Guitar Vs. Banjo: How They Differ & Which One to Learn

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I purchased my first banjo in college after I had been playing the guitar for about 8 years.

I’m no banjo expert, but I’m familiar with both instruments and can tell you how they differ and help you decide which one to pursue.

First, let’s discuss their differences.

How are guitars and banjos different?

  • The guitar has six strings and the banjo has five strings.
  • Standard tuning for the guitar is EADGBE and standard tuning for the banjo is an open G chord: GDGBD.
  • Guitar is strummed or finger-picked whereas the banjo is almost always finger-picked.
  • Guitars are usually larger than banjos.
  • Guitars are more versatile whereas banjos are usually played in country, bluegrass, or folk genres.
  • Although entry-level guitars and banjos might be similarly priced, in general banjos, range from slightly to significantly more expensive than guitars of similar quality.
  • Because guitars are more popular than banjos, more learning resources are available for the guitar.

So which instrument should you pursue in light of these differences?

You might consider pursuing the guitar if several of the following are true.
You might consider pursuing the banjo if several of the following are true.
You are on a tighter budget and are looking for a less expensive performance ready instrument to purchase and maintain.
You’re willing to invest more in the purchase and maintenance of a performance ready instrument than you would in a performance ready guitar of similar quality.
You want to have the flexibility of playing styles to either strum or finger-pick your instrument.
You have an interest in finger-picking since banjo is almost exclusively finger-picked and hardly ever strummed.
You are interested in playing several different styles and don’t want to feel limited stylistically by your instrument.
You like country, folk, or bluegrass genres, or you’re excited to do the work necessary to adapt the banjo to your style of choice.
You’re willing to accept that many musicians play the guitar and as such, many jam sessions don’t need an additional guitarist.
You’re excited to learn a unique and less common musical instrument that will most likely be welcome at jam sessions.
You want to have an abundance of learning resources available to you.
You understand that banjo is less popular than guitar and as such, there are fewer learning resources available for the banjo.

Check out the sections below to learn more about which instrument to pursue and why the best instrument for you might be one you’ve never heard of.

Guitar Vs. Banjo: Pricing

If you’ve read my acoustic guitar buyer’s guide, you know that the entry level instrument I recommend is the Jasmine S35 coming in around $100.

Likewise, getting a performance-ready electric acoustic guitar that I recommend will cost you a little more than the Jasmine S35.

On the other hand, purchasing the entry-level banjo I recommend of similar entry-level quality to the Jasmine S35 will cost you around twice as much as the Jasmine S35.

And to buy an electric acoustic banjo will cost you around $300!

As you can see, although entry-level guitars and banjos may have similar prices, those prices diverge when comparing performance ready, higher quality instruments.

Greater demand due to the guitar’s global popularity means high-quality instruments are plentiful and less expensive than banjos of similar quality.

Thus, the simple reality for nearly any stringed instrument less popular than the guitar is that both the purchase and servicing of the instrument will be more expensive than the guitar.

Guitar Vs. Banjo: Styles

Guitar is one of the most versatile instruments with guitarists effortlessly playing in countless styles and genres.

The banjo is less versatile.

Banjo most commonly appears in music of the following genres:

  • country
  • bluegrass
  • and folk.

In addition, the banjo is rarely strummed and is almost always finger-picked.

On the other hand, the guitar can be strummed or finger-picked depending preference and style.

Of course, great musicians adapt the banjo for all sorts of genres and styles.

However, this requires skill and significant effort.

If you’d rather simply play a versatile instrument, guitar is probably the better choice for you.

Guitar Vs. Banjo: Jam Sessions

A distinct advantage of the banjo thanks to its lesser popularity is that your banjo skills will likely be welcomed at jam sessions.

If you’re not familiar with the phrases, “jamming” or “jam sessions”, they simply mean playing music with other musicians.

Those that stick with their instrument almost inevitably end up jamming with other musicians.

And the common problem for jam sessions is that most people play guitar and most jam sessions don’t need another guitarist.

My group of friends that I jam with has three guitarists and one vocalist.

It would be much easier (and more fun) if we all played different instruments.

So if you can play a less common instrument like the banjo, you will almost certainly be welcome and in demand for jamming with others.

Banjo virtuoso Noam Pikelny cites this phenomenon as one of the primary reasons he stuck with the banjo instead of nearly switching his life pursuit to the guitar:

Blending Guitar and Banjo Techniques with Noam Pikelny | Reverb Interview

Guitar Vs. Banjo: Learning Resources

As I’ve mentioned above, the banjo simply isn’t as popular as the guitar.

As a result, there are fewer learning resources available for the banjo player.

Accurate banjo tabs and video tutorials are harder to come by than guitar tabs and video tutorials.

Plus, odds are there are some songs you’d like to learn that aren’t originally played on the banjo.

Tutorials like these are even more difficult to find.

If you’re up for the challenge and realize that you’ll need to be figuring out some things on your own early in your learning process, banjo is a fine instrument for you.

However, if you’d like to have an abundance of learning materials at your disposal, guitar is likely a better choice.

The Best of Both Worlds: The Guitar-Banjo Hybrid

If you’re a guitarist itching to have that banjo sound but not sure whether to buy a banjo, you might consider purchasing a banjo-guitar.

After years of owning a banjo and hardly ever playing it, I decided to sell my banjo and purchase a banjo-guitar instead and I’ve been loving it.

If you aren’t familiar with banjo-guitars (also called six string banjos, banjitars, or ganjos) and you didn’t already read about them in my article about guitar-like instruments, banjo guitars have the body of a banjo with the tuning and number of strings of a guitar.

On banjo guitar, you can play all your favorite guitar tunes and licks with that banjo sound without having to learn a new instrument.

I wish I knew about the six string banjo before I purchased the standard banjo.

As soon as I discovered this banjo guitar hybrid, I knew it was the instrument for me.

If you want to get a starter banjo-guitar, this is a reasonably priced instrument with solid reviews.

(I purchased a more expensive instrument with a pickup if you’re interested in buying the one I purchased.

I really enjoy it and think it’s a great instrument for the price.)

What You Need to Know if You Buy a Banjitar

As I mentioned above, the banjitar is a really fun instrument and I don’t regret purchasing one at all.

However, you should be aware that playing a banjitar isn’t all roses.

First, there aren’t many songs that feature the banjitar and there are even fewer tabs available for those songs.

So be prepared to learn how to play songs on the banjitar by yourself.

Also, if you want to focus on this instrument, be prepared to adapt songs for the banjitar since so few songs are originally written for this instrument.

Related Questions

Is it easier to play guitar or banjo? While it may be slightly easier to press down the strings and form chord shapes on the banjo than the guitar, I think the guitar is easier for beginners than the banjo. First, there is an abundance of learning materials available for the guitarist and far fewer learning materials available to the banjo player. Also, most people find strumming easier than finger-picking. Strumming is a common playing style on the guitar but banjo players hardly ever strum and instead finger-pick. And although this may come down to personal preference, I think that the playing posture of guitar is easier than the banjo. The weight of the guitar body supports the neck of the instrument so it rests with ease on your leg and you can see the fretboard without craning your neck. When I play the banjo I find the playing posture less comfortable, and I find it more difficult to see the fret board.

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