There is no mistaking the twang of the banjo. Now synonymous with bluegrass music, the banjo was first designed by slaves brought over from Africa. The first banjo songs dealt with the daily experiences of these slaves and the lives of people in rural areas. Soon this type of music spread throughout the South, especially after the advent of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, who first appeared in 1939. Earl Scruggs joined the band and revolutionized banjo playing with his three-finger picking, rolling style, now known as "Scruggs style." Today there are many styles of playing the banjo and many technical terms to learn. Here is a glossary of the most popular terms relating to the beloved banjo:Banjeaurine: A five string banjo with a scale ranging from 20 to 22 inches that is tuned two whole notes higher than a standard five string banjo. It was used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for playing the lead in banjo orchestras.Bluegrass banjo: Banjo most commonly used in bluegrass music. Bluegrass banjos have a resonator on the back and a tone ring where the head is stretched. This tone ring is usually made of bronze or brass. Bluegrass banjos are heavy and have a deep sound. Bear claw: Tail pieces with finger-like extensions and a curl that hold down the strings.Bridge: The bridge transfers vibrations of the strings to the head of the banjo, which ultimately amplifies the sound. The tension of the strings holds the bridge in place. Clawhammer: A style of playing the banjo that is more melodic than frailing. Clawhammer style makes use of a downstroke where the fingernails of the index and middle fingers strike the strings. Gourd banjo: One of the first banjos, a gourd banjo was a simple instrument consisting of a gourd with a hide stretched over its hole. Hammer-on: This occurs when a finger on the left hand strikes against a string after picking the same string with the right hand. Head: The area on the banjo that vibrates, often made of calfskin or mylar. End pin: A screw with a round or hex-shaped end that goes from the banjo rim to the dowel stick and secures the tailpiece bolt.Fingerboard: The part of the banjo neck that holds the strings and is pressed when making notes.Fifth string peg: A fifth string peg tunes the fifth string and is most often inserted in the side of the neck. Frailing: Another style of playing the banjo where the strings are struck with the index and middle fingers, while the thumb strikes the fifth string. Also called "knocking" or "framming." Melodic: A style of banjo playing that plays each note individually rather than in blended together, continuous rolls. Pull-off: A technique where the finger releases a fretted note by plucking. Resonator: A resonator attaches to the back of the banjo and creates a louder sound. Scruggs style: A style of playing created by Earl Scruggs. Scruggs style involves rolls, where the notes are played in a seemingly continuous stream.
Besides being a mainstay of bluegrass music, banjos are often heard in pop songs and are even used in some punk bands. Banjos are more versatile than many people imagine, and they involve a lot of technique, especially for playing the intricate Scruggs style. If you're interested in playing the banjo, consider taking a few lessons and, as banjo players say, "Get rolling!"