How Many Strings On A Banjo?

by Barry Hunn

Folks who are thinking about buying a banjo often ask us the question, “ how many strings on a banjo? ”

For Deering, there are many answers. 

5 String

Five string banjos are the original banjos and were invented around the early 1800s.  Five string banjos are used for virtually every kind of music in the world and are prominently used in Bluegrass, Country, Folk, Jazz, Irish and more and more becoming popular in the new Indie category. The short fifth string is what makes the banjo unique. The fifth string is also called the “thumb string” or “drone string” because the early “clawhammer” banjo technique involved the thumb picking the fifth string often creating the syncopated sound that is associated with the banjo.

The fifth string begins at the fifth fret on the fingerboard with a tuning peg that is mounted in the side of the neck.  While this looks like it would “get in the way” players become accustomed to moving their thumb out of the way and now the fifth peg is a beautiful part of the aesthetic of a five string banjo.

Five string banjos are generally played fingerstyle and clawhammer style.  Some folk players and pop/rock players do beautiful work with flatpicking techniques.  There is a young player in the band “Trampled by Turtles” who uses a jazz guitar approach of holding the flatpick and using his other fingers to both flat pick and create a finger pick sound.  He creates wonderful effects with this technique.

The five string is also available in a “long neck” style which has 25 frets and about a 32 inch scale length.  (the standard five string banjos have 22 frets and a 26 ¼ inch scale length and are generally tuned to an open G chord.) 

The invention of this banjo is credited to the late Pete Seeger.  Seeger wanted a banjo that would support his baritone voice and he liked singing in the key of E a lot.  So, the open chord tuning of the long neck banjo pitches the banjo in E instead of standard neck key of G.  The deep sounding long neck banjo became popular with the Kingston Trio and many folk bands that followed.

Deering also makes a Goodtime five string banjo called the “Parlor” which is a short scale five string.  It has 19 frets, still tuned to G and is a handy short banjo great for traveling or smaller framed players and children.

6 String

While the 6 string guitar is the most popular instrument in the western world, there are many guitarists who are fascinated with the banjo, but want to apply their existing guitar techniques to a banjo and get a whole new sound.  Deering’s six string banjos are the perfect tool for the guitarist and for banjoists who are looking for a new sound.

Six string banjos have a glorious history.  Johnny StCyr played a six string banjo in the Louis Armstrong band.  His jazz chords and strong rhythm added a bounce and power to this world famous group.   

The great Django Reinhardt, guitarist of the “Hot Club of France” played a six string banjo on many occasions and his powerful and fluid technique thrilled audiences all over Europe.

Today, Keith Urban developed a beautiful cross-picking technique which brought the sparkling Deering six string banjo to millions of country and pop music fans.

Jim West, guitarist for Weird Al Yankovich, is also a superb “slack key guitarist” and plays beautiful slack key guitar music on the six string banjo.

Six string banjos are usually tuned to the standard guitar tuning of E,A,D,G,B,E.   However, alternative guitar tunings are absolutely beautiful on six string banjos.

Tunings like D,A,D,G,A,D and open G tuning of D,G,D,G,B,D open up a whole new dimension of music for the banjo.  The drop D tuning D,A,D,G,B,E makes for a great accompaniment tuning for singers and is popular with fingerstyle players.

A band called “Matchbox 20” had a hit song where the opening of the song was played on a Deering B6 banjo tuned in “Nashville” tuning.  The Nashville tuning is the strings and notes of the “octave” strings of a 12-string guitar.  These are all high notes without the bass strings and have a bright, sparkling brilliance on a six string banjo.

I’ve seen blues musicians who put a set of medium gauge, acoustic guitar strings (really huge by banjo standards) on their Deering 6 string banjos which produces a plunky, staccato sound, with virtually no sustain, but was ideal for their delta blues and related music.

The six string banjo is a versatile banjo that brings the guitarist the joy of banjo playing without re-learning new fingerings and technique.

4 String Tenor

The tenor banjo is tuned like a viola.  The tuning is C,G,D,A. (fourth to first) Some say the tenor banjo was created in response to violin players in the early part of the 20th century wanting an instrument that they could adapt their violin fingerings to so they could play in popular bands of the day. (similar to the six string banjo today)

Tenor banjos have been used for jazz and folk for many years. However, in the last few decades, the biggest increase in tenor interest has been in Irish/Celtic music. 

Deering makes tenor banjos with two scale lengths.  They are 17 fret and 19 fret tenors. 

In general, the 19 fret banjos are preferred by jazz players but also played by Irish music players.  The 17 fret tenor banjos are quite popular with Irish music players.  The shorter scale length makes fingering the fast triplets in Irish music a little easier due to the fingers not having to reach so far.   

Many Irish tenor banjoists like to tune their banjos to one octave below a mandolin.   The notes are G,D,A,E (fourth to first) and the E note is the same as the first string E on the guitar. 

The low, Irish tuning usually requires heavier or larger diameter strings so the strings have comfortable playing tension.  Tuning standard strings down this low results in strings that flop too much and have no tone clarity at all. 

4 String Plectrum

The “plectrum” banjo has 22 frets, the same as a five string and is usually played with a flat pick.  The word plectrum is an archaic term that basically means “flat pick.”  This four string banjo was called a “plectrum” banjo to differentiate it from the original five string banjos that were played with fingers; fingerstyle or clawhammer.  Therefore, this banjo was not a “finger played” banjo, but it was considered a “plectrum played” banjo.

The plectrum banjo is probably the first Dixieland Jazz banjo.  It is a five string banjo with the fifth string removed and flatpicked like a guitar would have been in the early 20th century. 

The standard tuning on a plectrum banjo is C,G,B,D.   But, like all banjos, it responds well to other tunings.  Many professional plectrum players use the “Chicago” tuning which is the same as the first four strings of the guitar D,G,B,E which is also the tuning of the baritone ukulele.

This tuning opens up the possibility for baritone uke players to add a banjo to their repertoire while using all familiar chords and fingerings. 

The open G tuning is also used by some and is great for beginners who want simple chords that are easy to finger. 

I’ve seen a few classical guitarists finger pick a plectrum banjo and the effect was absolutely beautiful.  The low tension of the strings and the delicate brilliance of the plectrum sound complimented the trained classical touch.

For the most part, plectrum banjos are generally flatpicked.

Banjo Ukulele

Most banjo ukuleles are tuned to standard ukulele tuning. Deering’s concert and tenor style banjo ukuleles are both tuned to standard ukulele tuning. As a result of retaining this familiar tuning, ukulele players delight in playing a banjo style instrument using the same chords, fingerings, etc. that they would use on their ukuleles.

Most banjo ukuleles are strong with four, nylon, monofilament strings. In the past, Deering has made a few tenor banjos and tuned them to a ukulele tuning but with metal strings. While this is not very common, it has been done.

We have now heard our banjo ukuleles played finger style, claw hammer style, strumming style, and even chord melody style. There seems to be no limits to the versatility of these wonderful small banjos.

How Many Strings On A Banjo - That’s a lot of Strings

For the Deering banjo company, the question of how many strings on a banjo is, like most of the Deering banjo lines, not a short answer.

But, for the banjoist who needs a banjo for any situation, Deering builds it.   Click here for another great article on the different types of banjos Deering builds!

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