Banjo History

The Banjo History | Where did the Banjo Come From?

The origin of the banjo is unknown. It is believed to have originated in Africa. The banjo has been around for centuries and has gone through many changes over the years.

In this blog post, we will take a look at the banjo history, from its early origins to its current popularity. So if you are interested in learning more about this interesting instrument, keep reading.

Origin of the Banjo

banjo history

The first banjo was said to have West African origins. That’s right, the African Nyunga or “tun- tun” is believed to be an ancestor of the modern-day banjo. This instrument was made using a gourd body with a stick neck and dried animal skinhead.

Banjos were brought over to the United States in the late 17th century and have become a very integral part of American culture.

Early Stages of Banjo

banjo history

Banjos went through some major changes in the early stages of its life. The first banjo had one string made from the animal gut or horsehair and was played with a gourd resonator at one end on the strings. The neck of these early instruments had a fingerboard attached to it that had no frets, making it difficult to play.

In the mid-1800s, a second-string was added to the banjo, and they were being plucked with a stick or quill. In order to play these early two-string banjos comfortably, fingerboards had to be altered with frets. Also, during this time mechanism was implemented in the banjo’s neck. The neck of these instruments was attached to the resonator by a screw assembly.

Banjo History: Minstrel Era of Banjo

banjo history

The minstrel era of the banjo history is the name given to the period starting in 1829 when African-American white musicians began playing a banjo-like instrument. During this time, slave owners were not pleased with seeing African Americans playing musical instruments because they believe,  it made them rebellious, so, therefore, banned it. However, this rule was not strictly enforced, and many African Americans were still able to play instruments in secret.

Blackface minstrel shows started in 1832- a form of variety entertainment with comic songs performed by white people in blackface for the purpose of playing stereotypes of Black characters. The music from these shows contained songs that actors sang with an exaggerated “plantation” dialect.

Banjo History: Minstrel to Parlor

banjo history

In 1849, a patent was issued for a 5-string banjo. The origin of the banjo history being played in America is said to have begun in the minstrel shows and parlor music. Minstrel shows were popular from the 1820s to 1870s and consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and American music performed by white people in blackface.

Following the minstrel era, the five-string banjo continued to be used in minstrel shows and parlor music. However, beginning in 1874, when African American virtuoso William Jackson started touring with his own troupe, minstrel shows started to decline because audiences wanted to see “authentic” black performers.

Compared to the minstrel era, parlor music was considered more sophisticated and pure in its nature. These shows typically consisted of amateur musicians performing for family and friends in their homes. The banjo became a part of many different types of parlor music during this time period, including sacred harp singing, folk ballads, dance tunes, marches, and sentimental ballads.

Banjo in Early 20th Century

banjo history

The banjo grew in popularity and was used widely during the early 20th century. Players began using new techniques and styles, and several playing schools were developed. New styles such as “Scruggs-style” (developed by Earl Scruggs) can be heard on several bluegrass albums that were recorded after World War II.

The banjo is played in several folk music traditions, such as Irish, English, and Scottish traditional music. There are also several great bluegrass players such as J. D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, and Ralph Stanley, who have written down licks and introduced new techniques which modern players use today.

Read the list of banjo museums.

What’s Next for the Banjo?

The banjo is still played and continues to grow in popularity. Its sound can be heard in many different types of music, such as bluegrass, folk music, jazz, classical, and even pop songs. Banjos come in all shapes and sizes and can be used in a wide variety of musical traditions. Today’s banjo is not the same as the banjo that was originally created. However, it is still one of America’s favorite instruments and continues to be an important part of our musical heritage.


Banjo history has come a long way. It was originally used by African slaves in the south to play for their masters, and then it became popular with minstrels who played it on stage as comic relief. Minstrel music eventually gave way to parlor ballads, and now we see professional musicians playing this instrument at concerts worldwide.  I hope this blog helped you learn new historical facts about the history of banjos.

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