Banjitar history is a small part of the very long and interesting story of the history of stringed instruments.
Although you can read a bit about the banjitar on Wikipedia, its entry doesn’t address much of the history of this instrument.
That’s what I aim to expore in this post.
With such a wide variety of stringed instruments, the history of each instrument varies by region.
Musical culture developed alongside instruments throughout the world.
Today, newer instruments like the banjitar are opening up new avenues for musicians to play.
It is easy to assume that the banjitar is a relatively young instrument.
Due to its name, the hybrid of a banjo and guitar sounds like something only recently thought of.
But did you know that the real history of a banjitar spans more than a century?
Depending on how you look at it, banjitar history is long and extensive.
A banjitar has the body of a banjo but six strings instead of a banjo’s usually four or five tuned in the same way as a guitar.
(To learn more about the features of the banjitar and which banjitar I own, check out my post about it.)
But there are six-string banjos that were around before the banjitar.
There are many different versions of a 6-string banjo that would not technically be considered a banjitar.
This has everything to do with the way the instruments were tuned.
At its core, there were (and are) many different 6-string banjos with a long important history to them.
These other six-string banjos aren’t technically banjitars because they weren’t meant to be tuned like a guitar.
Check out some of these historic six-string banjos that predate the banjitar!
What does the history of stringed instruments look like?
Instruments that involve strumming or plucking strings have been around for thousands of years.
The immortality of these instruments are the reason so many scales and modes in music have Greek names.
The Ancient Greeks developed much of the western understanding of music theory to this day.
Ionian, Aeolian, Dorian, Lydian, etc… These are all names of modes in music theory, as well as regions in Greece.
This indicates just how long stringed instruments have been around, and where in the world they developed.
We know that the ancients used string instruments thanks to their theories on harmony.
Harmony requires the playing of two or more notes at the same time.
This is much easier to do on a stringed instrument as all it takes is two fingers. Sometimes even one.
The earliest known type of strung musical instrument is called a lute.
The oldest lute ever discovered was found in the region of Mesopotamia and is over 5000 years old!
In the Middle Ages the lute influenced many other instruments strung with anywhere from 3-6 strings.
Examples of these medieval instruments also include the lute, in addition to the viola, violin, fiddle, and a gittern (a four-stringed ancestor of a guitar.)
By the 17th century, stringed instruments like violins and guitars finally began to resemble the look we know today.
While these stringed instruments developed in the Middle East and Europe, Africa had its own style of stringed instrument.
In Africa, musicians developed and played an instrument called the Diddley Bow.
The influential American blues artist Bo Diddley named himself after the instrument, which played a massive part in blues music.
As you can see, a very wide selection of musical instruments has developed around the world.
Slowly, these cultures began to develop their own styles.
The Development of Musical Culture Around the World
As time went on, the scale of mass production also increased enabling many more people to get their hands on musical instruments.
With more people buying and playing musical instruments, the result was an increase in creative output.
As a result, musical culture exploded around the world.
Seeing as it was easier to get your hands on an instrument, their popularity increased.
Different peoples and different cultures all started to develop their own musical culture.
Much of this had to do with the output of stringed instruments.
In places like India, the rise of the sitar had a massive impact on Indian musical culture.
Over in Europe, the development of a wide selection of stringed instruments led to the rise of orchestral classical music.
That said, each culture began to develop their own style and type of musical sound.
As time went on, the rise of colonialism resulted in a place every culture could come together to make music.
When these cultures came together, they created a new sound and gifted it to the world.
The resulting new style of music is one of the greatest American exports: jazz music.
Jazz mixed different musical cultures together.
Surprisingly, the banjo (and banjitar) played a massive role in early jazz music.
Middle Eastern, African, and European Music and Instruments Mixed in the New World
The development of the New World resulted in a place where music and instruments from around the world could mesh together.
Classical music played with stringed instruments like the violin, harp, cello, and many more met with the rhythm and blues style of African music.
The resulting music that came out of young America was what would become blues and jazz music.
While each culture had their own version of a string instrument, the way they were all applied was different.
African-American work music led to the birth of jazz and blues.
With time, stringed instruments incorporated into the sound of these new styles of music.
The resulting music is some of the most important and influential music in history.
Due to the racial discrimination of the time, white listeners originally (and ignorantly) dismissed this massive genre of incredible music.
With time, the music developed more and started to use a larger group of instruments.
Among these instruments were not just the guitar, but also the banjo.
Yes! In the 100+ years of the 6-stringed instruments history, a big part of it has to do with jazz music.
Before musical instruments became electric, the banjo (6-stringed and otherwise) played an important role in banjitar history.
Thanks to the banjo’ build, you could play this instrument more loudly than most other stringed instruments.
For this reason, it became a very important instrument in the forming of early jazz music.
As more and more played the banjo, they began adapting it to better fit jazz and other genres.
Traditional Banjo Tuning
A traditional banjo consists of five strings.
The notes of these strings are: GDGBd.
The name of this tuning is Open G.
In other words, strumming an open chord of these notes makes a G Major chord.
Basically, strumming a G chord on a guitar is the same as strumming all of the strings open on a banjo.
You can also tune a guitar to Open G.
However, this is not the traditional tuning of a guitar, so it would require de-tuning almost every string on the guitar.
Given this tuning on the modern five string banjo, let’s discuss the tuning of six-string banjos that pre-date the modern banjitar.
Zither 6-String Banjo
The Zither 6-String was one of the first 6 string banjos and is an important piece of banjitar history.
It is technically not a “banjitar” since it is not tuned as a guitar would be — the definition of a banjitar.
Instead, the Zither sticks to the same tuning system as a traditional banjo, just with 6 strings instead of 5.
This is the same system used by makers of a 7-string guitar or a 5-string bass.
For example, a 7-string guitar is the same as a 6-string guitar, but with a low B string added to the low end, following the tuning system.
A 5-string bass is the same as a 4-string bass but, in the same way, also has a low B string added, also following the same system.
This is because the guitar and the bass use the same system.
The guitar uses EADGBe while the bass uses EADG.
By the same logic, adding a sixth string to the banjo and sticking to the same system as a banjo (GDGBd) would add another G.
This means that the drone string would stay as G, and the playable strings would add another G.
So the tuning of a Zither 6-string becomes: GGDGBd, keeping to the same tuning system of open G.
Adding in that lower G gives the Zither 6-string almost the same range as a guitar would have.
But it is technically not a banjitar since it is not tuned as a banjitar (or a guitar) would be tuned.
A banjitar would also not have the drone string in the way that a traditional banjo would.
The drone string on a 6-string banjo was eliminated for a specific reason, as will be discussed soon.
So though this is not a banjitar, it is certainly a 6-string banjo and fits nicely into the history of the banjitar.
The Jazz Inspired “Droneless” 6-String Banjos
The Zither 6-String was common in Europe and had a playstyle similar to how a classical guitar is played.
By the 1920s, the banjo (both 5 and 6 string) became a massive part of southern United States culture.
In becoming part of this culture, the instrument played a massive role in the development of jazz music.
Old jazz cats incorporated banjo playing into New Orleans style jazz music. (And if you’re curious about seemingly unconventional instruments in jazz, check out the guitalele jazz post on this blog.).
Music that came out of New Orleans was some of the most important and influential in American music history.
That said, this music came to form rock, jazz, and blues music as we know it today.
Over time and by the 1920s, jazz music became more and more complex.
Jazz music from this region eventually became so complex that it eliminated the need for a drone string on the banjo.
Since complex jazz compositions changed chords and keys so often, a droning single note no longer had a purpose in the music.
As a result, the drone-string on the 6-string banjos imported from Europe that played like a guitar no longer served a purpose.
Jazz banjo players eliminated the drone string and replaced it with a regular string following the same tuning system.
The result was a 6-string banjo with even more range than the Zither 6-string and a turning point in banjitar history.
The resulting instrument had a broader range than a traditional banjo yet kept that iconic banjo sound and tone.
Johnny St. Cyr, an American jazz banjoist and guitarist, often used his droneless 6-string banjo to play bass lines in recordings.
The droneless 6-string banjo of the 1920 and early jazz generation is another example of a 6-string banjo.
Still, though it has 6 strings, it is not technically considered a “banjitar” due to its tuning.
Contemporary Jazz: the 1950s Lost the Banjo
With the electrification of musical instruments, the banjo lost its lustre in jazz music.
The main reason for the popularity of 6-string banjos in jazz music was because of the volume it could reach.
A banjo is made in a way where it can reach a volume that a guitar could not in the 1920s.
The twangy sound of the instrument stood out in the mix of a jazz piece accompanied by an orchestra (or at least a jazz trio.)
Thanks to the advent of the 6-string banjo, the range made it even more useful.
When musical instruments started to become electrified around the 1950s, the banjo lost out thus altering the course of banjitar history.
Guitars and basses could now be plugged in, turned up and reach tones that banjos could not.
As a result, the guitar pushed the banjo to the side within the jazz sphere of music.
The banjo — both 5 and 6 string — was left to be picked up by bluegrass and old Dixieland style music.
The Advent of the Banjitar
Between all of this history that the banjo has spanned, it has come a long way.
Depending on the genre of music the banjo or banjitar is used in, it can be played in many different ways.
The 6-string banjo was versatile and useful enough to be used in many different styles of music.
Did anybody expect its history to include jazz music?
In the last 20 years or so, banjo and guitar players found a way to crossbreed their instruments.
By taking the 6-string banjo (which clearly has been around for over 100 years) and changing the tuning, a new instrument was born, an important step in banjitar history.
All the banjitar did was take the existing 6-string banjo and simply change the tuning of the strings to the same system as a guitar.
Instead of the system traditionally stuck to by banjos, it now incorporated a guitar tuning system.
It also kept the droning string off the instrument.
What this did was provide an easier way for guitarists who already knew their craft to pick up and play a banjo.
Though there is no iconic droning string or sound, the tone of the instrument remains a banjo.
And it plays like a guitar: any guitar player can pick up a banjitar and get playing right away!
Tuning a banjitar to open G simply gives the tuning of the traditional Zither 6-string banjo.
That said, it’s surprising how long it took for players to realize that the instrument can simply be tuned as a guitar.
Maybe they just didn’t think the tuning of a guitar was as practical as the tuning of a banjo was in jazz music.
With all of these new avenues opening up for instruments, where do you think they will go next? Let me know in the comments!