Banjos are probably the most confusing instrument available.
The term “banjo” is used indiscriminately for various instruments which are dissimilar in so many respects that they really ought to have different names.
It is further complicated by various groups of players using the same words to mean radically different things. A “long neck” banjo means one particular instrument to a 5-string folk player and something else entirely to a jazz player.
We’ll try to de-mystify some of this but please e-mail any further questions so we can try (over the next few months) to make this page as comprehensive as possible.
Here is a range of the commoner types of banjo. All the pictures are to the same scale so you can see the different sizes of instrument; the letters refer to the descriptions that follow:
A. Ukulele banjo (often called “uke banjo” or “banjolele”)
The uke banjo is quite small. It has 4 nylon strings. It is usually played by strumming chords as an accompaniment to singing although other styles are possible. It is generally associated with George Formby.
It’s an ideal “sing-along” instrument and very easy to learn. You can make an acceptable sound with even a modest uke banjo provided it is in good playing order.
Good quality modern uke banjos are quite hard to find but there are many nice old examples to be had – mostly pre-1940. Both open back and resonator models are available (what’s a resonator and what’s it for? – see FAQ).
If you want an easy instrument with great portability for song accompaniment, choose a ukulele banjo.
B. Mandolin banjo
Often wrongly called a “banjolin”, which is actually a rather different and much rarer version of the banjo (see “other types of banjos” at the end of this page).
The mandolin banjo is usually quite small although larger versions with full size banjo bodies are sometimes available. It has 8 metal strings tuned as 4 pairs (so it’s effectively only a 4 string instrument). It is usually played by picking out melodies with a plectrum although other styles are possible.
It’s a reasonably strong melody instrument and quite easy to learn. You definitely need a good quality instrument as a poor example may be nearly impossible to tune.
Good quality modern mandolin banjos are quite hard to find. Both open back and resonator models are available.
If you want a fairly easy instrument with great portability for melody playing, choose a mandolin banjo.