The banjo and the guitar have been around for centuries, but since both are string instruments, the differences between them may not be obvious for non-musicians, other than the design difference of course.
In this side-by-side comparison, we’ll explore all the differences between the banjo and the guitar so you can decide which of them to learn first!
Key Differences Between the Banjo and the Guitar
Here’s how playing banjo and guitar can be different:
The Banjo and Guitar sound quite different due to the materials used to make the body and the neck.
The body and neck of a guitar are usually made from hardwood materials, such as mahogany and walnut. On the flip side, banjos have pot-shaped metal bodies, with a head covered in goat skin. The body of a banjo will instantly remind you of drumheads because they look ridiculously similar. The banjo neck and the resonator are made of hardwood.
These design and material differences between the banjo and the guitar result in completely different sounds. The regular guitar has a warm sound that makes it suitable for music styles like rock, pop, country, and classical music.
On the contrary, the sound produced by a banjo has a unique twanged sound that makes it suitable for genres such as bluegrass and country. The sound of a banjo is truly unique, and no other string instrument is capable of producing a similar sound.
Ease of Learning and Tuning
Both the banjo and the guitar can be easy to learn. For certain individuals, the banjo might be a bit easier simply because its fretted neck is shorter and the number of strings is less. Kids, in particular, will find the banjo much easier to handle.
The metal strings themselves can be easy or hard to press down on depending on how thin they are. The thinner the strings, the easier they’ll be regardless of whether they’re installed on a banjo or guitar.
Another factor that can have a major impact on playability is tuning. The standard guitar tuning for a guitar is E,A,D,G,B,E, while the five-string banjo uses the open G standard tuning (G,D,G,B,D).
So what does that mean? Well, it’s simple: the banjo will be easier to grab and start playing right away since the strings are tuned to match one of the chords you’re about to play, thanks to the open tuning. You’ll be able to produce a nice sound without making as much effort as you would with the guitar.
The guitar, per contra, is a little trickier since you need to contour your fingers in different shapes across the guitar strings to play different chords. If you attempt strumming the strings of the guitar, it’ll sound dissonant.
On a side note, keep in mind that the guitar could be tuned to an open G tuning in certain guitar styles, like bluegrass music.
The banjo’s open tunings make it easier for beginners to play their first chord quickly. As a beginner banjo player, you can easily develop your playing style after learning the first few chords, usually G, C, and D.
While neither the banjo nor the guitar is designed for specific music styles, both instruments have been associated with different genres throughout history because of how each instrument sounds.
Since its existence, the banjo has been used in a wide variety of genres. The fifth string was only added in the 18th century. In the same period, the standard banjo tuning was popularized, which paved the way for the instrument’s association with bluegrass and country music, thanks to the twanged banjo sound. Nevertheless, there are no hard rules when it comes to playing chords from other genres with the banjo.
That’s not the case with guitar playing, as it’s associated with many more genres. Acoustic guitars are perfect for folk, blues, country, pop, jazz, and bluegrass, while the classical guitar is intended for folk, classical, and flamenco music. Hard rock and metal are associated with the electric guitar and bass guitar, but some rock and metal pieces may also include the acoustic guitar.
That’s why the guitar can naturally fit into any musical setting, compared to the banjo, which may be a bit off in certain situations.
The price differences between the guitar and the banjo are surprisingly huge.
While you can get a decent guitar for as little as $100, that’s not the case with the banjo. A performance-ready banjo would cost somewhere around $300-$350, which is at least 3x that of the guitar.
Sure, you can find cheaper banjo models, but good luck trying to get a decent sound out of them.
There are many reasons behind the pricing differences between the two instruments, but the most obvious reason is that guitars are in high demand, so they’re produced in mass quantities at lower prices than banjos.
Because of that, new players may decide to start with the guitar if they’re on a tight budget. It’s also worth mentioning that maintaining a banjo will cost you more money than maintaining a guitar in the long run.
Every professional musician has probably started their career in a jam session somewhere. If you’re a guitarist, you’ll find it harder to be welcomed in any jam session simply because there will already be a guitarist or two that occupy the guitar slots. Its a popular instrument, so it’s no secret that there are lots of people that play guitar.
For a banjo player, things are much easier. The banjo isn’t very common, so if you want to try your luck in some jam sessions, you should find a group more quickly than a guitarist of the same skill level.
This isn’t a hard rule, though. After all, every new guitar player will eventually start out somewhere, but it’ll take more work than with a banjo.
Is Learning Banjo Easy If You Already Play Guitar?
Learning the banjo should be much easier for a guitarist than someone who has never played a stringed instrument before. It’s all about how you put your fingers on the strings. While the guitar and the banjo are inherently different, they’re both string instruments, so the learning curve won’t be that steep for someone already used to playing the guitar.
In addition, banjo chords and fingerpicking are vastly similar to guitar chords. You might find the chords to be missing a string or two, but it’s no big deal.
What About the Banjo Guitar?
The banjo guitar is a six-string banjo that evolved from the banjo with five strings. It’s considered a hybrid instrument that combines the size and sound of the banjo with the flexibility of the typical guitar. The six strings make the chords more familiar with you play banjo strings.
The banjo guitar is the best instrument for a banjo player that can’t play the guitar for any reason, like the size difference. The sound will be different, but the chords won’t.
Banjo vs Guitar: Which of Them Should You Choose?
So that was a detailed walkthrough of the differences between the banjo and the guitar.
If you’re not sure which stringed instrument you should learn first, we can give you a few hints.
The guitar is more flexible when it comes to playing styles as it lets you strum or fingerpick. Plus, you can get a pro-level guitar at a much cheaper cost than the banjo. Another thing to consider is that there are tons of guitar learning resources, in comparison to the limited resources for the banjo.
However, keep in mind that the number of guitar players in the music industry far exceeds that of banjo players, so the barrier to entry is tougher.
On the other side of the coin, the banjo would be a good choice for you if you don’t mind investing a bit more in a performance-ready instrument. The open chord tuning of resonator banjos is also one of the factors that make the banjo easier.
The banjo’s finger picking and clawhammer style have also found a wide fan base, so if that sounds interesting to you, you should definitely go for the banjo. It’s a fun instrument that’s more beginner and kid-friendly than the guitar, especially if you intend to focus on bluegrass, country, or folk music.
In the end, the banjo vs guitar debate is all a matter of personal preference, so you might want to experiment a bit with the two instruments so you can find out whether learning guitar or banjo chords is easier for you.