When thinking about the banjo’s iconic fame in the musical world, it’s hard to know whether it’s because of the rich history, twangy melodies, or the variety of types. But one thing is for sure; the many types helped the musical instrument gain a wider fan base as they satisfied more tastes.
The two most famous banjos are the four-string and five-string, and they couldn’t be more different. But which one of them is easier to learn? And do they sound similar? I’ll tell you the answers and more in this 4-string vs. 5-string banjo comparison. So let’s jump in!
The main difference between the four-string and five-string banjos is the fifth string that only the latter has. Besides that, the 4-string banjo produces brighter and crispier sounds, is tuned in fourths, and is commonly used in Dixieland jazz and Celtic music. On the other hand, the 5-string banjo is tuned in fifths and is often used in classical and folk music.
Now, let’s dive into deeper details!
The Battle of the Giants: 4-String vs. 5-String Banjo
Although they’re two types of the same instrument, there are a lot of differences between five-string and four-string banjos. Here’s a list of the most important ones.
The 5-string banjo is considered the classic one that acts as a base for all the other types. So it doesn’t branch into further types. The 4-string banjo, on the other hand, is available in three different types, banjolele, tenor banjo, and plectrum banjo.
The banjolele is a combination of the ukulele and the banjo, while the plectrum banjo is played with a flat pick and is mainly used in Dixieland music. The third type is the Irish tenor banjo, and it’s probably the most famous. It’s called this way because it sounds similar to the fiddle and is often used in traditional Irish music.
Tuning a five-string banjo is very different from tuning a four-string banjo. For instance, a 5-string banjo is tuned in fifths, while a 4-string banjo is tuned in fourths.
The standard tuning for a five-string banjo is the Open G tuning, and it consists of the notes, G-D-G-B-D.
On the other hand, each 4-string banjo type has its standard tuning. For example, the tenor banjo is most commonly tuned to C-G-D-A, which is the standard tuning. But when used in Irish music, it’s often tuned to G-D-A-E. This tuning is a favorite for Irish musicians and is named after them.
The plectrum banjo’s most famous tuning is C-G-B-D, while the banjolele’s standard is G-C-E-A, like the ukelele. Finally, the tuning that you can use for both tenor banjos and plectrum banjos is called the Chicago tuning, and it consists of the following notes, D-G-B-E.
All banjos are characterized by their loud sounds and upbeat melodies. That’s what gained them a reputable place in folk music and country music. However, there’s a slight difference between the sound of a 4-string and a 5-string banjo.
Four-string banjos produce brighter melodies with a vibrating undertone, while five-string banjos produce loud, softer sounds. That’s why they’re often the favored instruments in bluegrass music.
It’s worth mentioning that the tuning you choose might slightly affect the sound of your instrument, whether you’re using a four-string, five-string, or six-string banjo.
Build and Size
The standard scale length for a 4-string banjo ranges from 26 to 28 inches. However, the 5-string banjo has a shorter scale length that stops at 26 ¼ inches.
Overall, the two instruments look similar with long necks and rounded sound chambers. But you can tell the difference right away by spotting the fifth string on the five-stringed instrument, famously called the drone string or thumb string.
The easiness of learning both instruments depends on many factors, so there’s no definite answer to the question of which one is easier to play. For instance, if you’re already a uke or a guitar player, you’ll learn either one faster than others who aren’t.
The playing style you choose also has a huge role in your progress. The clawhammer style is famously easier than the bluegrass style. So, if you decide to play bluegrass, you’ll take a longer time to master the instrument. That said, both instruments are easier to play than the six-string banjo.
But if you’re asking, how many strings should I go for if I’m a beginner? Then I say you should start with four strings and go from there. For instance, you can start with tenor banjos. Then, once you master the instrument, you can go for five-string and six-string banjos.
History and Popularity
Five-string banjos date back to the seventeenth century, and they showed in America after the arrival of enslaved Africans. On the other hand, the four-string banjo didn’t emerge till the late nineteenth century, specifically in the ragtime and early jazz eras.
In terms of history, five-string banjos are African, but four-string banjos have a modernized American touch.
As for popularity, the 5-string banjo is the most famous type worldwide. Whether it’s because of the instrument’s main presence in many musical genres or the fact that it’s older, it has more fans.
To Wrap Up
Although they’re basically the same instrument, there are many differences between five-stringed and four-stringed banjos. They differ in scale length, the number of strings, tuning methods, and sound, to name a few. And when it comes to popularity, the scale tilts in favor of the five-string banjo.
Now that you know the differences between the two, you can choose how many strings you want to learn!