston, one of the few modern banjos without a tone ring, but with a nice tone. (OK, full disclosure: I have an endorsement deal with Deering. But that only happened because I approached them since I love their Boston model so much.)

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People often ask me if the five-string banjo is tougher to learn than the guitar.  The chording with the left hand is pretty similar, but it does take a considerably more active right hand to keep it going.  If you don’t have a lot of time, I suggest getting one of those automatic banjos.

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Bluegrass (or
Scruggs or three finger) style is played with finger picks and is typically more intricate and arpeggiated.  Frailing (or clawhammer or stroke) style is the older style which is a combination of picking and strumming and has more of a repetitive "um-chuck-ah" rhythm.  I play frailing style because I can put more of an accent on selected beats and sing better to it.  Most folks can’t tell the difference between bluegrass and frailing (unless they share an apartment wall or are preparing an eviction notice).

Bluegrass players look down on frailers … and rightly so.

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My favorite banjo joke:
Q: What’s the difference between a banjo and a trampoline?
A: You take off your shoes to jump on a trampoline.

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