The Controversial History Of The Banjo

History can be a hard thing to discuss, because, inevitably, you probably weren’t there to see the events unfold as they did. 

This is especially true when we’re talking about the history of one particular musical instrument with a somewhat checkered past – the banjo.

The banjo, as we know it, dates back 400 or so years to the Carribean in the 1600’s, when and where it was first documented.

By documented, I am referring to the only way anything way typically was documented centuries before now, and that is to say – in books, by way of either sketches or more detailed drawings, since cameras weren’t yet invented.

Sir Hans Sloane – First Documented Picture of a Banjo

For instance, here is an image taken from a travel journal from 1707 by Sir Hans Sloane, called “A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica”. 

This shows the first documented image of what appears to be a banjo, or something like it, in the Carribean isles.

It should be noted that the book from which this picture was taken, was based on events that occurred in 1687, and then transcribed into book form in the 1700’s. 

Sir Hans Sloane was a noted Irish physician, and his purpose in the Carribean was to assist the new Governor of Jamaica, the second Duke of Albemarle, as his personal physician.

While visiting the islands, he collected plants for study and also documented other things.  He also invented drinkable chocolate (chocolate milk), so you have him to thank for that, apparently.

As you can see from the drawings in his documents of the islands around Jamaica, these “banjos”, as it were, didn’t really resemble the banjos of today.  This is because they weren’t, strictly speaking, banjos.

These instruments were, at the time of documentation by Hans Sloane, considered to be simply the instruments the peoples of the Carribean were playing at the time, and in the text you can see them referred to as “lutes”.

One of the defining characteristics of a banjo, which is present in the above example, is the drum-like body.

I should mention that, around this time in history (mid-1600’s), there were dozens of variations of stringed instruments that all appeared slightly different.

With the increasingly large migration patterns of people in 1600’s, it was certainly a difficult task to document what each was called, and what unique traits each one possessed.

Stringed instruments themselves date back 40 000 years, so it’s not as though stringed instruments themselves were new.  Humans have been playing stringed instruments for thousands of years. 

Plucked lutes, in particular, have been documented in Mesopotamia from around 6000 years ago.

Today the word banjo is loosely defined as: A stringed musical instrument (chordophone) with a round body, a membrane like soundboard and a fretted neck, played by plucking or strumming the strings.  

The origin of the word “banjo” can be traced back to several places, including “banja” from Jamaica, “banza” from Brazil, and mbanza from Angola.

I’ve also seen the word “banjo”, used as a verb, meaning “to beat” or “to hit”.  As in, “He banjoed that guy in the face.”  This usage is, apparently, of British decent.  I don’t believe it is commonly used nowadays, but only the Brits know this for sure.

Where Did The Banjo Instrument Originally Come From?

Although the first documented picture of what could be considered a banjo dates back to the 1600’s in the Carribean islands (ie.(the one at the top of this article), this doesn’t mean banjos were “invented” in the Carribean.

Again, if we define a banjo as a stringed instrument with several strings and a drum-like surface, we can trace its origins back even further, and to other continents.

There are many popular perceptions surrounding precisely where the banjo originated, and there are logical reasons for each of these presumptions. 

For example, most people who live in North America don’t think first of the Carribean as the birthplace of the banjo.  To some of us living in North America, suggesting that the banjo came from the Carribean doesn’t really sound accurate, and I think this is understandable.

The more dominant association that Westerners, I think, tend to recognize between the banjo and a particular geographic location, links the banjo, at least in the Westernized mind, to the southern United States.

This is a fair guess, as much of the lore, not to mention the majority of the popular media from the past 50 years, associates the banjo with styles of music that originated in the southern U.S., such as bluegrass, dixieland, and country music.

In addition, southern banjo players have been prominently been featured on various television shows and movies over the past 50 or so years, and that leads many of us to simply assume that banjo must come from the southern U.S., not the Carribean, as most research points to quite clearly.

Indeed, I’d say that there is a deep association between the instrument we call the “banjo” and states in the U.S. which are considered to be Appalachian. 

Appalachian states include: West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

In turn, the history of Appalachian culture traces back to Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, when those peoples moved to North America and began living there in the 1800’s.  And so, there are those who might guess that the banjo may have come from these countries, originally. 

For example, it would seem fairly logical to think that the banjo may have come from Ireland, where the banjo is still popular today, when Irish peoples migrated into the mysterious and mountainous Appalachian rural regions, when the potato famine and general starvation prompted them to leave their homeland.

As many of us are aware, there are various stigmas attached to the idea of the someone who is from Appalachia, both good and bad, which I need not elaborate on here. 

Suffice it to say, Appalachian peoples are considered to be of the land, and there is certainly a connotation that links banjo playing to a more rural type of folk. 

In other words, an impoverished people, and this is fact is very much line with the reputation of previous peoples who played the banjo in past decades, where they were of a lower caste.  

Here is that famous scene from the movie Deliverance, featuring the classic “dueling banjos” bit, although one “banjo” is clearly a guitar.

The interesting thing about the boy from Deliverance, Lonnie, who was presumably chosen for this unusual appearance (the book depicts an albino negro), is that he didn’t even know how to play the banjo, nor was he recruited from the backwoods of northern Georgia.  

This next clip interviews the “boy” himself (now in his 50’s), played by Billy Redden, where he talks more about his role in the movie and his lack of skill on the instrument.

The clip also includes an interview with Ronny Cox (who played Drew Ballinger) talking about the cultural significance of the famous banjo scene, as being one of the defining movie moments of all time.

As more research is done about the history of the banjo, an interesting but rather dark narrative began to emerge from the gloaming of the past.

All that is needed to put this in perspective is a proper view of history and the slave trade in the 1600’s, which historians, by this point, have illustrated rather conclusively, to the point where any educated person would have trouble refuting it.

When it comes to the banjo’s true origins, all research points to it originating from Africa.  Specifically, countries such as Senegal or The Gambia (ie. Senegambia), which were the focus of the slave trade.

The original picture which I shared at the beginning of this article, from 1707, shows a version of the banjo that does not yet appear in its modern form.

Banjos made from gourds

When the banjo was beginning to catch on in the Carribean, it still showed some evidence of its past where it was fashioned sometimes out of gourds, serving as a shell for the body.  This was then attached to its characteristic long neck, and strings were added.

Before banjos took on the appearance we know them to have today, with a circular body shaped that almost looks like a snare drum, their precursors from Africa were often made from different materials than were available in the Americas in later centuries. 

Here is a reproduction of a colonial era banjo made with a gourd for a body.  As you can see, this has influences of a style of instrument popular in Africa over the centuries.  At the same time, you can see how this instrument below does have characteristics of the modern banjo.

Next, we have an image of a banjo that seems to bridge the gap, between a banjo body made out of a gourd, and one that more resembles a wider circular drum. 

Even though it still has a primitive look, like it wasn’t “professionally” built, this banjo begins to take on a more “modern” shape.

The image most of us conjure up when someone says the word “banjo”, was not yet in existence in 1707, and wouldn’t be for at least 100 years.

Here is an old banjo from the 1900’s.  By this time, banjos were fully Americanized, one might say.  It has the modern fretboard, the modern tuning pegs, and the unmistakable body and neck shape.

To reach its modern form, history would have to wait until the late, great, and controversial Joel Sweeney came along in the 1830’s and “invented” it, or so it has been said.

Joel Sweeney, “Inventor” of the 5-String Banjo

Joel Walker Sweeney was a popular minstrel performer from the first half of the 19th century hailing from Virginia, who was perhaps the first popular white man to famously play the instrument.  At the same time, he was said to have been taught by African Americans, which is partly why he could play so good.

Joel Sweeney has been credited with raising the profile of the banjo from an instrument associated with the unwashed masses, and bring it up to a level of sophistication which could be eventually be accepted, and then firmly embraced by the middle class.  

Claiming that Joel Sweeney somehow single handedly raised the stature of banjo playing on a global level is almost too ludicrous to say, but it may in fact ultimately be true. 

The reason the claim is contentious, is because Joel Sweeney was not just a talented performer who ended up making the banjo more famous because of his adept abilities on the instrument.  He certainly was that, but that was only part of how Joel Sweeney shined the spotlight on the banjo, and “brought it” to the higher societal castes, as it were.

Here is a book on Joel Walker Sweeney, if you are interested in getting the full story on the man and what he did for the banjo.

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The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy

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The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy

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It is more accurate to say, I think, that Joel Sweeney was a multi-talented circus performer who, according to rumour, played the instrument with his feet, while fiddlin’ with his hands, and then playing mouth harp all at the same time, when the mood hit him. 

He was also highly skilled at imitating animals, as one of his primary talents for which he was known.  Basically, the guy was just a son of a gun who was, by all accounts, very entertaining to everyone who happened to catch his performances.

His influence spread as he and his troupe toured America, as well as Europe, and even played for Queen Victoria in 1843.  He then went on and played and showed off his formidable banjo playing skills with his brothers, called Old Joe’s Minstrels.

Joel Sweeney’s influence on the popularity of the banjo cannot be underestimated.

The controversy, which occurs more in retrospect than it did at the time it happened, comes now from the fact that Joel was a blackface performer, a practice which is now practically forbidden in Western society today.

To be specific, blackface is the theatrical practice where non-black performers painted themselves up to look “black” with greasepaint, burnt cork, or shoe polish.

The last time we saw people performing in blackface wasn’t all that long ago.  One more recent instance was The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1978.

Consider this – slavery didn’t end until 1865, with the introduction of the 13th Amendment, which declares: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Of course, it is not difficult to see the connection between the racial stereotypes that blackface seemed to promote, and the mistreatment of blacks through the centuries.  In fact, the idea of the old style minstrel show, complete with blackface, is a quick reminder to many people, to this day, of the existence of slavery, and various caricatures of black culture.

Of course, where you had minstrel shows in the 17th century, onward, you had blackface, and so then you had banjos.  Banjos, the instrument which was beginning to see acceptance worldwide, and detaching itself from various prejudices of the times, was still very much embroiled in what I can only call “racism”.

It is understood that, in the context of the times, minstrel shows were quite normal.  Then again, so was slavery. 

Perhaps the most famous blackface performer people know today is Al Jolson, who was the highest paid entertainer back in the 1920’s and was, at the time, proclaimed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” at one time.

Al Jolson, although he didn’t play the banjo himself, helped popularize one of the most well known banjo songs ever – Oh Susanna. 

To me, this song represents, in large part, why the banjo is thought to come from the southern U.S., as the lyrics reflect this, and the song is maybe the best known banjo tune of all time.

As you can see above, Al Jolson used blackface makeup, which he often did. 

This practice of blackface dated back to, reportedly, the 1400’s, but had become very popular in colonial America at the time in the 1800’s.  There are many pictures of blackface performers holding or playing banjos.

The association between minstrels wearing blackface makeup and the banjo itself is a strong one, but I don’t say this to indict the banjo as being part of the history of racism, even though it essentially is a part of that history.  That said, you can’t really “blame” an instrument for anything, can you?

Of course, there’s no denying that the banjo probably wouldn’t have made it to the Carribean, to be used by slaves in the Americas, had it not been brought across the seas along with the thousands of slaves who played similar instruments, and who were sold to slavers at the time, in the 1600’s, when the trade was in full swing.

It is worth mentioning that at this time, the banjo was not called a “banjo.”   I mentioned some of the other names of the banjo that were used previously, but, back in 1687, when Sir Hans Sloane was travelling in the Carribean, writing his now-famous journals, he referred to the instrument as the “strum strump”.  Nice name!  


In these African communities in Senegambia, from which slaves were being captured and brought to the Americas by the thousands, there was (and still is) an instrument known as the akonting, which is said to be the precursor to the modern banjo.

Other African instruments said to be precursors of the banjo include the ngoni and xalam, but for now I’ll focus on the akonting, a hide-covered instrument said to be the most similar to the banjo. 

The akonting (also known as the ekonting to the Jola tribes who first created them) is a strummed folk lute style of instrument which is similar to a banjo, traditionally made with a gourd for a body, along with two strings for melody, plus one drone string played with the thumb.  This makes the akonting similar to a 5-string banjo. 

The akonting can be traced back to the village of Kanjanka, Senegal.  It can be tuned in different ways, similar to a 5-string banjo, and its tuning, called kanjanka, equates to kan (5th note of a scale), jan (root note of a scale), and ka (the flatted 7th), or 5/1/-7. 

Here is a picture of a Jola village, the originators of the akonting / ekonting instrument.

Up next, we have a man named Daniel Jatta, playing a tune written by his father on the akonting in the traditional style. 

The downstroke style here, called “o’teck” or “to strike”, is very similar in style to the very first banjo styles in the Americas, the “stroke style”, which was a precursor to the clawhammer or frailing style.

While all of this seems very plausible, that the akonting was brought over to the Americas by slaves, and that is the instrument upon which the modern banjo was based, there is still some controversy around this topic, making it unclear at which point exactly what happened during those harrowing years when the slaves were brought to the Americas.

Banjos on the Plantations

By 1807, there were over 3 million African slaves in the Americas, where they harvested crops like tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

Once the slaves were living in the Americas, they lived on the plantations, worked, and, above all else, suffered.  For a more detailed history of what this was like, go here.

As much as the African slaves suffered, their music never left them, and they looked for opportunities to express it, as anyone would.

Although they basically were brought here with nothing, the African slaves were eventually able to have some small respite from their masters, at first through the singing of gospel music, which is something that was impossible to take from them completely and helped them cope. 

Then, if they were able, they would produce the occasional musical instrument that they were able to build by hand.

This is where their memories of their favourite native African instruments came back to them, and they were able to make these banjo-esque instruments, in order to accompany their singing, and put voice to their struggle. 

That is, if their cruel slave masters allowed it.  Some plantation owners certainly did not accommodate their wishes, regardless of how modest they were.

Here is a recent “lynching memorial” erected in Montgomery, Alabama.

William Boucher

In the midst of the tumult that was America in the 1800’s, due to slavery, wars, and other factors, a Baltimore man named William Boucher was busy building instruments, including drums and minstrel banjos.  He was the first ever commercial maker of banjos in the U.S.A.

Here is a video which shows a replica of a Boucher banjo being played.  Not surprisingly, there’s a little Oh Susanna thrown in for good measure. 

You can still purchase original builds of these banjos, although they will can cost upwards of $10 000 nowadays.


While there is plenty more to say about the development of the banjo up through the years, I think it’s alright to stop here.  

As we know, the banjo went on to become an instrument that is a major part of the broader musical landscape around the world. 

Despite its confusing and controversial history, I can say that in 2018, if a young person wants to learn the banjo, they can do so without having to ponder all of the heavier historical baggage that comes along with it and just enjoy the music.  

That said, sweeping history under the rug is never a wise thing to do, especially when we know some of the facts.

Deering Goodtime Americana Banjo 12 In. Rim Review

The Deering Goodtime Americana Banjo has a grand 12 inch rim and a beautiful Renaissance head. These combine to give the instrument an incredible bass response with a warm tone. From the peghead with the Americana name all the way down to the blonde rim, this banjo will look great while you’re learning to play or when you’re standing in front of an audience.

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Deering Goodtime Americana Banjo 12 In Rim

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  • Grand 12” rim
  • Renaissance head
  • Rock maple neck
  • Hardwood bow-tie inlay
  • Nickel-plated hardware
  • Geared fifth string
  • Long-neck 22 frets

First Impressions

This is a stunning instrument that has a great sound. This is actually an upgraded model with a grand 12” rim and Renaissance head. We’ve included a video from the manufacturer, so you can hear how much warmer the tone is with the new, improved banjo.

The Goodtime Americana is a long-neck banjo that has been around for years, but the current new model has a warmer sound. It’s made of natural woods with quality construction from a company that cares about its customers. They only create a certain amount every year because they take the time to make quality instruments that are good enough for their customers.

The Americana has the Deering fiddle-shaped peghead with the name engraved on it in beautiful script. We love the fine details and satin finish of this instrument. When you’re purchasing accessories for your banjo playing, make sure you buy a stand to display your banjo when you’re not plucking those strings.

Deering Company

The Deering Banjo company has been around for over 40 years. They’re the company that actually made Pete Seeger’s long-neck banjo back in the day. He’s the one that made the Deering Vega incredibly popular. They have been creating banjos that customers love for generations.

The company creates banjos with artisans who have a total of 271 years of experience. They provide some of the best banjos in the world. They are a family-run business that cares about the quality of the products they produce. They back those products up with great customer service and warranties for their instruments.

Required Setup

The banjos delivered to customers are left loose to ensure that they are not destroyed during delivery. When you buy a banjo from any company, you can be assured that it’ll come with loose strings and a bridge that needs to be placed. It’s always best to expect that you’ll have to make adjustments yourself or bring it to a professional who can perform those tasks for you.

The strings will need to be tightened and tuned to get the warm sound that the Americana can produce. There are markings on the bridge where you’ll want to place it under the strings, but in some cases, the markings might not be accurate. The professional will be able to accurately insert the bridge where it’ll produce the best sound. All the bolts and brackets should be tightened, too.

Instrument Materials

The rim is made of blonde violin-grade maple while the neck is a slender rock maple. The bridge is maple as well with an ebony top. This gives the entire banjo a lovely light appearance. The blonde material looks great with the dark, hardwood bow-tie inlay along the fret and the nickel-plated hardware.

Resonator or Open Back

The warm sound of the banjo is further enhanced by the open-back design. A resonator works to give a sound with more twang, which is great for certain kinds of music. Other styles need a warmer tone with less twang and resonance. You’ll love the warmth of the tone created with the open back on this Deering Goodtime Americana. If you haven’t, make sure you listen and watch the company’s video that we linked above. You can hear the beautiful tone of the instrument for yourself.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does the banjo weigh?
This isn’t one of the most lightweight options for a banjo. It weighs approximately 11 pounds. It’s shipping weight is 11.35 pounds.

Does it come with any accessories?
This doesn’t come with accessories. You’ll have to measure the length and width of the instrument to find the right case for it.

Does the banjo come with a warranty?
The company provides for a 6-year warranty. You can contact their responsive customer service to report any problems.


From the beautiful fiddle-shaped peghead to the lovely blonde finish and the grand rim, this instrument is a true representation of the Deering quality of instruments. It’s a long-neck five-string banjo that looks as good as it sounds. We recommend this instrument for those who want to play something a bit different than the same old five-string that other musicians have played. You’ll catch the interest of everyone in your band as well as the audience.

Gold Tone Banjolele Review

The sound that comes out the instrument sounds enough like a banjo to be pleasant, but people hearing it will wonder what you’re playing. It’s a sound that will perk up a listener’s ears.

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Gold Tone Banjolele Banjo Ukulele (Maple)

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  • Ebony fingerboard
  • Resonator
  • Curly maple headstock
  • No knot tailpiece
  • Lightweight

First Impressions of the Banjolele

The Gold Tone Banjolele is a lovely old-time vintage looking instrument that’s a cross between a ukulele and a banjo. It leans more towards the banjo side of the spectrum, but has a sound that is distinctive enough to make people wonder what you’re playing.

This is a great banjo and ukulele hybrid instrument that has the head of a banjo and the fretboard and neck of a ukulele. It’s a terrific instrument for children since it’s shorter. They’ll be able to easily reach some of the positions towards the top of the fret.

Standard stock tuning is featured with this concert, scale-length banjolele. Concert scale means that it’s approximately 15 ½ inches in length with 18 frets. It’s tuned to G-C-E-A.

Gold Tone Company

The Gold Tone Company makes an incredible number of musical instruments from guitars to mandolins to banjos and ukuleles. They even have a list of instruments they call “folkternative” like banjoleles, banjolas and mando-guitars.

The company cares about its products, and when Wayne Rogers founded the company, he wanted musicians to be able to express themselves through music without distractions from the instrument.

Whether you’re a person who plays for your own enjoyment or for the enjoyment of the audience, the company has an instrument that fits your style of play.

Required Setup

Every single instrument that leaves a manufacturer and arrives at the final destination will need to be adjusted. The company cannot send tightened instruments to the buyer.

They would end up with a splintered bunch of wood with broken strings. It’s unfortunate, but the instrument shouldn’t be sent in ready-to-play condition.

When you pull the instrument out of the box, you’ll have to take some time to set it up properly. The bridge will have to be inserted and the strings tightened.

You’ll need to tune the instrument, too. There are other adjustments you might make based on your personal preference if you’re an experienced player.

If you don’t know how to set up the banjolele or you don’t feel confident in doing so, you can bring it to a trusted musician friend or a local music shop. This person can easily set up your instrument and tune it for you. It won’t cost very much, either.

Here is a selection of popular banjoleles that we recommend to anyone looking to take up the hobby!

Instrument Materials for the Gold Tone Banjolele

The Gold Tone Banjolele is made of maple with other tone woods as accents. The other woods include ebony for the material used in the fingerboard.

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The headstock is made of curly maple while the resonator and flange are made of maple, too. The materials and the color of the stain over the wood give this banjolele and old-time vintage feel.

Lightweight and Portable

The banjolele is one that can be taken with you anywhere that you want to play. You can travel while you’re still learning and want to practice at a friend’s house, or if you want to perform with a group at a local venue.

This instrument weighs approximately 4 pounds, which is lighter than some other instruments like full-size banjos. You will still want to have a bag for the banjolele to ensure that it’s not banged up when traveling.

Resonator or Open Back

This banjolele has a resonator attached. While the back can be taken off the instrument, you’re going to alter the sound considerably. The banjolele leans towards a banjo sound with its twang and considerable volume.

Without the resonator, you would be taking away one of the attributes of the banjolele that make it sound great.

Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of strings does this instrument use?
The banjolele uses the same kinds of strings that a banjo would utilize. You can purchase nylon if you’re unsure and want to change.

Is there a warranty for this banjolele?
The company covers all of its instruments, which is why we’ve featured a few of their instruments on this site. It comes with an initial warranty, but you can also purchase an extended one that might be worth the investment.

What kind of tuners does it have?
It’s a vintage looking banjolele, but it has modern conveniences like geared tuners.

The Gold Tone Banjolele is a quality instrument by a company that takes pride in the instruments provided to their customers. The uke player who wants a louder instrument will adore this banjolele. It’s a great hybrid instrument that you’ll have fun playing solo or with a group.

Kmise 4-String Banjolele Review

This revival has brought back a fun, unique instrument that can be used to play a variety of musical styles. The beauty of an instrument is finding one you love and adapting your favorite songs to the tone of the instrument itself.

That’s before you start writing your own songs and playing them on the instruments.

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Kmise 4 String Banjo Ukulele Uke Concert 23 Inch Size Sapele With Bag Tuner

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  • Remo Head
  • Closed chrome tuners
  • Drum size 8.46 inches
  • Length 23.03 inches
  • Sapele mahogany
  • Rosewood fingerboard
  • Tuner included
  • Zippered bag

First Impressions of the Kmise 4-String Banjolele

The Kmise 4-String Banjolele is constructed from quality tone woods that will bring a rich sound to your music. It’s a beautiful-looking instrument that sounds even better than it looks.

It doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. When you first strum the strings of this instrument (after tuning, of course), you’ll be blown away by the sound it produces.

After some time learning the chords, the next people blown away by the sound will by your appreciative audience.

As a banjo ukulele, it has a unique sound. While it leans towards the banjo side of sound, it is a blend of sounds that will be something nobody else in your circle has heard before.

As a musician, you likely want to do something different than all your friends. It’ll help you in a group or a band if you can do something aside from strumming a guitar like everyone else.

Required Setup

When you receive any instrument in a box from the manufacturer, you’re going to need to make some adjustments like fixing the bridge. If the company left the bridge in place with tightened strings, you’d end up with a broken instrument when you lifted it out of the box.

While we’d normally recommend that you take this untuned banjolele to a professional to tune for you, this instrument comes with a tuner.

You can easily learn to tune the banjolele yourself. Once you’ve learned to tune an instrument, you won’t have to rely on anyone else to tune any of your instruments.

The bridge is easily slipped under the strings. Turn it sideways then flip it upright once it’s under the strings. Each string will be cradled in one of the grooves.

You might have to loosen the strings to get the bridge under it, but then you can tighten them to hold the bridge.

Here is a selection of popular banjoleles that we recommend to anyone looking to take up the hobby!

Instrument Materials

The instrument’s fretboard is made from a material that is traditionally used for these parts of stringed instruments. That material is rosewood.

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Kmise 4 String Banjo Ukulele Uke Concert 23 Inch Size Sapele With Bag Tuner

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The rest of the banjolele is made from a wood that isn’t as common, which is Sapele mahogany. It’s a hardwood that is used to replace mahogany in some cases.

It’s originally from tropical Africa, and has an interlocked, wavy pattern that resembles the mahogany that many instrument creators use in their production.

Along with being a great tone wood, it’s a material that is very durable and resists decay. That’s important in an instrument since you want it to last for years.

You could easily pass this down to your children after you’re done with it, or when you’ve moved on to a more expensive instrument.

Remo Head for the Banjolele

When you purchase a banjolele, you can expect it to have a head stretched across a rim. This part of the instrument is what resembles a banjo.

It’s also where the resonator is attached if the banjolele comes with one. They usually do. The Remo head on this Kmise Banjolele measures 8.46 inches.

Resonator or Open Back

The Kmise Banjolele has a resonator to increase the volume of the sound produced with this instrument. The resonator is normally used to increase the volume and project the sound forward towards the listener.

There isn’t really another reason to have a resonator. Some people like having the extra volume while others would rather not have one. Most resonators can be removed quite easily to change the sound.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is the banjolele tuned?
The tuning is G-C-E-A.

How much does the instrument weigh?
The banjolele is incredibly lightweight. It weighs 3.84 pounds.

Is there anything else included with the banjolele?
The instrument comes with a tuner as well as a zippered bag for carrying the instrument.


This banjolele from Kmise is a beautiful instrument that melds the best parts of the banjo and ukulele to create a unique instrument that you’ll thoroughly enjoy playing with friends or your band.

Once you learn to make music on this instrument, everyone will want to see you perform with it. It’s also lightweight enough to be taken everywhere you might want to go.

Your Banjo, Uke, and Banjolele Questions Answered

It can be tough to tell the difference between a banjo, banjolele and ukulele if you don’t understand what they are. It can be confusing for people who are looking directly at them and have experience.

The banjo has a drum of sorts that stretches across what’s called a “head.”

The ukulele looks like a small guitar with a short neck and fret on it. A banjolele is a melding of the two instruments with the head of a banjo and the neck of a ukulele.

We’ve taken the time to answer some of the common questions people have about these instruments.

Banjo Questions and Answers

Are Banjos Tuned Like Guitars?

There are times when a banjo can be tuned like a guitar. There isn’t a straightforward answer to this question, though. All stringed instruments are tuned the same, but the chords are entirely different.

Unless you are using a banjitar, which is a banjo tuned like a guitar. One of the most common banjos is the 5-string, which isn’t tuned like a guitar at all.

Are Banjos Loud?

Banjos can be incredibly loud depending on whether it has a resonator. That’s the pot on the back that causes the sound from the banjo to be projected forward.

When there’s a resonator, the sounds from the banjo can be loud. With an open back, you’re actually getting a softer sound from the instrument.

Can Banjos be Expensive?

It will depend on the manufacturer and whether it’s a starter banjo. There are started banjos for beginners that will only cost a few hundred dollars.

Banjos for professionals or serious amateur musicians can cost a few thousand dollars.

Are Banjo and Guitar Chords the Same?

The chords are different in the banjo and the guitar. The banjo could be tuned to open G or open C depending on the style of banjo being played.

Strings 2, 3, and 4 are the same as the guitar, but the others are completely different.

Do Banjos Have Backs?

Not all banjos have resonators. That’s what the back of the banjo is called when one exists. Many banjos come with a resonator that can be removed depending on the sound the player would like to coax from the instrument.

Why Do They Have a Short String?

The short string on the banjo is known as the drone string. It’s attached halfway up the neck of the banjo.

It’s meant to add depth and complexity to the sound being played.

Banjolele Questions

Why is It Called a Banjolele?

It’s a melding of the banjo and ukulele because it has a banjo head and a ukulele neck. It’s a nickname for the instrument. Other nicknames are the banjo uke, or banjulele.

Does a Banjolele Sound Like a Banjo?

The sounds from a banjolele are similar to a banjo because they both have heads that vibrate to make the sound. The difference between a banjo and a banjolele is the fretted neck of the banjolele. A banjolele is a banjo body with a ukulele neck.

Is the Banjolele Easy to Learn?

It would depend on the kind of instrument knowledge you have when you start. Some people pick up stringed instruments quickly while others spend weeks or months only to find that they don’t enjoy it.

When Was the Banjolele Invented?

While it’s unknown when exactly the banjolele was invented, the most well-known player was a British comedian by the name of George Formby. He learned to play as a part of his comedy.

Ukulele Questions Answered

Are Ukulele and Banjo Chords the Same?

The ukulele is more like a guitar than a banjo, so the chords are different. The ukulele has a wood body like a guitar with a small hole that emits sound. The banjo has a drum or head stretched across a rim.

Is it Easy to Play a Ukulele?

It’s said to be easier than some stringed instruments like the guitar. Within a few days of learning to pluck the strings, you’ll be able to put notes together that sound like songs. The ukulele is a small instrument, too, so it’s easier for children to pick it up and start playing.

Where Did the Ukulele Originate?

The instrument was adapted from a Portuguese instrument and played in the late 1800s in Hawaii. It’s still used in that region today, but it’s spread across the U.S., too.

Can Ukuleles Have Metal Strings?

While guitars can have metal strings, most ukuleles have nylon strings. It often depends on the player’s personal preference when it comes to the choice of string type. They can be made of nylon, nylgut, or fluorocarbon.

We hope we’ve answered some of your questions regarding these stringed instruments. It’s no wonder they are confusing since many of the terms and looks of the instruments overlap. If you have questions we haven’t covered, ask them in the comment section below!

Trinity River Drifter-Series 5-String Banjo Review

This is a review of the Trinity River Drifter-Series 5-String Banjo. Parlor banjos can also be called travel banjos. They’re characterized by their shorter scale and slimmer frame, which makes it easier for players to cart them around to various venues. They were actually called parlor banjos back in the day because they were played in people’s houses or parlors versus the longer ones that were played in public. These are great banjos for when children are learning to play because they’re manageable in their small hands.

Feature Pick

Trinity River Prb75 Drifter-Series 5-String 3/4-Size Banjo

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  • 19 frets
  • Remo head
  • Deluxe gig bag
  • Rosewood fretboard
  • 5-string banjo

First Impressions of the Trinity River Drifter-Series 5-String Banjo

The Trinity River Drifter is a ¾ size banjo with the traditional 5 strings seen in the most common banjos. It’s a great banjo for those who want to travel with it from their home to another spot for jam sessions or practice. You might want to bring this banjo to your instructor’s house while you’re learning the banjo. It’s the right size for people who are learning that have never played a stringed instrument before, too.

The Drifter is a beautiful instrument with a shorter scale, which is also helpful for new players. The construction is lovely with the right tone woods for the instrument. We recommend this banjo for beginners and those who need a slimmer instrument while they’re practicing at home. It has a soft tone, which is great for some who want to practice without their neighbors hating them.

Frets and Offset Dots

This 5-string banjo has 19 frets instead of the standard 22 frets. It’s easier for children to reach the frets while they play. It’s tough to learn an instrument when it’s often bigger than them. This is just the right size for kids. The offset dots make finger placement easier on the fretboard, too. When you’re learning, anything that makes the process less complicated and confusing is always a plus.

Required Setup

Every instrument needs to be set up out of the box. Many beginners don’t seem to realize this, which is completely understandable. The strings will need to be tuned, the bridge might need to be placed under the strings, and the lugs could need tightening. If you don’t know how to do any of the set up for the instrument, there are music shops that are willing to help. The person might even teach you how to tune the instrument, so you can do it later yourself.

Resonator or Open Back

The Drifter, which not only has a cool name, has a resonator. This resonator can be removed easily to give you two options for your banjo. A banjo with an open back sounds softer and more mellow than one with a resonator. You can purchase this banjo, and it’s like having two for the price of one.

Banjo Materials for the Drifter

The resonator and neck are made of Nato wood while the fingerboard is rosewood. These are materials known as tone wood. Tone wood produces a richer tone because they transmit notes and chords through the instrument itself. Other woods will deaden the sound, which is not what you want in a stringed instrument.

Deluxe Gig Bag Included

It’s great when there are accessories included with the banjo. In this case, the Trinity River Drifter-Series 5-String Banjo comes with a deluxe gig bag that is padded to protect the instrument. You don’t want to leave the house with the banjo slung over your shoulder. It’ll get banged up, the bridge could fall out, or the strings will be struck out of tune. When you get to your destination, you’ll spend time fixing your banjo before you can even play.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the overall length of the banjo?
The ¾ banjo is 33 inches overall. There are also less frets to learn on this banjo, too.

What kind of 5th peg is on the banjo?
The banjo has a geared 5th string tuner, which makes it easier to tune than it would be with another kind of peg.

How much setup is needed out of the box?
You’ll definitely have to spend some time tuning the banjo and making minor adjustments. If this banjo is for your child and you’re a player yourself, you can easily make this a playable instrument quickly. If you don’t have any experience, professionals are more than happy to help for a fee.


The Trinity River Drifter-Series 5-String Banjo is a great starter banjo of a small stature for children or those who want a manageable alternative to the standard size ones available. It’ll give you the feeling of playing a banjo like the ones played in parlors across the country in the early days before radio and other electronic entertainment.

Earl Scruggs – Famous Banjo Players Spotlight

We continue our famous banjo player spotlight with the inimitable Earl Scruggs. You can’t talk about the history of the banjo without hearing his name come up frequently. He was said to be the father of the five-string banjo.

Formative Years

In 1924, Earl Scruggs was born on a farm near Boiling Springs, North Carolina. He was the last child born to George and Georgia (Lula) Scruggs.

After a long illness, George passed away leaving Lula to raise five children and work their farm. Music was a huge part of their lives on the farm.

George Scruggs played an open back banjo when Earl was younger, but since Earl was 4 at the time of his death, he doesn’t remember. His siblings played the banjo and guitar while his mom played the pump organ.

The person to make an impression on Scruggs at an early age was his blind uncle who played the banjo with a finger picking style.

His uncle recorded for Columbia Records, and he made such an impression that Earl started playing even though he was too small to hold the banjo.

His first radio performance was a talent show when he was 11 years old. Whenever Scruggs wasn’t doing chores on the farm, he was practicing. He picked up and modified his playing style based on the picking he saw his uncle do.

Start of His Musical Career

During his last years of high school, Earl worked at the textile mill to support his family while practicing the banjo constantly. After graduation, Scruggs decided he wasn’t interested in manual labor. Instead, he wanted to make his living as a musician.

For two years, he played banjo with a popular band called the Morris Brothers. They played on a radio station in Spartanburg, SC. BillMonroe heard Scruggs play and invited him to play with Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.

This was the start of his musical career. He went on tour, performed on the Grand Ole Opry, which was a live radio broadcast out of Nashville. It was very famous.

At the same time, he became friends with the guitarist named Lester Flatt. By 1948, the two wanted to strike out on their own and get out from under the shadow of Monroe.

They named their duo the Foggy Mountain Boys. They were also called Flatt and Scruggs, too. They were constantly touring and playing on the radio.

By 1953, they’d made such a name for themselves that they returned to play the Grand Ole Opry as headliners. They had much success over the years until they split in 1969 over creative differences.

Scruggs wanted to pursue more contemporary music while Flatt wanted to stay traditional.

Family Life

Scruggs married Louise in 1948. They had three sons total; Randy, Gary, and Steve who all became musicians. She was the force behind the success of Flatt and Scruggs.

She would spend time on the phone booking their tours, recruited talented illustrators for their albums, and marketed the band to younger audiences.

Scruggs credits Louise with the width of their success. Scruggs wanted to move towards a contemporary style with his sons that other young people could enjoy, but Flatt wasn’t interested in that direction.

They split in 1969. In 1970, Scruggs started a band with his sons called the Earl Scruggs Revue.

Iconic Songs

One of the first songs released by Flatt and Scruggs was Foggy Mountain Breakdown. It’s a bluegrass classic that didn’t get much notice until after it was used in the 1967 film called Bonnie and Clyde.

They had a rush of hits from 1961 through 1969 before the two split. If you’ve ever watched the hillbillies, you’ll have heard their most popular song, which was The Ballad of Jed Clampett.

It was the theme song of The Beverly Hillbillies. It was at the top of the country charts for weeks and 44 on the pop charts for a time.

Banjo Playing and Inventing His Own Style

Earl Scruggs brought a three-finger picking style to the world. While he says he wasn’t the first to use three fingers to pick the banjo strings, he was the one who refined the style and brought it out of the area where he lived.

While other banjo players were “frailing” or using a clawhammer technique, he was the first to use three fingers to pick at the strings. It’s a style that’s come to be known as the Scruggs style even though he says he was never the first to use it.

Lasting Impact

Scruggs has received acclaim and awards over the years. He was inducted with Flatt into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.

He’s won Grammy awards as well as being given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Scruggs has been given the National Medal of Arts, which is authorized by Congress and awarded by the President of the United States.

Scruggs passed away in 2012 at the age of 88, and was survived by two of his sons. He’s been called the father of the five-string banjo by many musicians who are famous in their own right, and have brought about variations on his original style of playing.

Gold Tone Cripple Creek Banjo Review

The Gold Tone Cripple Creek banjo is a 4-string instrument that is tuned to plectrum. It can easily be tuned to tenor with a change of strings, though. It’s a beautiful instrument with unique characteristics. It’s well-constructed with great woods and has a resonator for strong sounds.

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Gold Tone Cc-Plectrum Cripple Creek Plectrum Banjo (Four String, Maple)

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  • Hard maple construction
  • Black binding on neck
  • Convertible resonator
  • Brass tone ring
  • 2-way adjustable truss rod

First Impressions

This is a lovely looking banjo with a plectrum tuning. The plectrum tuning means that if you want a tenor instrument, you’ll have to change the strings and tuning, which isn’t a problem if you visit a professional to have it tuned.

We love the colors of the Cripple Creek banjo as well as the banding that gives it unique dimension and style. While this is considered an entry-level banjo, it’s well-constructed with great materials and would rival any other banjo in its price range. The company reports that in the last 12 years, they’ve sold over 7,000 Cripple Creeks. That’s a lot of players enjoying their CC banjo.

Gold Tone Company

The Gold Tone Music Group has a banjo for every level of player from the beginner who is just starting to touch the strings to the performer who gets on stage in front of thousands. They say music comes from the heart, and “its expression is the ultimate statement of our humanity.” All of the banjos are created and shipped by their own luthiers in Florida. You won’t find the Gold Tone banjos available anywhere else because they take pride in the satisfaction of their customers – no matter the playing level. They even created an app for beginners that will help them learn songs faster. It can be found on their website.

Required Setup

Every banjo delivered from the manufacturer will have to be set up properly. Even the instruments that music shops receive have to be tuned and tightened. In fact, if you don’t want to do it yourself or you don’t know how, you can give the banjo to the musician and have them tune it, tighten the nuts, and place the bridge for a small fee.

The banjo is tuned to plectrum, so if you would like another tuning, you can bring it to a music shop, too. The beauty of stringed instruments is that you can change the strings and tighten them to get different sounds from the same instrument.

Banjo Materials

The headstock is made of curly maple while the neck is created from a hard maple. Maple is a great material for string instruments because it’s considered a great tone wood. A tone wood will resonate and thrum with the greatest sounds from the player. The rim is also made of maple for a well-constructed instrument.

Light and Portable

A heavy instrument can’t be ported around with you as easily as a light instrument. You don’t want to be stuck in the house learning to play the instrument all the time. You want to bring it out into the world and perform for friends and family. Imagine camping trips with your banjo playing around the fire. If you have a friend who can sing, you’ll be creating your own music and songs that everyone loves. There’s nothing like creating music for the enjoyment of others.

Resonator or Open Back

The resonator can create a completely different sound in a banjo. The open back sounds rounder and more laid-back than the sound when a resonator is attached. There’s more of a twang with the instrument when you use a resonator.

There’s a convertible resonator on this Cripple Creek banjo. When you have a resonator, you can easily remove it to have an open-back banjo. While some are harder to convert, this one was created to make the process easier. You could play with a resonator for a few days, switch to open back, then perform with the resonator. With this kind of flexibility, it’s like getting two instruments for the price of one.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does the banjo actually weigh?
The shipping weight of the banjo is 13.4 pounds, but the instrument itself only weighs 6.3 pounds.

Is there a case included?
There is no case included with the Gold Tone Cripple Creek banjo. You can easily purchase on separately as long as you have the measurements of your instrument correct when ordering.

The Gold Tone Cripple Creek banjo is a lovely, lightweight instrument created by a company that uses talented luthiers and makes all their instruments in house in the US. Customers have been incredibly satisfied with the tone and quality of the banjo. It has a comfortable action with sounds that are crisp and clear. As a beginner to intermediate banjo, you can’t go wrong with this choice.

Kay KBJ40 Tenor 4-String Banjo Review

This Kay KBJ40 Tenor 4-String Banjo is a beautiful instrument that just screams for use in an Irish band. It’s called the Kay Irish Rose Tenor Banjo, so that’s one of the many reasons you can be comfortable using this banjo for that kind of music. It’s a 4-string tenor with a short neck. While you can definitely play Irish music on this banjo, it’s also fantastic for other styles of music like Dixieland Jazz. Don’t limit yourself to one style. There are two pitch pipes included with this banjo, so you can tune this to your choice of the moment.

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Kay Guitar Kbj40 W/C Tenor 4 String Irish Rose Banjo With Hardshell Wood Case

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Specifications for the Kay Tenor 4-String Irish Rose Banjo

  • Mahogany resonator
  • Fleur-de-Lis inlay
  • 2 pitch pipes
  • Banjo strap
  • String winder
  • Hardshell wood case
  • Chrome armrest

First Impressions

This 19-fret tenor banjo is a sleek, glossy instrument that would look perfect on stage while you play in front of your adoring audience. You can also impress your friends if you don’t have aspirations to play on a stage. While this banjo is called the Irish Rose, you certainly don’t have to limit yourself to Irish music with it. It comes with two pitch pipes to tune this in G, D, A, E or C, D, G, A. The tuning will always depend on the kind of music you want to play.

While some 4-string banjos are lightweight, so they can be carried anywhere, this is a heavier instrument that feels solid in your hand. At the same time, you’ll find it harder to carry around if you want to take your banjo into the woods on a camping trip. It’s possible, but you should be aware of the heft to the banjo.

Required Setup

All banjos delivered to your home in a box will need to be setup properly. The manufacturer will keep the strings loosened, and the bridge might need to be placed into the banjo after it’s removed from the box.

If you don’t know how to do it yourself, you can head to a music shop to have a professional give you a lesson. This banjo comes with two pitch pipes, which will help you change the tuning in the future. To learn to change the tuning, you’ll need to understand how it’s done in the first place. That’s why it’s good to get a professional to guide you in the process.

Banjo Materials

The resonator is a beautiful mahogany with a sleek finish. The rosewood fingerboard has an inlay of beautiful Fleur-de-Lis in pearl. The brackets and armrest are a chrome-plated nickel. The entire banjo has solid construction with the best hardwoods. Mahogany is a great material for creating banjos since it’s considered a tonewood that resonates with stunning tone.

Resonator or Open Back

Banjos can have an open back or come with a resonator. That doesn’t mean that the resonator is the only option when it comes attached. Many musicians will get a banjo with a resonator, so that it can be removed later. This gives them more options for the instrument. This 4-string banjo comes with a resonator. It can easily be removed to give you more options for the price of one banjo.

Bonus Items and Case

This banjo comes with some bonus items that make it an incredible deal. There’s a hardshell wood case for when you’re ready to take your instrument on the road. You can start playing in a band, at a friend’s house, or on a stage. The case will ensure that your banjo won’t get ruined.

There are two pitch pipes for tuning in different styles. There’s a strap for wearing the banjo while you’re performing. The banjo also comes with a bonus string winder. These items are all included for free with the 4-string Irish Rose banjo.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does the banjo weigh?
The shipping weight of the banjo is 14.1 pounds. This includes all the items, the case, and the banjo.

What are the measurements of the banjo?
It measures 34” L x 13 1/4” W x 4 1/4” D. The tenor banjo has a shorter neck than other banjos, which is helpful for learning.


This is a great starter instrument for anyone who wants to start learning on a 4-string banjo that can be tuned for tenor Irish music or Jazz. There are extra accessories that give the banjo more versatility. The tuners that come with the banjo will let you tune to a variety of music types. If you don’t know how to tune them as a beginner, bring the banjo to a professional who can explain how it’s done.

Deering Goodtime 4-String Tenor Banjo Review

The Deering Goodtime 4-String Tenor Banjo is a beautiful instrument made entirely of maple with nickel-plated accents. It has 17 frets, 4 strings, and geared tuners. The Deering company is one that’s been a trusted brand for many banjo players both new and seasoned. It’s tuned for playing Jazz, Celtic, or Irish music.

Feature Pick

Deering Goodtime 17-Fret Tenor Banjo

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  • 17 fret tenor
  • Maple construction
  • Lightweight
  • Geared tuners
  • Nickel plated

Deering Goodtime Company

The Deering Company believes in providing banjos for every level of player. They don’t think that a beginner banjo player deserves an inferior banjo just because they’re new to the instrument. The company has over 40 years of experience creating banjos, and the entire staff is dedicated to crafting quality instruments. The company makes their banjos in the US, and provides their combined years of experience to each banjo made by specialists.

Required Setup

If you’re planning to purchase your first banjo, it helps to understand that the banjo will not be ready to play out of the box. Many first-time players are disappointed to find that they have to have it tuned. Imagine a tightly-wound, tense instrument being bounced around inside its packing box during delivery. You’ll end up with broken strings and cracked pieces. The banjo is assembled, but it’s not tightened or finished, so that you don’t end up with a broken mess.

Unfortunately, that means a few minutes of setup before you can begin your music career. You can download an app to your phone that makes tuning much easier, bring it to a friend who knows how to tune stringed instruments, or visit your local music shop where a professional can help. It’ll take a few minutes to setup the instrument, then you’ll be ready to play.

Banjo Materials

This particular banjo is created with quality materials. The rim is a three-ply maple, the resonator is maple and so is the neck. Maple is considered an incredible tonewood, which means that it has tonal properties of stiff, light woods for instruments. Maple is often used for stringed instruments like the banjo, violin, and guitar.

Tenor 4-String

There are two tunings when it comes to a 4-string banjo. There’s the tenor or the plectrum tuning. The tenor is commonly used for Irish music. It can be tuned to C, G, D, A or G, D, A, E. This can be confusing for those who have never played a banjo and especially the tenor banjo. This is where it’s best to bring the banjo to a professional for tuning. Jazz tenor is used frequently with the tenor instrument. Tenor isn’t a tone or sound like you would get from a tenor singer. It’s the name given to the instrument’s tuning with no real reason that concerns the tone. The standard tenor tuning of C, G, D, A is also used for playing Jazz, too.

Resonator or Open Back

The banjo, whether it’s 4, 5, or 6 string, will have a resonator or an open back. The type of sound you want coming out of your instrument will be influenced by the fact that it has a resonator or not. While you might expect the resonator to dull the sound coming out of the instrument, it actually projects the sound forward towards the audience, which makes it louder. The open back is a softer sound that kind of fades before it hits the audience. You’ll need to keep it in mind when choosing a resonator or open back.

This particular 4-string banjo has a resonator on the back. If you want to purchase a resonator banjo and change to a different type later, you can buy a resonator banjo and have the back removed quite easily. There’s only a few brackets or a screw holding the resonator on the banjo.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does the banjo weigh?
The shipping weight of the instrument is 10.3 pounds, but the banjo itself is 3.8 pounds. This makes it a great travel banjo for performances or playing with friends.

Does the banjo have 17 or 19 frets?
This is a 17-fret banjo.

Is there a gig bag included?
There is no bag included, but it’s simple to purchase a bag when you’re ready to head out into the world with your banjo.


The Deering Goodtime 4-String Tenor Banjo is made by a company that musicians trust for their banjo needs. If you’re a beginner, you can’t go wrong with a banjo made by this company. This banjo is a lightweight, quality banjo with maple construction and nickel-plated accents. It’s great for beginners as well as more seasoned players who want to play a tenor 4-string for Irish or Jazz music. It’s light enough to take on the road, camping, fishing, or to the beach. Your friends will be impressed with the sounds you’ll be able to produce on this 4-string banjo.