Banjo Banjo is a stringed musical instrument of African origin, popularized in the United States by slaves in the 19th century, then exported to Europe. Several African stringed instruments have similar names—e.g., bania, banju. The banjo has a tambourine-like body with a hoop and a screw that secure the vellum belly to the frame. Screw stretchers are used to vary the tension of the belly. The strings pass over a violin-type, or pressure, bridge and are hitched to a tailpiece. In the 1890s, frets were added to the long neck, and a machine head with screws replaced the tuning pegs.

Variants of the standard banjo abound. Banjos played with a plectrum, or pick, rather than fingers lack the chanterelle. On a zither banjo the vellum is suspended in a resonator that throws the sound forward; the chanterelle, tuned from the head, passes under the fingerboard to emerge at the fifth fret. The banjo is widely played in U.S. folk music and has also been used in jazz ensembles.

The banjo was created by enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean and colonial North America. Here, they maintained and perpetuated the tradition within a complex system of slave-labor camps, plantations, and in a variety of rural and urban settings. From the earliest references in the 17th century, and through the 1830s, the banjo was exclusively known as an African-American tradition with a West African heritage. What further distinguishes the banjo is that it did not come from Africa “as-is” as an unaltered tradition. Rather, the banjo’s creation was the result of a blending between West African and European forms. Sharing some similarities with the guitar, the best-documented form of the early banjo includes a drum-like body made out of a gourd (or sometimes a calabash) and a neck that could accommodate 4 strings—three long strings that run the full length of the instrument and one short thumb string that stops about halfway up the side of the neck. The drum-like gourd body and strings of different lengths are uniquely African, while the flat fingerboard and tuning pegs are more commonly associated with European traditions.