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How Does a Banjo Work?

Banjo Basics

A banjo is a stringed instrument plaid by plucking or strumming. It was developed by slaves in America and is based on African lutes with gourd resonators. Although it is similar to a guitar, it is usually played in a very different way. In bluegrass music, it is played with fingerpicks to get a loud, fast, percussive sound. This is often called Scruggs style, after Earle Scruggs, a bluegrass banjo pioneer. The clawhammer style is an older banjo method used in Appalachian music.The hand is held in a rigid "claw" shape and moved past the strings. A finger or thumb plucks a string as it passes on the way down, and again on the way up.

Head and Resonator

The banjo gets its sound from its unique body. The strings of a banjo pass over a bridge which sits on top of a drum head. When a string is plucked, it transmits vibrations directly into the head, amplifying the notes and giving them the bright sound a banjo has. Bluegrass banjos also have a resonator in addition to the skin. The resonator is a chamber behind the drum head. The vibrations from the drum echo around in the resonator, building up strength. This makes bluegrass banjos much louder than normal folk banjos.

Banjo Variants

The 5-string style is one of the most common variants. it has 4 strings which run all the way to the fretboard, and a fifth drone string which starts partway up the neck. The drone string is designed to provide a fixed drone as the banjo is played. Usually, the 5-string is played with a bare hand or with finger picks. The 4-string banjo is sometimes known as the plectrum, or pick banjo because it was invented for people who like to play with a pick. It is easier to strum chords on because it does not have the drone string. There are also some six-string banjos, although they are rare. Six-string versions are often played like a guitar, but they give a different sound.

About the Author

Isaiah David is a freelance writer and musician living in Portland, Ore. He has over five years experience as a professional writer and has been published on various online outlets. He holds a degree in creative writing from the University of Michigan.