What Is A Four-String Banjo?

What is a four-string banjo? Well, everybody knows that the banjo is that strange round guitar, best known for its 15 minutes of infamy in the movie Deliverance. Those few of us who play the four-string banjo are constantly reminded of the general public’s low level of understanding of the instrument. It’s okay!

The mechanical differences are very minor, so all banjos look pretty much alike; non-musicians “hear with their eyes,” so this explains a lot. The music that is played on the different types however is very different. Especially for a musician, music preference is a very personal thing; for a banjo geek like me, misunderstanding of the music is a misunderstanding of me! By way of comparison, would you want Hip-hop to define you if that is not your type of music?

I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record, but I hope to someday find a way to sufficiently explain the four-string banjo (and myself by extension); please bear with me. I have nothing against the other types of banjo, I just wish my type could get a little more recognition; all banjos (and their players) are important–at least to themselves–and deserve to be fully and correctly recognized for what they are.

There are actually many different banjo variants in the world today. They all stem from one parent “modern” instrument; the five-string instrument developed by Joel Sweeny in the mid-1800s. Most experts agree that the direct forebear–both in construction and musical soul–was the West African Akonting. This instrument (still played today in its native land) inspired the North American and Caribbean slaves of the late 1700s (the true “inventors” of the banjo) to build the first banjo prototypes from their fading memory. For all intents and purposes, the banjo as it stands today is a uniquely and proudly American instrument, born and raised on American soil.

First off, there are two basic and very different methods of playing the banjo, and a couple of style variations that are a hybrid of the two; the playing method (and type of music produced by it) goes hand in hand with what type of banjo is used (four or five string).

#1. The type of banjo playing most folks today are familiar with is finger-picking (or just “picking”: This is the five-string Bluegrass banjo of Dueling Banjos and Beverly Hillbillies fame! With three finger picks playing on five strings (the fifth string is a drone tuned to G and is rarely fingered with the left hand), the technique creates a mesmerizing and exciting obbligato (lots of arpeggiated notes in a fast 16th-note rhythm) that fills space in a way that no other instrument can. I apologize to the five-string players; I know there are many named variations on “finger-picking.” My attempt to be concise leads me to use this generalized term.

The Bluegrass finger-picking style was preceded (by many decades) by the quiet “classic” banjo of the late 1800s-early 1900s. This was a gut-stringed, open-back, bare-fingered instrument that played light and delicate “high-brow” music, similar to the nylon-string classical guitar. This style is known today by only a handful of dedicated players and fans.

#2. Strumming is the other basic style of banjo playing: This style uses a single flat pick, played on a four-string banjo. The percussiveness of this instrument variant makes it a favored rhythm instrument for Traditional Jazz, early Western Swing, and Polka. Played in a single-note style, it is quite effective for Ragtime and Irish Music as well. This variant’s heyday was the 1910s-20s; it too has only a handful of dedicated players and fans today, of which I am one.

There are two major types/tunings of four-string banjo; the Tenor and the Plectrum. I mention this because many folks automatically call the four-string a “Tenor” banjo, not knowing there are actually two types (the five-string banjo also has many sub-types). The six-string banjo (guitar-banjo, or “banjitar”) deserves mention in the single-pick strumming category as well, since that is the way it is typically played.

#3. A hybrid of picking and strumming: The earliest modern banjo was the minstrel banjo (five-string); it was played with a “stroke” style that combined bare-finger picking and strumming. Today’s Frailing combines the two in a similar way. I will mention the banjo-ukulele (or banjulele) here as well, as it is typically played with a strumming/picking hybrid style (like the ukulele). Don’t laugh; top banjulele players are flat-out amazing!

In general, all of the five-string variants use finger picking (or a hybrid), while all of the four-string variants use strumming. You can of course play any style on any instrument, so I am talking about “traditional” common practice; human creativity easily trumps tradition. I am also speaking in very basic, general terms here; this description is not meant to be encyclopedic.

The other important aspect of the banjo is what type of music it is “traditionally” used for and the role the instrument usually takes within a band; this is a function of which playing method/instrument type is used. For example, I think we can safely say that Bluegrass and Traditional Jazz are two very different types of music, right? Well, you don’t use a finger-picked five-string for Traditional Jazz, and you don’t use a strummed four-string for Bluegrass! Use of the “wrong” banjo type/playing method for a particular type of music minimizes its traditional-role effectiveness, thus the importance of using the “right” banjo for the job at hand.

Sure, I can play Bluegrass songs on my four-string (the few I know), but I can’t play or effectively emulate the necessary finger-picking sound (which grates on my nerdy need for authenticity). Similarly, I can play practically any song from any era on my four-string (as long as it fits into its musical limitations); I just don’t, simply because the Beatles are from another era that didn’t use a banjo. Playing a historic instrument like the four-string automatically makes me a music historian; the music of the 20s (my particular “area of interest”) is every bit as important to me as the instrument. I refuse to play a more-popular type of music just to gain an audience, though some of it is fun to play. The geeky historian in me prefers to present the banjo in its proper historical environment (and luckily, I don’t need the extra income).

Though I am a proud four-string strummer, it is my belief/opinion that–in the grand scheme of things–the four-string was a mostly-failed, 20-year attempt at borrowing an instrument from one musical tradition for an entirely-different one, using an entirely-different method of playing. In retrospect, it was used as a place-holder for the guitar, before amplification made that instrument the favored Jazz rhythm instrument. The banjo quickly fell from popular favor when the guitar reached that level of development; had amplification not been invented in the mid-1920s (the four-string’s heyday), this may not have happened so quickly.

Anyway, the four-string is nothing short of an historical anomaly, thus the almost total snub in PBS’s Give Me The Banjo. That show was really about the music, not the instrument; the four-string’s typical music simply didn’t fit the mold. I can’t blame you for being confused; welcome to the club!

In conclusion, you wouldn’t put a nylon-stringed classical guitar in a loud Punk band, would you? The same logic applies to the banjo (and its players)! If you want to make a banjo player happy, count his/her strings and ask some intelligent questions (before making nasally Dueling Banjos twanging noises–equally insulting to four and five-string players, by the way!). For most of us, these are important distinctions; it can be frustrating for geeks like us when an observer makes an erroneous assumption before even listening to the music. Banjo players have feelings too! 

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