Stand a plectrum banjo up against your average five-string banjo and at first glance, you might not spot the difference. Both types of instrument have almost identical construction, from the scale length and fret count all the way down to the size of the head, and the type of strings used. Quickly, however, it will become clear that on the plectrum banjo the shortened fifth string is missing.
This may seem like a glaring omission to Scruggs Style and Clawhammer players. To those who know the history of plectrum banjo and specialize in its distinctive style; not so much. It is perhaps the banjo's best-kept secret, that sometimes four strings really are better than five. Played with a flat pick or ‘plectrum', from where they get their name, these instruments lend themselves to lively, rhythmic performance and occupy a unique space in the American musical tradition.
The fork in the history of the banjo - when it diversified into four and five-string models - was a gradual process. It occurred independently at several key points in the decades both before and after the turn of the 20th Century, in reaction to the demands of newly developing styles of music. From vaudeville, to ballroom, to jazz; both established banjoists and converts from other instruments began to see the banjo in a whole new light.
The earliest known reference to a five-string banjo being played without its 5th string, and using a plectrum, can be found in an edition of S. S. Stewart's Guitar and Banjo Journal from the 1890s. This innovation was provided by vaudeville performers who sought greater volume to help their banjos to be heard over loud orchestral instruments. Strumming out of full chord shapes, these banjo players had no need for the shortened, hard-to-fret thumb string which often did little more than make their playing sound discordant. It should be noted that these performers were not representative of the general experience of most banjo players at that time.
Five-string banjoists who played using finger style technique made up the majority of the banjo playing population in the late-1800s. This continued into the first decade of the 1900s with the rise of ragtime. A jaunty style of music first composed on the piano, ragtime places a highly syncopated right-hand pattern (i.e. with accented offbeats) over a rhythmically steady left-hand bass pattern. Its popularity began in earnest with the publication of Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag in 1899. Fingerstyle banjo would play an essential role in ragtime's development as it entered bars and music halls across the U.S., spawning a new wave of popular dances.
By the 1910s the ballroom craze was in full swing, fuelled by the success of ragtime music, establishing classic dances such as the Tango and Foxtrot in 1910 and 1914 respectively. Professional banjo players seeking to stay relevant in this dance band era began to reevaluate the design of their five-string instruments. With a greater emphasis being placed on rhythm, and a need to produce a louder, punchier sound, the plectrum style of play started to gain traction. As vaudeville performers had done in the 1890s, dance band banjoists began to leave the fifth string off their instruments altogether. Manufacturers responded to these new trends with some of the first purpose-built, four string plectrum banjos.
Around the same time as some finger style banjoists were starting to transition towards these instruments, mandolin players also angling for work in popular dance bands began eyeing up the banjo as well. Their native instrument was too quiet to be of use in these louder ensembles. Hybrids that combined the mandolin's eight strings and scale length with the banjo's drum head had already been in production since the 1890s. Yet, the additional strings gave these mandolin-banjos too much sustain to be proficient at the staccato, percussive role required of them by dance bands.
Banjolins, which cut the string count back to four, were an improvement, but still not loud enough. By lowering the tuning and increasing the scale length from 14 to 17 inches, mandolin players overcame these issues, and in the process created what we now refer to as the tenor banjo. The first commercially produced tenor banjo appeared around 1908 courtesy of the Vega Company, although ‘homemade' versions of the instrument likely already existed prior to that date. Tenor banjos did not achieve widespread production until around 1915. These instruments were perfect for providing rhythmic accompaniment to the dance bands of the day, and only grew in popularity as musicians adopted them for similar roles in the jazz explosion of the 1920s.
Plectrum banjos, with their 22-inch scale lengths, were primarily of benefit to musicians coming straight from the tradition of five-string banjo. The shorter tenor banjo was tuned in fifths (CDGA) to make up-the-neck chord changes easier. It became the obvious choice for those approaching the instrument from other disciplines with the intention of playing dance music and jazz.
In some ways, plectrum banjo may be considered the most intuitive style of banjo to begin to learn. If you've ever strummed a guitar or ukulele before then you'll already have a basic understanding of the right-hand technique used on plectrum banjos. This is in comparison to finger-picked roll patterns or the downpicking of Scruggs Style and Clawhammer respectively, which often require more thorough introduction for new players.
Having said that, basic strumming out of chord shapes isn't all there is to plectrum banjo. This rhythmic foundation can be built upon by picking out individual notes for melodic emphasis. While down-strumming is typically used to accentuate the strong beats of a song, all manner of licks and embellishments can be used to add depth to the spaces in between. It is in this style of play that the influence of earlier five-string banjo can still be keenly felt.
Advanced techniques include the tremolo, a method of rapidly picking either single or multiple strings up and down to produce a continuous, trembling effect. The level of natural sustain on banjos is quite low, meaning that the sound produced by strumming it will quickly fade to silence. A tremolo allows plectrum banjo players to produce constant sound which links one chord strum to the next.
When it comes to tuning your plectrum banjo there are a couple of options available which have established themselves as firm favorites over the years. Standard plectrum banjo tuning is in CGBD. This is the same as ‘Dropped C' tuning on five-string banjo, except with that shortened fifth string missing. Early plectrum banjo players brought this tuning with them when they made the transition from five-string instruments. It was the most widely used five-string tuning at the time and allowed them to tackle new styles of music without relearning the fretboard.
An alternative is the so called ‘Chicago Tuning' which matches the four strings on the plectrum banjo to the top four strings on a standard guitar: DGBE. For guitar players considering the jump to banjo, this tuning makes it easy to import all your existing scale and chord knowledge and start playing straight out of the box.
In their heyday, plectrum and tenor banjos played a vital role in the composition of jazz and dance music. Throughout the 1920s they would feature prominently in clubs and dance halls across the United States. As the 1930s rolled around, guitar amplification became widespread, and these less expensive instruments won out over the banjo for their smoother, softer tone. America's musical tastes were evolving once again, and despite several revivals over the years, ragtime and traditional jazz would never fully regain the ubiquity they had once enjoyed.
As we now know, this did not spell out the end of the banjo altogether. Earl Scruggs went on to pioneer his 3-finger style during the 1940s and with it secured a renaissance period for the five-string banjo. Pete Seeger was also responsible for stretches of renewed interest, releasing his now famous How to Play Five-String Banjo in 1948. In the same year, the American Banjo Fraternity was founded, a still existing organization dedicated to the preservation of "classic", finger style banjo.
Four string instruments, however, were not so lucky, falling into relative obscurity over the proceeding decades. Although in many ways a quirk of American musical history, the plectrum banjo has survived (alongside the tenor) thanks to sporadic revivals in the 1960s and 70s, and a long line of dedicated enthusiasts.
To this day it remains a viable alternative to its five-string sibling. Especially for players seeking to emulate the early jazz sound, make the switch from other strummed instruments, or breathe new life into classic folk and five-string banjo tunes. Much of the banjo music published in the 1920s was done so in versions for both five-string and plectrum models, simplifying the process of converting these tunes from one instrument to the other. Dedicated to the production of high-quality instruments (no matter how many strings!), Deering offers a range of plectrum banjos to suit everybody from beginner right up to the seasoned vet.
History of Ragtime | Library of Congress
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