1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Banjo

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BANJO, a musical instrument with strings plucked by fingers or plectrum, popular among the American negroes and introduced by them into Europe. The word is either a corruption of "bandore" or "pandura" (q.v.), an instrument of the guitar type, or is derived from "bania," the name of a similar primitive Senegambian instrument.

The banjo consists of a body composed of a single piece of vellum stretched like a drum-head over a wooden or metal hoop to ensure the requisite degree of resonance; the parchment may be tightened or slackened by means of a series of screws disposed round the circumference of the hoop. Attached to the body, which has no back, is a long neck, terminating in a flat head acting as a peg-box and bent back slightly at an obtuse angle from the neck. There are five, six or nine strings to the banjo; they are fastened to a tail-piece as in the violin, pass over a low bridge, on the body, and are strained over the nut or ridge at the end of the neck, where they are threaded through holes and wound round the tuning-pegs fixed in the back of the head in Oriental fashion, as in the lute (q.v.). The strings are stopped by the pressure of the fingers against the finger-board which lies over the front of the neck; the correct positions for the formation of the intervals of the scale are indicated in some banjos by frets consisting of metal or wooden bands inlaid in the finger-board. The vibrating length of the strings from bridge to nut is 24 in. for all except the highest in pitch, known as the "chanterelle," "melody" or "thumb string," which is only 16 in. long; its tuning peg is inserted half-way up the neck. The chanterelle is not, as in other stringed instruments, in its position as the highest in pitch, but is placed next the lowest string for convenience in playing it with the thumb. In the tables of accordance here given, the chanterelle is indicated by a X. The five-stringed banjo is tuned either

Banjo music 1.png or Banjo music 2.png

The six-stringed is tuned Banjo music 3.png

The nine-stringed banjo has three thumb strings thus Banjo music 4.png

The G clef is used in notation, but the notes sound an octave lower than they are written. The banjo is usually a transposing instrument in the sense that, when playing with other instruments, the A corresponds to the C of the piano or violin; the key of A major is therefore the first to be mastered. The chanterelle does not lie over the finger-board and is always played open by the thumb.

The banjo is held so that the neck is even with the left shoulder and the body rests on the right thigh; the front of the instrument is held inclined at an angle, allowing the performer to see all the strings. When played as a solo instrument, a plectrum may be used with good effect to produce rapid scale and arpeggio passages, or to produce the tremolo or sustained notes as on the mandoline (q.v.). The best results are obtained by means of a tortoise-shell plectrum about the size of a shilling,[1] having the contact-edges highly polished, bevelled and terminating in a point. The tone of the banjo is louder and harder than that of the guitar. Chords of two, three and four notes can be played on it.

The banjo or bania of the African negro having grass strings is still in use on the coast of Guinea. The banjo was made known in England through companies of coloured minstrels from the United States, one of which came over to London as early as 1846.

(K. S.)

  1. See A. H. Nassau-Kennedy, I.S.M., Banjo-Plectring.