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What Is Classic Banjo?

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  • Written By: Kathy Dowling
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2016
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Classic banjo, also called finger-style or guitar-style, is a particular style of music played on the banjo by picking the strings with the thumb, index, and middle finger, to create a smooth flowing sound. The five-string classic banjo style evolved from the stroke style during the 19th century and became popular among many banjo players well into the 20th century, particularly in America and England. Throughout time, however, classic banjo has become less popular and there are only a few contemporary banjo musicians who have preserved the classic banjo style as of 2011, including Geoff Freed from Black-Tie Banjo, and Clark Buehling.

The five-string classic banjo style evolved from the stroke style as a reaction to minstrel shows that were popular in America during the 19th century. Minstrel shows were produced at the time when African slaves were being sent to America and involved white musicians imitating African culture by painting their faces black and dressing in over-sized clothes. The shows incorporated a number of musicians, including a banjo player, who played the strings of the instrument in a hard-hitting, downward motion, creating a harsh sound, called the stroke style. Throughout time, classic banjo evolved, and the choppy-sounding stroke style was replaced by a melodious sound that resembled the guitar techniques during that time.

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The creation of the banjo extends back to the 17th century, and, while the structure of the instrument has changed over time, it is generally made-up of a head, fingerboard, tuning pegs, and strings. The head of the instrument is typically covered in either a synthetic material or animal hide and is connected to a Western-style fingerboard. Located at the end of the fingerboard are tuning pegs and, across the head and fingerboard, stretch four or five strings. When the strings are played, they vibrate against the stretched material covering the head, and a sound is produced.

Throughout time, the banjo has become popular in many genres of music, particularly country music. It was during the 1920s that the banjo formed a fundamental element in country music and, by the late 1930s, became identified with bluegrass, a sub-genre of country music with roots extending to traditional English, Irish, and Scottish music, while incorporating jazz to create upbeat tempos. Bluegrass began with Bill Monroe, an American musician who formed the first bluegrass group, called the Bluegrass Boys in 1938.

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