Behind the Banjo: The Most “American” Instrument

What if I told you that the most influential and important instrument to the history of American music is the banjo? To most, mentioning the banjo conjures up images of “hillbillies” playing on a back porch somewhere deep in Appalachia. To the urban, Portlandia mindset the banjo is an instrument used maybe twice in a live set by a bearded indie band in Brooklyn. Baby boomers might associate the banjo more with the sounds of 50s folk revival lead by the likes of Pete Seeger. In contemporary country music like Florida Georgia Line, the banjo is again present – this time juxtaposed against “modern” elements such as electronic dance beats. I could go on and on pointing out the genres, subgenres and trends of the past hundred years where the banjo makes a brief appearance before being relegated to the likes of a novelty instrument. But today I want to look at where the banjo came from, and why its origins are so important to understanding the heritage of American music.

Banjo as an African instrument

The banjo’s lineage can be traced directly back to Africa. The banjo’s closest overseas cousins are the Xalam and Akonting. Look at the construction of a modern day banjo – now compare this to the basic design of these African instruments. In the 18th century, slave ships brought more than just human cargo. They carried with them cultures and traditions whose music would go on to have a profound effect on defining American music. Africans in the new world were continuing a tradition of instrument building but now in a completely different environment and social structure. The earliest examples of these instruments have gourd bodies with an animal skin stretches over the top. The necks of the earliest banjos are smooth sticks with no frets. The use of steel strings and fretted necks weren’t widely seen until the end of the 19th century. Another defining feature of early banjos are “drone” or “thumb” strings.

What’s with the funny little half string on the banjo?

Look again at the banjo above. There are five strings, but one of them is shorter than the rest. That short little string is the aforementioned “drone” or “thumb” string. The idea behind a drone string is that it provides a rhythmic accompaniment to melodies played on other strings. In traditional banjo music the drone string is played on the “upbeats.” This kind of rhythmic accompaniment on “upbeats” is a distinctly African influence. Additionally, the use of a drone string can be found in stringed instruments throughout the west coast of Africa. The rhythmic accompaniment from this style of drone playing has had a direct influence on country music, R&B, pop and rock music.

There are four and six string banjos that have no drone strings, but these are the more Europeanized versions of the original instrument. The four string banjo was inspired by the mandolin in its tuning and went on to become the first stringed instrument to be used in the earliest styles of jazz. (Jazz guitar would have to wait until the advent of the electric guitar to be able to be heard above the other instruments). The development of the five string banjo that we know of today probably codified in the decades after the Civil War. More complex means of manufacturing allowed for machinefretted necks and steel strings as opposed to cat gut.

Throughout the centuries, the banjo has worked its way from Africa, to New World plantations, to Appalachia, to Europe and back, leaving its footprint throughout the landscape of American music. Throughout its voyage, it has brought along musical traditions and idioms that still live on in our music today. To me, this makes the banjo the quintessential “American” instrument. Next time you’re at a concert and someone pulls out a banjo – try and think past the current image you might have of the instrument. You’re looking at one of the most important contributors to American music.

I’ll end this with a great clip I found of musician Cedric Watson playing a traditional song on a fretless gourd banjo.

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