What’s in a Name? Sometimes shaming and resentment. This includes the name “banjitar,” which certain musicians have used to stress that 6-string banjo players aren’t real banjo players, but rather guitar players who want to play banjo without learning anything.
The name needs to be retired. For one thing, the implication that 6-string banjos aren’t “real” banjos reveals gross ignorance of what – until a couple decades ago – was a perfectly respectable member of the banjo family.
Historical Fact Alert: Over a century ago, Jazz musicians who wanted more range than they were getting out of their 4-string Tenor banjos, began ordering 6-string banjos from the same manufacturers who were making 4-string and 5-string banjos.
At the time, hardly anyone east of the Mississippi played guitar (it was a distant third behind banjo and mandolin), so there was never any question about 6-string banjos being invented to make “banjo playing” easier for guitar players.
For nearly sixty years, the 6-string banjo was considered a legitimate alternative to the 4-string in Jazz bands around the world.
What changed? Some years after a legitimate American banjo manufacturer added professional 6-string banjos to their lineup, a host of cheap importers saw an opportunity to bolt cheap guitar necks onto cheap guitar pots and make false claims to the effect that their junk and near-junk products would turn any guitar player into a banjo player overnight.
Such false claims and such inferior products have certainly done nothing to improve the reputation of 6-string banjos. Worse yet, the implication that 6-string banjos are nothing but “crutches” for guitar players who are too lazy to learn “real” banjo has even caused some talented 6-string banjo players to think of themselves as “second class citizens” or the like within the world of acoustic and traditional music.
Sadly, I have heard talented 6-string banjo players “apologize” for not playing a “real” banjo. “No, I’m not really a banjo player. This is a banjitar – a guitar with a banjo body.” It saddens me to watch fellow musicians preemptively shame themselves in case there’s a picker in the audience waiting to take offense at the number of strings on their banjo.
A handful of banjo importers even call their 6-strings “banjitars.” The same companies call their 4-string banjos “4-string banjos.” What’s so hard about calling 6-string banjos “6-string banjos”? In at least one case, I think it’s because they’re afraid their credibility as a “serious” banjo manufacturer would suffer among their core customers if they used the name “banjo” for instruments they are advertising as enablers for lazy guitarists. (Now that I think about it, better quality control across their product line would probably be do more for their “cred,” though.)
I’ve reviewed a lot of banjos over the years, but I’ve never published a review of that company’s “banjitars” because I don’t believe there is any such thing as a “banjitar,” really. If they ever start selling 6-string banjos, I’ll gladly reconsider reviewing them. (I have reviewed two of their 5-string banjos, in case you wondered, but they call those “banjos.” What a thought!)
Why is this coming up again? Because I was recently asked to contribute some information about 6-string banjos to an online newsletter, and the editor kept trying to get the term “banjitar” into the header. “Please don’t,” I implored. “I’ve been trying to get that term out of people’s vocabulary for four years.”
Then he told me that people looking for information on 6-string banjos are more likely to google “banjitar” than any other word or phrase. In my best Charlie Brown voice: AAAAAAUUUUUGGGHHHHH!!!!!!!
Sure enough, when I googled “banjitar” I came up with page after page of imported 6-string banjos, mostly made by the same company I mentioned four paragraphs up.
So I can see why the fellow wanted to get the derisive epithet “banjitar” into a prominent place in his newsletter. But I am disappointed that he should have to.
If you’re a member of the 6-string banjo community, please stop apologizing for playing your instrument of choice, and please stop accepting shaming from folks who think they’re superior to you because their banjos have a different number of strings or whatever. Better yet, get so good that you shut them up.
If you’re a member of the banjo community at large, please stop shaming other banjo players period. Internal feuding has already scared off folks who thought they wanted to learn banjo before they got online and saw some of the things that banjo players call each other, just because of differences in right-hand techniques. For all you know, today’s 6-string player may become tomorrow’s 5-string player. Or they might do something entirely new that creates a “rising tide that floats all boats.”
As an example, one reason more people are interested in learning banjo now than just a few years ago is the predominance of 4-string banjo on radio hits by Mumford and Sons and similar bands. Yet I don’t hear 5-string players routinely shaming 4-string players – rather I see them glad that the banjo in general is becoming more popular.
Hopefully 6-string banjo playing by folks like Keith Urban will also encourage people to learn banjo – any kind of banjo.
But in the meantime, please get derogatory terms like “gitjo” and “banjitar” out of your vocabulary, respect your fellow banjo players, and practice calling banjos “banjos.”
Is that really so hard?
For more information about 6-string banjos, including history and playing tips, please see Paul’s article “Are 6-string Banjos for Real?”