Over the centuries, the boundaries drawn on maps between countries couldn’t stop the overlapping of different cultures. And from the ruins of fallen empires and fulfillments of other surviving ones were born many mixed culture artifacts. A splendid example of this is the banjolele.
With an African origin and a dash of Hawaiian grandeur, the banjolele has long stood as one of the most remarkable stringed instruments. It combines the unique build and melodies of the banjo and the tuning and playing style of the ukulele.
But when it comes to banjo vs. banjolele, which one is easier to play? And what is the real difference between the two? Let’s find out!
While the banjo is an African musical instrument with a long neck and a drum-like body, the banjolele is a mix of the banjo and uke with a short, more fretted neck. The former produces upbeat and loud melodies, and the latter produces lighter sounds resembling uke tones.
Now, let’s get into the real comparison between the two musical instruments!
What Is a Banjo?
The banjo is an African instrument that reached America due to slave trades in the seventeenth century. It’s a distinctive-looking instrument with a body that looks like a drum and a long neck.
The five-string banjo is the classic one, but four-stringed and six-stringed instruments are also available. They produce loud characteristic melodies that you can recognize a mile away. Most banjos come with metal strings, but you might find a few with nylon strings around the market.
Banjos are most commonly used in folk and bluegrass music. However, some players use resonator banjos in other styles of music because of their loud sounds and vibrating melodies.
What Is a Banjolele?
The banjolele, also known as the banjo uke or banjo ukulele, is a combination of a banjo and a ukulele. It’s nylon-stringed and has the same construction as a banjo; only the banjolele has a short, fretted ukulele neck. Meanwhile, the banjo has a long neck with fewer frets.
As opposed to the long history of banjos that extends to centuries, banjoleles only showed up in the 1900s and didn’t become famous till George Formby used them to entertain troops during World War 2. He might be the most famous person to play the banjolele to this day.
Banjoleles can be tuned in the same way as ukes. Ukuleles are Hawaiian instruments of European origin, and they produce delicate and delightful tones that gained them a reputable place among string instruments.
The Clash of Cultures: Banjo vs. Banjolele
Despite the similarities, banjos and banjoleles have slightly different cultural backgrounds and produce different sounds. So they definitely can’t be treated as one instrument. In this section, I’ll dive into deep details regarding each difference between them, so bear with me!
Sound and Tuning
Naturally, the banjolele sounds a bit like the ukulele with its sweet melodies and rich tones; only it has a louder sound. It’s most famously used in contemporary country and stand-up comedy music, given its association with George Formby.
Meanwhile, banjos produce upbeat melodies that lack the sweetness and are rather bold. They’re also much louder than those of a banjo ukulele because of the metal strings, which resonate louder than nylon strings. As a result, they’re most commonly used in folk, bluegrass, and jazz music.
As for tuning, if you know how to tune a ukulele, then you’ll have no issues tuning a banjo uke. This is because banjolele and ukulele chords are the same.
Both instruments share the same standard tuning, G-C-E-A. Another common tuning you can use to play ukulele or banjolele is the Chicago Tuning, D-G-B-E. Generally, you can use these tunings for any four-stringed instrument, like the tenor banjo.
Meanwhile, tuning a classic five-stringed banjo is entirely different. The standard tuning for this musical instrument is called the Open G. It’s easy enough for beginners to start with, and it has the following order of notes, G-D-G-B-D.
The second most famous tuning is the G Modal, also called the sawmill tuning. It’s almost similar to the Open G with only one different string, which is the second. The order of notes in a G Modal tuning is G-D-G-C-D.
All in all, tuning a banjolele is very different from tuning a banjo.
When looking at both musical instruments, you’ll notice that the banjo ukulele is smaller than the banjo. This is because the banjolele has a shorter neck. However, the two sound chambers have the same size and drum-like shape. Overall, both instruments don’t fall under the large instruments category.
Because of its more travel-friendly size, the banjolele is often less pricey and much lighter than the banjo, making it more portable. Its size resembles that of the concert ukulele.
Generally, all four-stringed banjos are smaller than five-stringed ones.
Compared to the long-lasting reign of the banjo as one of the most iconic instruments in American history, the banjo ukulele is less popular. This is probably because the modified musical instrument often gets forgotten and buried beneath the glory of both the banjo and the uke.
The four-string banjo ukelele produces soft sounds that shine the most when paired with other instruments. However, the upbeat banjo sound deems the musical instrument the main one in many pieces, without the need for a supplement.
But this doesn’t mean you won’t find banjoleles in music stores. On the contrary, they’re still pretty reputable because of their rich history as hybrid instruments. In addition, many people who play banjo end up learning the four-stringed musical instrument as a challenge.
Ease of Use
In general, four-string instruments are more challenging to learn than ones with five strings. So it’s a popular fact that banjos are easier to learn than banjoleles. There’s also the fact that you don’t need to use frets to produce sounds on a banjo. However, frets are essential for playing banjoleles.
That said, in my opinion, it isn’t a rule. The experience of learning a string instrument differs from one person to another. For instance, I think nylon ukulele strings are easier to strum and play for a long time than steel strings of banjos. You’ll probably need to use a pick if you plan on strumming banjo strings for a long while.
More so, a background in string instruments can make all the difference. For example, you’ll find it much easier to learn banjos and banjoleles if you’ve played guitar before. While playing a small banjo isn’t exactly like playing a small guitar, there are a lot of similarities that can help you master both in no time.
In the end, you’ll need to take courses, practice, and dedicate a lot of time if you plan on joining professional musicians worldwide. This goes whether you’re learning the banjo or the four-string banjo ukelele. So don’t worry about the fact that the latter is more challenging to learn for many people.
Frequently Asked Question
What Is the Difference Between Tenor Banjos and Banjoleles?
A tenor banjo is a four-stringed musical instrument that often comes with steel strings. Meanwhile, a banjolele is a hybrid instrument that has nylon strings. Despite their differences, they can be tuned using the same tuning, the Chicago tuning.
What Is the Difference Between a Resonator and an Open-Back Banjo?
A resonator banjo has an enclosed body as the sound champer comes with a wooden back. On the other hand, an open-back banjo doesn’t have a back, hence the name. So the sound chamber is exposed to the world. Generally, resonator instruments are much louder and produce more vibrating melodies.
Do I Have to Use a Pick to Play the Banjo?
No, you don’t. You can play the banjo without a pick, and it’s even preferred to do so if you strum a lot. However, your fingers might hurt you after a while because of the rough strings, so you should learn how to play using a pick just in case.
Are Banjoleles Hawaiian?
They aren’t completely Hawaiian. The origin of banjoleles isn’t confirmed, but the most solid theory is that Alvin D.Keech invented them in 1918. This means that banjoleles are American instruments with a half-African, half-Hawaiian origin.
To Wrap Up
Although banjos and banjoleles might look similar at first glance, they couldn’t be more different. Banjoleles have four strings made of nylon and a short neck, while banjos have five strings made of metal and a long neck.
In addition, banjoleles produce lower and softer sounds that resemble those of ukes. That’s why they’re often used to complement other instruments in musical pieces, as opposed to the main role of banjos in many songs.
Overall, banjos are easier to learn, but you can master the banjolele without an issue if you’ve played stringed instruments before.