The primary difference between the mandolin and the banjo is the sound.
The mandolin’s sound features a high pitch compared to the twanged sounds that the banjo produces. The mandolin is also more compact than the banjo, and it has at least eight strings compared to the 4 or 5-string setup of a banjo.
However, these aren’t the only differences between the two musical instruments, and we’re going to cover how they differ more thoroughly in this mandolin vs banjo side-by-side comparison.
Banjo vs Mandolin: Difference Between the Mandolin and the Banjo
Alright, now let’s explore how the mandolin and the banjo differ in terms of sound, design, and other factors.
Mandolins usually have eight strings that run over a fretted fingerboard like the acoustic guitar, but some models might have 10 or even 12 strings. The strings are paired, which is how the sound of a mandolin is so consistent and unique.
On the other hand, banjos either have 4 or 5 strings that are individually tensioned. Banjos that have a fifth string are more versatile.
Most mandolin players like to use picks to play the instrument, while banjo players may use their fingers, picks, or plectrums. Both instruments use steel strings that can be stainless steel or nickel-plated steel, but some mandolin models might have nylon strings.
Size and Portability
Banjo and mandolin necks are totally different, with mandolins having shorter necks.
The mandolin comes in various sizes, but since its neck and frets are pretty short, the overall profile of a mandolin is never too prominent. The neck is thicker than the banjo as it accommodates at least eight strings.
On the contrary, the banjo’s guitar-style long neck makes it bigger from a “volume” perspective when carried in a gig bag.
Generally speaking, the mandolin is pretty compact, and it’s comparable to the tenor violin in terms of size.
As for weight, most banjos are much heavier than mandolins, so that’s something to keep in mind if you’re a live performer who needs to travel frequently with your instrument. Young kids would also prefer learning the mandolin because of how lightweight it is.
The body of the mandolin and the banjo is one of the most significant distinctions between the two instruments.
A mandolin’s body is typically wooden and hollow with a teardrop shape, along with a triangular pick guard below the strings that protects the main body from damage and two f-shaped holes that let the distinct sound get out from inside.
On the flip side, the banjo’s body is circular and resembles a drum head with animal hide similar to snare drums. It incorporates a tone ring on the inside and a wood ring on the outside. Some models also have a resonator on the back.
It’s also worth noting that the mandolin fretboard is somewhat narrow compared to the banjo’s fretboard.
The mandolin is the perfect instrument for playing secular songs, while banjos are popular amongst musicians in the country and folk music genres.
Lots of mandolin players hook it up to amps when performing in large events. The banjo, on the other side, can be suitable for small gigs and even having some fun with friends and family. Sure, you can still get loud sounds from the banjo when you hook it up, but the opposite isn’t true for the mandolin.
Many banjos have resonators that make their sound louder, which can be quite handy when performing live.
The mandolin has a high-pitched sound, particularly because it’s tuned lower.
Most modern mandolins are tuned in fifths, while banjos are often tuned in fourths. Whether your banjo is a four-string or five-string model, it’ll still be tuned in fourths. This also includes the tenor banjo, clawhammer banjo, and the Irish banjo.
The way the banjo is tuned allows it to produce a soulful sound, as opposed to the high-pitch sound of the mandolin.
Banjos and mandolins are priced almost the same. The price depends on the model you choose. You can find a mandolin or a banjo for as low as $200.
Ideally, you’d want to start with a cheaper model, and once you’ve mastered the basics and made sure that you like the instrument, you can upgrade to a higher-end model.
Which Is Easier to Learn: the Banjo or the Mandolin?
Both the banjo and the mandolin are learnable, so it all comes down to your personal preference and music taste.
However, for a beginner musician, the banjo might be a bit easier to master than the mandolin simply because there are fewer strings involved.
The two instruments produce totally different tones, with the mandolin a broader sound and the banjo producing a louder sound that’s also brighter.
You should also keep in mind that certain types of music are a bit challenging to learn regardless of the instrument you choose. Rapidly-played genres in particular, such as blues, will be difficult on both the mandolin and the banjo.
Moreover, getting taught by a qualified teacher can make all the difference.
Reasons to Play the Mandolin
Here are some of the reasons why playing the mandolin can be awesome:
Suitable for Various Genres
One of the biggest advantages of playing the mandolin is that you can use it to play across genres. Mandolin musicians can play folk, classical music, European folk, country, and bluegrass music. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities and experimentation for you and your band.
Learning the Chords Is Simple
Figuring out the mandolin’s chords is straightforward for bluegrass and folk music. You can find lots of tutorials online for mandolin chords. If you practice enough, you’ll be able to play any song you want within a short period with this great instrument.
It Looks Unique
There’s no denying that the mandolin looks great, even though it’s not the only stringed instrument out there.
Reasons to Play the Banjo
Thinking about playing the banjo? Here’s why it can be a good idea:
It’s a Transitional Instrument
If you’re already a guitarist or a violinist, you’ll be able to master the banjo fairly quickly. The strings and chords aren’t that different from guitars, so you won’t have to learn the chords of your favorite songs all over again.
The Sound Can Be Altered
The beauty of the banjo is that you can make it sound just like you want it to sound. By using a backing, a different number of strings, and switching from electric to acoustic or vice versa, the banjo makes a good instrument for experimentation.
A Brief History of the Mandolin and the Banjo
OK, now it’s time for a quick crash course on the history of the mandolin and the banjo.
We’ll start with the mandolin. This interesting musical instrument was invented back in the mid-1800s in Italy. It’s considered an evolution of the mandora, another musical instrument that originated in Germany in the 16th century.
The pear shaped instrument was significantly influenced by the maker Pasquale Vinaccia of Naples (1806–82), and that’s how we got the modern form and proportions of this instrument.
Moving on to the banjo, the instrument was invented in the early 1800s in North America by West African slaves. The modern form of the instrument was realized in the 1890s when the frets were added to the long neck.
The banjo only had four strings at first, but over the years, several variants with five strings popped up.
Over time, a hybrid instrument, called the banjolin, was developed. It’s basically a combination of the best characteristics of both instruments.
So that was a quick look at the differences between the mandolin and the banjo.
The two stringed instruments are vastly different when it comes to playing music, but that’s not everything. They also differ in size, weight, number of strings, and pitch.
Depending on the style of music you want to play, you may favor one instrument over the other, but regardless of your choice, these two stringed instruments aren’t that hard to learn for beginners.