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    

Vintage Gibson Ub-1 Ukulele Banjo Circa 1930 Excellent Condition, No ReserveVega Fairbanks Tenor Style N Banjo Head, Bestone Resonator For PartsVintage 5-string Old-timey Banjo, C. Bruno Ny, 1915, Perfect Original Condition1979 Gold Star G-11hf Archtop 5 String Banjo W/hard Case And Nechville Flex NeckVega Tenor Banjo Neck & Tuners - ExcellentVintage Vega Banjo Tenor Model M W/ Original CaseVega Vegavox #1 Tenor Banjo C.1930's With Piecrust Resonator.nores..Vintage 1929 The Gibson Tb-1 Tenor Banjo With CaseVintage Lange Triple X Style A Tenor Royal Conservatory Patent Pend Banjo & CaseGibson Stamped Rk Kulesh Banjo Tone Ring Vintage 1920's Supertone #405 5-string BanjoVintage U-king Banjolele Banjo Ukulele Metal BackVintage 5-string Kay Resonator Banjo5 String Resonator Banjo With Case And StrapRare 1920s U-king Solid Copper Body Banjolele/banjo Ukulele-all Orig.-3 Day N/rVintage Antique Stella Banjo Ukelele 4 String 20 Inch 7 Inch Head Open BackVintage 1920/30's Vega "senator" 5 String Banjo Made For Oliver Ditson Co W/case5 String Open Back BanjoVintage Collegiate 4 String Banjo1920's Gibson Tb-1 Tenor Banjo Trap Door With Tone Ring Beautiful Condition OhscKay American Eagle 5-string Banjo W / Chipboard Case! Resonator! No Reserve!!!!!Washburn B17 Sunburst 5-string Banjo W/case Antique Silver Elkhart And A Beautiful Antique BanjoDeering Goodtime BanjoHohner Tenor Banjo W / Mahogany Neck, Resonator, Made In Japan! No Reserve! Rare New 4 String Mahogany Celtic Irish Tenor BanjoAria Pro Ll Banjo (low Reserve)Vintage BanjoC.1900 Antique Taylor Of Liverpool Open Back 6 String Banjo 26 1/2 Inch ScaleDeering Deluxe 5 String Banjo In Exc. Cond. With Original Case And PapersParamount Style-1 W.l. Lange Vintage 4 String Banjo1920's California Style Banjo UkuleleIbanez Artist Banjo-early 70's Vintage New 4 String Mahogany Celtic Irish Tenor BanjoIbanez Artist Banjo- 70's VintageVintage 1950's Or 1960's Kay Tenor Banjo Project, Light Project And Beautiful Vintage 5 String Banjo 28 In. Long Washburn ? 1800's ? 12 In. Head To RestoreVintage Lida 240 Banjo Custom Made Aida BanjoWashburn B9 Banjo Neck Broke Off, "u Fix It" No ReserveBluegrass Banjo Pot Assembly, 20 Hole Tone Ring, 1 Piece Flange, New Head, Nice!Gold Tone Plucky Banjo (mini) 5 StringsUkulele Banjo Lange Blue Banner 7" W/res Beautiful Condition 1920's Vintage Shopworn Reproduction Vega White Lady Tonering Whyte LadieVintage Playable 1920s Banjo Ukulele New Solid Deluxe 5 String Ole Buck Bluegrass Banjo-remo Head & Mahogany Neck Left Handed 5 String Banjo With Closed Back Geared 5th TunerVintage George Formby Banjolele Ukelele Banjo - (known As A Dallas "e" ?)Bluebell Artist Rb 600 Banjo W/ Sliding Fifth String Capo & Hardshell Case Banjo Pickin Good TimeVintage Banjo Uke Early BanjoleleOld Banjo Tuners Friction Tuners Set Of 4 Antique Vintage StripedMorgan Monroe Mbb-500 Matterhorn Bluegrass BanjoHondo Hb75 Hb 75 5 String Banjo W/ Case Vintage Hardshell Case For Gibson Long Neck Banjo Rb-175 Or Vega SeegerVintage American Walnut Banjo Mandolin Banjolin Chicago ? 1930'sVintage Banjo By PrestigeCarlos 5-string Open Back Banjo W / Chipboard Case! Great Tone! No Reserve!!!!!! 5 String Banjo Pot Rim Tone Ring & Flange MetalVintage Banjo Pot, Rings, Rim, Body And (painted) Skin For Parts Project RepairVintage Banjo Pot Rim And Tension Ring