The banjo is one of the most iconic American instruments. Its popularity has endured for over a century, and its origin, while still debated, is thought to have come from Africa around the 1720s. It had been used in various forms in the Caribbean by slaves before being brought to America. Its use was brought to Europe by the Irish, who played it on the streets of their cities. Eventually, the instrument spread to be used in American music.
The banjo, a type of stringed instrument, has long been an American icon. Touted as the “national instrument” of the United States, it is often associated with country music or bluegrass. But, where exactly did it come from, and what was its history before the 20th century?
Who doesn’t love banjos? They’re the ultimate in Americana and folk music, and their rich, distinctive sound echoes around the country like a distant ghost. You can find them in the hands of such diverse musicians as The Eagles, Dwight Yoakam, and John Denver — and you can find them in the hands of your ancestors, too, if you know where to look. The banjo is the longest and arguably the most distinctive stringed instrument created in the United States.
One of the most popular instruments in American history, the banjo has been at the heart of many great folk songs, but its history stretches back much further than the 20th century. But where did it come from?
What is a Banjo?
The banjo is a stringed instrument typically played with a plectrum, usually strummed, and a pick. It originated in Africa and the Americas and is descended from the five-stringed nyatiti, a West African lyre. It is now popular in bluegrass music and country, folk, old-time, and other styles.
The banjo is a curious instrument. It’s a musical instrument that dates back to the 16th century, and it’s been a staple of American folk music for hundreds of years. But where did the banjo come from? Weirdly, there are no conclusive answers. In most cases, the instrument can be traced back to a Native American instrument called a “cornet” or an “oboe”—a perverse way of describing a horn.
Most Americans likely know John Henry for his enduring song and definitive banjo-playing in the classic folk song “John Henry.” But many would be surprised to learn that much of the banjo’s history remains a mystery. The French invented the banjo in the 17th century and soon came to dominate the country’s music. But it will be another 300 years until the banjo comes to America.
The banjo is one of America’s oldest musical instruments. Its origin is shrouded in mystery, but it rose to popularity in the 19th century. The instrument is very versatile and is played in various ways, including being strummed, struck, plucked, or bowed. It’s also associated with several myths and legends. The instrument’s popularity soared during the birth of the blues, after which it became an essential part of the country’s musical landscape.
As you probably know, the banjo is the ultimate American musical instrument. It’s perhaps the most identifiable of all American instruments, with its flat body, claw-hammer design, and the distinctive “claw” thumb-picks used to pluck its strings. To this day, it remains one of the most popular instruments in the United States, and the banjo is a basic part of the country’s music culture.
Among the most iconic American musical instruments, the banjo is steeped in history, and its origins are not as clear as one might suspect. First introduced to the American Colonies in the 17th century, the banjo can trace its roots to Africa, Europe, and Asia. Still, the exact year the banjo made its way to the Americas is unknown.
The banjo is a musical instrument that has gone through many forms and formats and several names over the years, including the guitar, fiddle, and “bone-fiddle.” But no matter what name you call it, it is a unique and important part of American music and culture. Here, we explore its history and learn about the many ways it has been used and about the many players and cultures that have influenced it over the years.