Who Invented the Banjo? Uncovering the True Origin of this Iconic Instrument

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The banjo is an iconic stringed instrument that has been a staple in various types of music for centuries. Ever since its invention, the banjo has been a beloved instrument that has been used to create diverse and beautiful music. But who invented the banjo? That’s a question that many have asked, and the answer is a fascinating one. In this article, I’ll be exploring the history behind the invention of the banjo and the many ways it has evolved over time.

History of the Banjo

History Of The Banjo

Origin of the Banjo

The banjo is believed to have originated in Africa, brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans. The earliest known versions of the instrument were developed in the Caribbean during the 18th century. Different African cultures had similar instruments, and these were adapted to the musical style of the region. The banjo was introduced to the United States during the 19th century, and quickly became a popular instrument among the working class.

Development of the Banjo

In the late 19th century, the banjo was developed into a modern four-string version by African-American musicians, who added a fifth string for increased melodic range. By the early 20th century, the five-string banjo had become a popular instrument in American music, and was adopted by numerous genres, such as bluegrass, country, and folk. Today, the banjo is a popular choice for a variety of musical styles, including pop, rock, blues, and jazz.

African-American Origins

African-American Origins
The roots of the banjo can be traced back to African-American slaves who used gourds and animal skins to create banjo-like instruments. This tradition is believed to have spread to the Appalachian Mountains and the Deep South, and eventually evolved into the modern banjo.

Early Adaptations

Early versions of the banjo adapted by African-American musicians featured four strings and an open-back design. These instruments typically featured a wooden neck, a gourd body, and animal hide stretched across the top. The banjo’s distinctive sound was created by the combination of the gourd’s resonance, the tension of the strings, and the plucking of the strings with a quill or a plectrum.

European Instrumentalists

The modern banjo, with its five-string design, can be attributed to European instrumentalists, who began to incorporate the banjo into their own music in the 19th century. Early European banjo-makers added a fifth string and a fretboard, and began to experiment with different tunings and string arrangements. By the mid-1800s, the banjo had become a popular instrument in Europe and America, and quickly became a staple of folk, bluegrass, and country music.

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Early Banjo Popularization

Early Banjo Popularization
The banjo’s history dates back centuries, but it was in the early 19th century when it began to gain popularity in the United States. By the 1840s, it had become a popular instrument for dances and concerts. During the Civil War, the banjo had become one of the most popular instruments in the South, and its popularity only continued to grow after the war. In the late 1800s, the banjo had become an important part of the minstrel show, and it was used by both white and black performers.

Modern Banjo Popularization

Modern Banjo Popularization
In the 20th century, the banjo continued to be popular, with the advent of folk music and bluegrass music. The banjo was featured in many popular songs of the day, including “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Dueling Banjos.” Today, the banjo is used in country music, bluegrass, and other traditional music styles, as well as in some popular music genres. It is also used in contemporary classical music, jazz, and even rock music.

Different Types of Banjos

Different Types Of Banjos

Four-String Banjo: This is the most traditional type of banjo and is often associated with bluegrass music. It has four strings that are tuned in perfect fourths, with an extra high-pitched string. It has a short neck, and is usually played with a flatpick.

Five-String Banjo: This is the most common type of banjo and is associated with many styles of music, including bluegrass, folk, and country. It has five strings, with the fifth string being a short, high-pitched string that is played with the thumb.

Six-String Banjo: This type of banjo is becoming increasingly popular. It has six strings, with the sixth string being tuned one octave higher than the fifth string. It is usually played with a flatpick and is used in various styles of music, including rock, jazz, and country.

Tenor Banjo: This is a four-string banjo that is tuned in fifths, rather than fourths. It is typically used in Irish and Scottish traditional music, as well as jazz and blues styles. It is usually played with a flatpick and is similar in size to a five-string banjo.

Plectrum Banjo: This is a four-string banjo that is tuned the same as a five-string banjo, but is usually played with a pick. It is usually used in jazz and Latin music and is often used in a band setting.

Electric Banjo: This is a five- or six-string banjo that is fitted with pickups and electronics to allow it to be amplified. It is often used in rock, blues, and jazz styles.

1 4-String Banjos

1 4-String Banjos

The 1 4-string banjo is one of the oldest and most popular instruments in the banjo family. It was first developed in the United States in the late 1800s. The banjo was originally used for folk music and dance, and was later adopted into bluegrass and country music. It is a five stringed instrument, consisting of four strings tuned in fourths, and a fifth string tuned to a higher pitch. This type of banjo is commonly used in folk, bluegrass, and country music.

Instrument Number of Strings
1 4-String Banjo 5

The 1 4-string banjo has a shorter neck than other banjos and is typically played with a flatpick or fingerstyle. The banjo is also commonly used in jazz, blues, and rock music. It has a bright, twangy tone that cuts through the mix, making it an ideal instrument for soloing and lead playing. The 1 4-string banjo is also well-suited for melodic accompaniment, providing a strong rhythm and a driving pulse.

2 5-String Banjos

2 5-String Banjos
The five-string banjo is the most popular type of banjo used in modern times. Its modern form first appeared around the mid-1800s. It was developed by African-American musicians in the United States as a result of the blending of African and European musical styles. The five-string banjo has five strings, a short neck and a circular body. The strings are typically tuned to the notes G, D, G, B, D. This tuning is known as “Open G” tuning. The instrument has become a staple in American folk, bluegrass, and country music. It is commonly used as a lead instrument in many genres of music. The five-string banjo is a versatile instrument that can be used for solo performances, accompaniment, and ensemble playing.

3 6-String Banjos

3 6-String Banjos

Name Origin Features
6-String Banjo United States 6 strings, 5 string-grouping, short neck
6-String Banjo-Mandolin United States 6 strings, 4 courses, longer neck
6-String Banjo-Guitar United States 6 strings, 6 courses, standard guitar neck

The 6-string banjo is a relatively recent addition to the banjo family. It has a five-string grouping and a shorter neck than the traditional 4-string banjo. It was developed in the early 20th century in the United States. The 6-string banjo-mandolin has four courses and a longer neck than the banjo, and was also developed in the United States in the early 20th century. The 6-string banjo-guitar has six courses and a standard guitar neck, and was also developed in the United States in the early 20th century.

Banjo Music

Banjo Music

Banjo music is a genre of music that has been around for centuries and is popular in American and British folk music. It is characterized by its twangy sound and its use of the five-string banjo. The banjo is a stringed instrument that originated in Africa, and was brought to the United States by slaves in the 18th century.

The banjo has a bright tone and is usually tuned in an open chord. This allows the player to play melodies, chords and rhythms. It is usually accompanied by other instruments, such as guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and harmonica.

The banjo has been used in many different styles of music, including bluegrass, old-time, Irish traditional music, jazz, blues, and country. Its sound has been featured in a variety of popular music, including rock and roll, country, and pop.

Style Instruments
Bluegrass Banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin
Old-time Banjo, fiddle, harmonica
Irish traditional music Banjo, fiddle, guitar
Jazz Banjo, guitar, bass
Blues Banjo, guitar, harmonica
Country Banjo, guitar, fiddle
Rock and roll Banjo, electric guitar, bass
Pop Banjo, electric guitar, drums

Banjo music has been popularized by a number of famous musicians, such as Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, and Tony Trischka. It is an important part of American musical culture, and continues to be enjoyed by listeners around the world.

Famous Banjo Musicians

Name Genre
Bela Fleck Bluegrass, jazz, classical
Earl Scruggs Bluegrass
Bill Keith Bluegrass
Tony Trischka Bluegrass, folk
John Hartford Bluegrass, folk, country
Pete Seeger Folk
Béla Bartók Classical
Noam Pikelny Bluegrass, jazz

Bela Fleck is widely known as one of the most popular banjo players of all time. He is a master of many genres, including bluegrass, jazz, and classical. Earl Scruggs, Bill Keith, and Tony Trischka are all renowned bluegrass musicians who have made significant contributions to the banjo. John Hartford was a folk and country musician who incorporated the banjo into his music, while Pete Seeger was a folk pioneer who popularized the banjo in the 20th century. Classical composers such as Béla Bartók and Noam Pikelny have also made important contributions to the banjo’s development.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who Invented the Banjo?

The earliest known banjo was created by African slaves in the 1600s. It resembled a gourd-shaped drum with a short wooden neck and strings made of animal gut. In the 1700s, the banjo was brought to North America by European settlers and modified to include a fretboard and a longer neck, making it similar to the banjo we know today. By the 1800s, the banjo had become a popular instrument in folk and minstrel music. Banjo performances were often accompanied by other instruments, including the fiddle, guitar and mandolin.

When was the Banjo Invented?

The banjo is believed to have been invented in the early 1700s by enslaved African Americans in the United States. The earliest known reference to the banjo is an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette in 1736. This instrument was likely derived from African stringed instruments and was used in African-American music, such as spirituals and work songs. The banjo was then adopted and popularized by white musicians in the 19th century.

Where Did the Banjo Come From?

The banjo is believed to have originated in West Africa, where early versions of the instrument were known as akonting, ngoni, and xalam. These instruments were typically made from gourds and featured three or four strings. The akonting is believed to be the direct ancestor of the modern banjo, and was brought to the United States by African slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries. The banjo was further developed in the United States, with the addition of a fifth string, and the instrument eventually became a staple of American music.

What Year Was the Banjo Invented?

The banjo is believed to have been invented in the late 1700s in West Africa. It was then brought to America by African slaves and quickly adopted by American folk musicians. The earliest known documentation of the banjo in America is an advertisement for a banjo-like instrument dated 1798.

Where is the Banjo Originally From?

The origin of the banjo is unclear, however it is believed to have originated in the 16th century in West Africa. It is thought to be a descendant of the lute-like African instrument called the akonting. Through the slave trade, the banjo was brought to the Americas and has since been adapted to suit a range of musical styles. Today, the banjo is most commonly associated with bluegrass, folk and country music.


The banjo has come a long way since its early days in Africa. Its popularity has grown steadily since the 18th century. While it is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment of its invention, its history tells us that it has been around for centuries. It has been used in various genres of music, from folk to rock, to jazz, and everything in between. Today, the banjo continues to grow in popularity, and is a beloved instrument for many musicians around the world.


About the author

Hi there! I’m Jack Little – an avid country music fan with tons of live country performances in the past. I used to play banjo in a country band with my best friend John Peters, who’s a true country harmonica master. Those were great years and I’m still mastering new banjo playing techniques, writing my own country songs and lyrics, and collecting banjos!

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