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date: 28 September 2020


  • Jay Scott Odell
  •  and Robert B. Winans


A plucked string instrument with a long guitar-like neck and a circular soundtable, usually called the ‘head’, of tautly stretched parchment or skin (now usually plastic), against which the bridge is pressed by the strings. The banjo and its variants have had long and widespread popularity as folk, parlour and professional entertainers’ instruments. The name of the instrument probably derives from the Portuguese or Spanish bandore.

The modern five-string banjo is normally fitted with raised frets and strung with five steel wire strings, the lowest in pitch being overspun with fine copper alloy wire. It is tuned g′–c–g–b–d′ (C tuning) or g′–d–g–b–d′ (G tuning), but many other tuning patterns, e.g. g′–c–g–c′–d′, g′–d–g–c′–d′ and g′–d–g–a–d′, are used to facilitate the playing of particular songs. There are usually 24 or more screw-tightening brackets (for adjusting the head tension) attached to the outer side of a tambourine-like rim of laminated wood about 28 cm in diameter. In banjos of high quality the upper edge over which the head is stretched is often of complicated design, as in an early (1920s) ‘Mastertone’ system of O.H. Gibson, which used a tubular metal ‘tone tube’ resting on spring-supported ball-bearings, or the ‘Electric’ design of ...

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Musical Antiquary
Musical Quarterly