Where did the banjo come from?

Luke Robert

From gourd to Gibson

When most people think of the banjo, their mind likely travels to the twangy bluegrass sound and the flying fingers of Earl Scruggs on the strings of that classic pickin 'n' grinnin instrument. I know I did when I first decided to dive into the world of banjo music. However, the earliest days of the banjo can actually be traced back to the Middle East and Africa!

The original design began as a simple goat hide stretched over a gourd with some strings made from the gut of the animal. This instrument then spread around the globe through the African slave trade. Once it reached the Americas, it grew in popularity when it became one of the featured instruments in Minstrel entertainment shows. Over the years, slight modifications were made to the design, such as metal frames, metal strings, plastic heads instead of hide, etc. but none of these changes had quite the impact as that of the beloved fifth string.

This fifth string allowed for a completely new style of playing by enabling higher notes to be played with the thumb, rather than the forefingers. Over the course of the civil war and the many decades to follow, the popularity of the banjo grew immensely as well as the evolution of playing styles with this fifth string. Around the 1940's, a young Earl Scruggs revolutionized the banjo world forever. Earl developed what is now the most widely used playing style by playing with just his thumb, index, and middle fingers (Scruggs style), rather than a pick or strumming. This gave the player the ability to pick notes at breakneck speeds with the alternating of the three fingers.

Many banjo players have followed in Earl Scruggs footsteps such as Béla Fleck (my personal favorite), Noam Pikelny, and even Steve Martin. All have developed their own unique style of playing, ranging from classical music to jazz. Béla Fleck has even taken the modern banjo back to its African roots by traveling to various villages in Africa and playing alongside some original gourd banjos. Despite the many changes and modifications the banjo has seen through its years, such as the electric banjo and the prized Gibson Mastertone, the banjo stays true to its original roots and is a beloved instrument by many.

Want More?

1. Learn more about Béla Fleck and his African banjo excursion by reading about his documentary "Throw Down Your Heart"


2. Make your own banjo with some cheap parts and easy steps!