When traders brought African slaves to America, the slaves brought their own music—and musical instruments—with them. The banjo was one such gadget. With a body made from a gourd, the banjo was first reported in 1620 by the captain of a ship on the Gambia River.

Structurally, the banjo is very similar to a drum, with an animal skin stretched over a rim. Africans and African-American slaves could obtain the necessary materials and construct the instrument relatively easily. Soon white Americans were playing banjos, too.

In the late 1820s and 1830s, minstrel shows, in which white performers in blackface imitated stereotyped African Americans for comic effect, brought the banjo to even more public prominence. Joel Sweeney, in particular, used the instrument in his minstrelsy performances, which created a connection between the banjo and humor that persists even today. Sweeney bought his banjos from William Boucher of Baltimore, who may have been the first manufacturer to sell banjos to the public.

The banjo’s role in minstrelsy and its increasing popularity led to a standardization of banjo materials and production methods. Over the decades, the design became more sophisticated, especially in the 1870s and 1880s, when banjos began to include frets, steels rings, a tone ring, and a resonator. Banjo player Henry C. Dobson and his banjo provider, J. H. Buckbee, may have been responsible for many of these innovations.

The banjo continued to spread into the 1920s and ’30s with the rise of radio. Stations often aired live performances featuring country groups, which frequently included a banjo. With World War II, however, banjo production declined, as metal was needed for the war effort. Interest in the instrument waned as the guitar became the land’s dominant stringed instrument.

Since the banjo’s standardization, producers have crafted many variations, but most banjos have either four or five strings. (The fifth string is usually shorter than the rest and functions as a drone string.) Generally played with bare fingers or fingerpicks, the five-string banjo became very popular in the latter half of the 20th century with the rise of bluegrass and folk music. Pete Seeger, who got his start with the Weavers, and Earl Scruggs, whose picking is featured in the theme song to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” both played significant roles in this movement.

The four-string banjo comes in several forms, including the plectrum banjo and the tenor. The plectrum banjo is played with a pick, which makes it more suited to chords than the ...

As the banjo became more common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a handful of manufacturers rose to prominence. As with mandolins, banjos were often sold through teacher agents, who organized instrumental groups, trained musicians, and then sold instruments to their students.

Gibson was one of the top banjo manufacturers, and many musicians consider the mid-1930s Gibson Mastertone flathead five-string banjo the best banjo ever made for bluegrass. Gibson only produced about 90 of Mastertones, one of which was played by banjo legend Earl Scruggs. That combination of scarcity and the Scruggs seal of approval have made this rare instrument extremely desirable for collectors.

Founded in 1889 in Boston by Julian and Carl Nelson, Vega also had a big impact on the banjo market. In 1904, it acquired A.C. Fairbanks & Co., the successful producer of the Whyte Laydie banjo. Vega continued to produce many of the Fairbanks lines, like the Curtis and the Imperial. The Curtis Electric, in particular, is well known to collectors because only about 50 were made, even if it wasn’t an easy model to play.

In 1922, a general manager at Vega named David Day left the company to work for Bacon Banjo Co., which later changed its name to the now-famous Bacon & Day. B&D, as it’s known, produced the very successful Silver Bell banjo, which is perhaps the most popular banjo for Dixieland music.

In the late 1920s, William L. Lange’s Paramount brand also made its mark on the banjo market. Paramount’s models were lettered A through F: Style A was fairly basic while Styles E and F were more ornate and expensive. These models—most of which were tenor and plectrum banjos—are today quite collectible, especially the super-rare five-string models. Of course, the more expensive, decorated banjos are rarer and more desirable than their simpler relatives.

Another manufacturer of high-quality banjos was Epiphone. The tenor banjos in its Recording Series line from 1925 to 1935 are particularly prized and considered some of the best tenor banjos of the period, while banjos in the five-string Recording Series are tough to find.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Banjo Hangout

Banjo Hangout

Billed as “the world’s largest, most active, banjo community,” this site's Forums pages boast thousands of to… [read review or visit site]



First published as a folk music magazine in 1971 by Michael I. Holmes before going online in 1997, Mugwumps is a no… [read review or visit site]

National Music Museum

National Music Museum

The National Music Museum, which is located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, features 15,000 instru… [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Banjo A.c. Fairbanks # 5 "electric" Circa 1898Gibson Banjo ( Kel Kroydon) Low Reserve1964 Gibson Rb100 5 String Sunburst Banjo W/ Case - Usa Made!Gibson Mastertone Banjo NeckVintage 8 String Banjo Mandolin With Case Repair Parts Bluegrass Folk CountryAntique Early Bluegrass Banjolele 8 String 14 Fret 23" Banjo Ukulele C1930's YqzVintage Ca 1900 Boston Made Open Back Banjo Sold For Parts Or Repair - Many PicsGibson Banjo Earl ScruggsA.c. Fairbanks Electric Banjo Key/wrench-original Near Mint Cond. C. 1890-1915Vintage Original 1920's The Gibson Banjo Uke Ub-2 Ukulele RestoreSmall Antique Old Tenor Banjo Banjolin Mandolin Ukulele Banjolele 8 String Grover Pat. Tuners From Gibson BanjoVintage Orpheum #1 4 String Banjo. Inlaid Abalone And Wood. Original Banjo KeyNational Pat Pend Banjo Fingerpicks, Gibson, Stelling And OthersGibson Ub1 Banjo Ukulele, Vintage 1930s To 40s, No Reserve!Vintage Oettinger 4-string Banjo Tailpiece, Used On Bacon & Day And Others Antique Banjo Ukulele 8 String Banjolele Marcelli German Circa 1920s1930's Prewar Gibson Banjo ArmrestVintage No Knot 5-string Banjo Tailpiece W/bolt-original Exc.cond. C. 1890-1915Gold Tone Cc-irish Tenor Cripple Creek Tenor Banjo Four String Ccit With Gig BagNational Oval Eight Banjo Fingerpicks, Gibson, Stelling And OthersVintage S.s.stewart Collegian Banjo Ukulele Birds Eye Maple 1920'sDeering Goodtime 5 String BanjoHarmony Vintage Tenor BanjoRichelieu Banjo Custom Plectrum Master Mute 4 String Excellent Cond Estate FindGibson 5-string Presto Style Banjo TailpieceRemo Weatherking Banjo W/ Sigma Sb-5 Neck**dean 5 String BanjoVintage Alvarez Minstrel Tenor Banjo Rebuilt - With Original Hardshell CaseVintage Open-back Curly Maple Tenor Banjo No ReserveHeartwood 5 String Banjo Harmony Banjo Vintage Old As Is For Parts Or Repair 4 String Vintage Gibson Tb-00 Tenor Banjo NeckDeering Goodtime 5-string Banjo With Case, Picks, And TunerGenuine Gibson 50s Rb-250 Banjo Resonator CleanVintage National Dunlap Stevens Roy Smeck Finger Picks. Banjo Steel Dobro GibsonVintage Silvertone Harmony 4-string Tenor Resonator Banjo 19 FretVintage Elton Banjo Armrest, Ukulele Banjo Unknown Maker: George Formby StyleMitchell (mbj200) Right Handed - Roadrunner Case - Deluxe Five String BanjoWashburn B8k 5 String Banjo With Soft Case - Very NiceHand-crafted Solid Maple 5 String Banjo Neck Humming Bird Inlay (915)Alvarez Five String Bluegrass Banjo -parts...rim,tonering,pot,resonator,bracketsBanjo PartsVintage Kay Banjo 4 StringFender Fb55 Fb-55 Fb 55 5 String Resonator Banjo - One Owner Great ConditionOld Vintage Conqueror 4-string Tenor Banjo Project W/case Nice Inlay No Reserve!Banjo MandolinPenncrest Banjo For Restoration Or PartsBacon Banjo For Restoration Or PartsUsed Prestige 5 String Banjo W/ ResonatorGenuine Gibson Prewar 11" Brass Tone Hoop For Flathead Banjo No Rsv1922 Banjo Ukulele, Sherman, Clay & Co. No. 32, Koa Maple Vintage Antique RareNew Brand Mini 4string Ukulele BanjoFender Fb300 5-string BanjoVintage Banjo Neck, 1920's - 1930's, 19 Frets, Dowel Stick, ProjectsKalamazoo Tank & Silo Brass Plate, Connection To Gibson BanjoVintage Tenor BanjoAlvarez *rare* Denver Belle 5 String BanjoVintage Bottlecap Banjo Rare Bottlecap 22 Fret - 5 String *a5*