The banjo is a stringed instrument developed by enslaved Africans in the United States, adapted from several African instruments. The name banjo commonly is thought to be derived from the Kimbundu term mbanza. Some etymologists derive it from a dialectal pronunciation of "bandore", though recent research suggests that it may come from a Senegambian term for the bamboo stick used for the instrument's neck.
African Slaves in the American South and Appalachia fashioned the predecessor of the earliest banjos after instruments they had been familiar with in Africa, with some of the earliest instruments sometimes referred to now as "gourd banjos". One example would be an akonting. It is a spike folk lute played by the Jola tribe of Senegambia. Another similar instrument is the xalam of Senegal which dates back to ancient Egypt. The modern banjo is an invention by an American named Joel Sweeney.
The modern banjo comes in a variety of different forms, including four- (plectrum and tenor banjos) and five-string versions. A six-string version, tuned and played similar to a guitar, is gaining popularity. In almost all of its forms the banjo's playing is characterised by a fast strumming or arpeggiated right hand, although there are many different playing styles.
Today, the banjo commonly is associated with country and bluegrass music. Historically, however, the banjo occupied a central place in African American traditional music, as well as in the minstrel shows of the 19th century. In fact, African Americans exerted a strong, early influence on the development of both country and bluegrass through the introduction of banjo, and as well through the innovation of musical techniques in the playing of both the banjo and fiddle. Recently, the banjo has enjoyed inclusion in a wide variety of musical genres, including pop crossover music.
The origins of the five-string banjo is credited to Joel Walker Sweeney, an American minstrel performer from Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Sweeney wanted an instrument similar to the banjar played by African Americans in the American South, but at the same time, he wanted to implement some new ideas. He worked with a New York drum maker to replace the banjar's skin-covered gourd with the modern open-backed drum-like pot, and added another string to give the instrument more range or a drone. This new banjo came to be tuned gCGBD; somewhat higher than the eAEG#B tuning of the banjar.
The banjo can be played in several styles and is used in various forms of music. American old-time music typically uses the five-string open back banjo. It is played in a number of different styles, the most common of which are called clawhammer (or "claw-hammer") and frailing, characterised by the use of a downward rather than upward motion when striking the strings with the fingers. Frailing techniques use the thumb to catch the fifth string for a drone after each strum or twice in each action ("double thumbing"), or to pick out additional melody notes in what is known as "drop-thumb" Pete Seeger popularised a folk style by combining clawhammer with "up picking", usually without the use of fingerpicks.
Bluegrass music, which uses the five-string resonator banjo exclusively, is played in several common styles. These include Scruggs style, named after Earl Scruggs, melodic or Keith style, and three-finger style with single string work, also called Reno style after Don Reno, legendary father of Don Wayne Reno. In these styles the emphasis is on arpeggiated figures played in a continuous eighth-note rhythm. All of these styles are typically played with fingerpicks.
Many tunings are used for the five-string banjo. Probably the most common, particularly in bluegrass, is the open G tuning (gDGBd). In earlier times, the tuning gCGBd was commonly used instead. Other tunings common in old-time music include double C (gCGCd), sawmill or mountain minor (gDGCd) also called Modal or Mountain Modal, and open D (f#DF#Ad). These tunings are often taken up a tone, either by tuning up or using a capo.
The fifth (drone) string is the same gauge as the first, but it is generally five frets shorter, three quarters the length of the rest (one notable exception is Vega's long necked Pete Seeger model, where the fifth string is eight frets shorter). This presents special problems for using a capo to change the pitch of the instrument. For small changes (going up or down one or two semitones, for example) it is possible to simply retune the fifth string. Otherwise various devices, known as fifth string capos, are available to effectively shorten the string. Many banjo players favour the use of model railroad spikes or titanium spikes(usually installed at the seventh fret and sometimes at others), under which the string can be hooked to keep it pressed down on the fret.
While the five-string banjo has been used in classical music since the turn of the century, contemporary and modern works have been written for the instrument by Béla Fleck, Tim Lake, George Crumb, Jo Kondo, Paul Elwood, Beck, J.P. Pickens, Peggy Honeywell and Sufjan Stevens.