Evolution of the Banjo

I don’t have an article about this yet, but I have two handouts I made for a clinic at the Madden Road Music Fest in Cable, Ohio, 8/12/2017.

Update 8/15/2017: I updated both the table and the graphic as a result of reader response and further research in certain areas.

One issue that the disclaimer on the pages doesn’t have room to include is that many experimental banjos were built on “spec.” That is, some builders would make several new experimental models at a time, making one of each one to make certain they were feasible, then they would advertise them and build as orders came in. Some banjo designs never found an appreciable following, others exploded in unexpected popularity, possibly decades after their original offering. Some were popular for a time but were dropped when a more useful banjo for that particular niche came along.

So when I say “evolution,” I’m not saying that each design was a direct outgrowth of some previous design – it may initially have been designed at the SAME TIME as the design it eventually supplanted. I’m saying that as popular music developed and tastes changed, the need for different kinds of banjos grew disproportionately. So, during the Jazz age, 5-string banjo manufacturing was outpaced by 4-string banjos, which were outpaced by 5-string backless banjos as the Jazz age ended and the Folk Revival started, but the rise of Bluegrass rekindled interest in resonator banjos, and so on. Nobody is saying any one of these is any better than any other, just that they served/serve different purposes.

Here’s a jpeg of the graphic:

Chart of evolution of the banjo - yes it's vastly oversimplifed.  Otherwise you'd need a billboard-sized page, but it shows the general trends.

The full-page PDF of the graphic is here:


A table providing more information about each class of banjo is here:



About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

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