Pete Seeger’s death got me to thinking about banjos and banjo playing. Pete Seeger just passed away (January 2014). He popularized the long neck five string banjo and folk banjo in general. Back during the folk music revival of the 1960s, when I was learning to play guitar, Pete Seeger inspired me to buy a banjo for folk music. I was never much of a banjo player but I kept that Silvertone five string banjo for years. I had only just passed the instrument on to me son in December of 2013.
The main construction detail that separates banjos from other stringed instruments is the part that transmits the sound of the strings is a skin stretched over a rigid support much like a drum head. Most modern instruments use plastic rather than skin for the head. Early African instruments used gourds for the body. Some modern instrument makers make recreations of this and other older styles of banjos.
Banjos come in various sizes from banjo ukulele, to cello banjo; pony banjos to the long neck banjo. There are four and five string varieties of banjo. But the most popular size and style is the five string banjo. Five string banjos can be separated into open back styles popular for folk or old time music and generally played clawhammer style and banjos with a resonator on the back to make the banjo brighter and louder. Resonator banjos are used for bluegrass music.
Many banjos, particularly less expensive models, use guitar tuners but the standard among better 5-string banjos is planetary geared tuners. These usually have a 4:1 ratio unlike guitar tuners which are more likely 16:1.
There are several tunings that are used for banjo. The two main 5-string tunings are C (G, C, G, B, D) and Open G (G, D, G, B, D) but many other variations are used as well (e.g., Double C: G, C, G, C, D and D: F# or A, D, F#, A, D). Many banjo players will change tunings for different tunes and some will even change during a tune, for example during a solo.
There are two main styles of banjo picking and many variations on each of those.
The style which is probably the oldest is clawhammer style. This is also called frailing and other things although some make distinctions between frailing style and clawhammer style.
How-to Play Clawhammer Style How-to
How-to 3-Finger Banjo Picking (Bluegrass)
3-Finger banjo picking styles have been around for a long time. I’ve read that classical banjo uses three fingers. But the man responsible for modern bluegrass banjo is Earl Scruggs. He took the 3-finger style and made it soar.
Bluegrass Banjo Performance