The History of the Banjo: Where it came from and how it Evolved

The Banjo as it exists today is a quintessentially American musical instrument. It performs an integral role in bluegrass, country, jazz as well as folk music.

The percussive rhythm, the articulate notes, and the unique melodiousness makes the instrument highly versatile. It wasn’t always this way, though, the Banjo has a long and interesting history. 

The History of the Banjo

Early History

The evolution of the modern banjo is an interesting story in itself. The earliest known prototypes appeared around the seventeenth century in the Caribbean region and showed striking resemblances to western stringed instruments in the form of fingerboards and tuning pegs. There is evidence of drum-like instruments with strings stretched out over it in many ancient cultures in Africa and the Far East. 

Popularizing the Banjo

Banjo Poster

In the 1830s, the instrument was popularised by Joel Walker Sweeney, a minstrel musician who took the banjo to both sides of the Atlantic. By the 1850s, pupils of Sweeney created training programs and books on how to play the instrument. This period could have also led to the start of modern Bluegrass, as Fiddle and Drum’s players formed bands with Banjo players.

The 1850’s were also the first time metal strings were used as a cheaper, longer lasting alternative to the professionally made gut strings. 

During the late years of the 19th century, the Dobson brothers are given credit for the addition of both frets and resonators.

The Civil War and World War I both played important roles in the spread of the Banjo. Soldiers were exposed to the happy, uplifting sound of the Banjo during the worst of times and brought it home with them. On the flip side, the Banjo nearly died out during the Great Depression as the sound definitely didn’t fit the dour mood of the time. 

The Modern Banjo

Over the years, different styles and techniques of banjo playing have evolved and so has the banjo itself. A number of distinct types of the instrument are available today, each suited to a particular style of music (read more about the varied types in our article on the topic HERE). They come in a diverse range of prices, starting from mass-produced $150 models to the highly customised and handcrafted premium versions. 

It is not surprising that modern artists like Bela Fleck have managed to adapt banjo sounds even in jazz, classical and fusion contexts. Bands like Mumford and Sons have also contributed towards a rekindled interest in playing the banjo by adapting this beautiful instrument into their music.

For an even more detailed history of the Banjo, check out BluegrassBanjo’s article on the topic, which includes important dates and details.​