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]

Mugwumps.com

Mugwumps.com

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    

Vega Tenor Banjo Tu-ba-phoneNr- Old Vintage Pacheco Banjo Mandolin Project Restore Antique Banjolin PaintedGibson Uke Banjo PartsVintage Banjolin,mandolin Banjo,cased, Not Ukulele.Antique Weymann Keystone State, 4-string Tenor Banjo Tiger Maple Resonator, NrVery Old Birdseye Maple Banjo Ukulele Gibson Banjo Bow Tie Fret BoardGoldstar Flying Eagle 300 5 String Banjo W/ CaseVintage 1964 Rb-175 Gibson Long Neck 5 String Banjo Serial 173285 Attic FindEarly Antique 1900's Wood Rose Floral Design Banjo Ukulele Look! 5 String Banjo Pot And Resonator Assembly. Including Brass Tone Ring And TailpieMike Ramsey 5 String Trouadour BanjoLeedy 'apollo' Tenor Banjo, 1920sVintage Banjo Birdseye Maple 4 String Grover Pat.parts Maker? As Is As Found Vintage Jida 5 String Mahogany Banjo Pristine Condition With Case Fender 5-string Banjo W/ Case1920 Orpheum No. 1 Banjo Serial # 6210 With Original CaseGibson Banjo Tone RingAntique Gibson Banjo MandolinVintage 1977 Nashville Usa Gibson Rb-100 5 String Banjo W/case Vintage Marlin Soprano Banjo Ukulele - Good Playable Condition -a Fun Banjo Uke!Paramount Wm L. Lange 1920's Tenor BanjoHoward Dixon Long Neck Vintage 5 String Banjo With CaseCort 5 String Banjo No ReserveContessa 5-string BanjoBanjo Parts Lot Metal Finger Picks Elton Mute Hooks Bridges Tuner Ernie B Dunlop1931 Vintage No.1 Bacon Banjo Ukulele Good 2 Go Antique 4 String Uke BanjoleleVintage Down South Banjo Mandolin Banjolele 8 String Antique Banjo UkuleleRare, Luscomb "1893 Special" 5 String Banjo, Open Back, Skin Head, Nickel PlateUkulele Banjo Banjolele Vintage For Restoration Yard Sale Find.Tenor Ukulele Banjo Bacon Banjo Style C No Reserve! Gibson Irish Bacon And Day Stella Vega BanjolinShubb 5th String Sliding Banjo Capo Gibson Deering Huber Others 8" Long PerfectBanjo Resonator Mother Of Pearl Eagle VintageA. C. Fairbanks Electric Banjo T Wrench Nickel Plated 1890-1904 2 Vintage Banjo-ukulele Resonators, New Old Stock Gretsch Broadkaster Tenor Banjo Vintage Usa 1936 With Hard Shell Case Brand New Sojing 5 String Inlay Banjo W/resonator(walnut)Vintage Tenor Banjo - 4 String - Grover Nontip Bridge & Tail Peace "rare!!" Vgc!Homemade Banjo-like Instrument Vintage Dixie Banjo Uke All Metal With Soft Plastic Carry CaseTenor Banjo Case, Older,vega, Gibson, Bacon Style,clean,no ReserveRemo Weatherking 5 String BanjoBanjo-ukulele Hard CaseSojing New Tenor Walnut Resonator 4 String BanjoVintage 1920's Vega Banjo Lug Key - Wrench Tool - Check Out My Other Rare ItemsVintage Small Antique 8 String Mandolin ? Banjo Musical InstrumentGibson Banjo PartsGibson Banjo Flange Brass PlateAlvarez 4280 With Hard CaseMay Bell Tenor BanjoWashburn 5-string BanjoVintage 24 Lug Banjo Tension Hoop Nickel - See My Guitar PartsRecording King Songster Resonator BanjoMorelli 5 String BanjoDean Backwoods 6 Electric Banjo - Black ChromeNew Style 5 String Banjo With Plastic ResonatorGold Tone Gt-500 Banjitar 6 String BanjoGsc 5-string Banjo Remo Head Rosewood Used Banjo Tone Ring