A banjo is a stringed instrument that has a classically rounded body with a long, thin neck. The number of strings varies depending on the type: a classical banjo has only four or five strings, but other versions may have as many as six. The instrument's sound is commonly associated with bluegrass and country western music in the United States, although it appears in other musical genres as well. Musicians all over the world pick up the banjo for its distinctive style and sound, and are constantly refining the instrument to suit their specific needs.
Stringed instruments have been played for thousands of years throughout human civilization. The banjo probably originated in Africa, where an instrument called the mbanza was made by stretching animal skin over a gourd and adding a long neck with strings that were meant to be plucked by the musician. These stringed instruments were brought over to the Americas by captured slaves, and the first recorded instance of the word dates from the mid 1700s. In the 1800s, black minstrel shows made the banjo commonplace, and frets were added to the instrument to change the sound. The gourd had been replaced by a flat wood or metal frame by the time the instrument exploded into popular culture.
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Traditional banjos come in four or five string variants, usually, with the five string pegged partway up the neck and serving as a drone. The six string version is tuned and played much like a guitar, and some other exotic variants include even more strings. Musicians usually wear multiple finger picks to pluck the instrument, although some prefer to use their fingers instead. Banjo music is characterized by a distinctive “rinky-tink” sound, although there are a number of different playing styles, depending on the style of music and the training that the musician has received.
Four string variants include the tenor banjo, which has a shorter neck and a different tuning than a traditional model. Tenor banjos are often used in Irish music and in Dixieland bands. The plectrum banjo, another incarnation, has a longer traditional neck, and is designed to be played with a single pick, like a guitar. Musicians tend to strum more than pluck chords with this type, leading to a different style of sound. The banjo has also been hybridized with numerous instruments, including bouzoukis, ukuleles, mandolins, and guitars. These variants meld the distinctive sounds of their parent instruments for a unique sound and resonance.