Sweet Sounds of the Banjo: The History of the Banjo

The banjo has been around for quite a long time. Despite its reputation as an American instrument, its origins are actually from the African continent. The history of the Banjo is a fascinating one that can increase your appreciation of this musical instrument.

Early Days

The banjo started out centuries ago as a simple instrument made from a hollowed-out gourd, a few horsehair strings, an animal skin and a planed stick. It was commonly called “banjar,” which shows how little the name changed over the years.

17th to 19th Centuries in America

The banjo made its way to America and became a popular instrument since it was relatively easy to make and learn how to play. These early American banjo players developed a style that we call clawhammer. With this style, the player moves their thumb and forefinger or middle finger in a down-picking motion, producing a very rhythmic sound. Some players moved away from this style during the late 1800s and developed a finger-picking style that is very similar to the way acoustic guitars are played.

20th Century

Banjo-playing minstrels from America eventually traveled to Europe in the late 1800s, spreading the popularity of the banjo and leading to changes. In both America and Europe, four-string banjos became common, and players used a single guitar-style flatpick.  The banjo became a rhythm instrument in bands.   Banjos during this time also started being made with metal strings, creating a new type of sound. The four-string banjo became a common instrument used by early 20th-century vaudeville musicians and American jazz musicians. During the mid-20th century, Earl Scruggs also came up with a new way to play, which became known as the three-finger style.

Interested in learning more about the history of the banjo and how to play this versatile instrument? Be sure to check out our free online banjo video tutorials! We also carry products to help you learn how to master the banjo.