At first glance, the banjolele appears to be just a mini banjo. One might surmise that it was no different from the banjo other than the size and octave ranges. But if you’re expecting to play it the same way as you do a banjo, you’re in for a bit of a surprise.
The banjolele is also known as a banjo ukulele and as the name suggests, is a mixture of these two instruments. Besides the way they look and sound, they have much in common with each other starting with the way they are tuned and the chords that are played.
Banjolele and ukulele chords are the same. This is because they share the same number of strings, frets, and GCEA tuning system. This means the notes are in the same spots on both fretboards, and chords and chord shapes are the same.
This article will take a glance at both the banjo and the ukulele and how the banjolele came to be. Additionally, GCEA tuning will be discussed, and you will learn alternate tuning you can choose to use on the banjolele.
The Banjolele: More Than Meets the Eye
The banjolele is a fun hybrid combining the banjo with the ukulele, hence the blended name. But just what parts of which instrument have been Frankensteined together exactly? Well, it is one of those “best of both worlds” situations.
A Little Bit Ukulele
Ukuleles are a part of the lute family in the wide world of stringed instruments, which tend to use four strings. Compare this to a guitar, which commonly has six strings, or the modern banjo, which commonly has five strings. Although you will also find 4-string banjos, they aren’t as common in today’s music scene making them a bit more nostalgic.
Ukuleles resemble classical acoustic guitars in both shape and how they produce sound. However, they are much different in size and the type of sound that they actually produce. They are also a little different to play regarding the music theory behind each one. And of course, there is the main difference in the ukulele having only 4 strings with a much smaller scale.
The primary differences between a ukulele and banjos or guitars are size, construction, and tuning system. Not only are the strings on a ukulele shorter and fewer than the strings you’ll find on the guitar or banjo, but most standard ukuleles use the G-C-E-A tuning standard, which means chords, scales, and even playing techniques do not transfer unmodified between these instruments.
The small size of the ukulele causes it to produce higher-pitched notes that sound happy and light, a major reason for both its initial and lasting popularity. Also, its size makes it an easy instrument to travel with, which is something many musicians appreciate. The ukulele is a serious instrument that has made its way into mainstream music and its popularity continues to rise.
A Little Bit Banjo
While the selection of banjos in the marketplace is extensive, the basics essentially remain the same. The main difference between the banjo and other stringed instruments like the guitar or ukulele is the design of the instrument. Rather than a hollow body that resonates with the sound, a head is stretched over a drum that creates the sound on a banjo.
A banjo stands out from other stringed instruments for several reasons, one of which is its distinctively metallic sound, which has recently been found to have some very interesting scientific explanations behind it. But perhaps the most evident difference to even a novice ear is the significantly amplified sound the banjo produces.
The drum-head body, along with the strings at a fixed point, is what makes this possible. When the strings are plucked or strummed, the vibrations travel into the drum head, amplifying the notes.
While this phenomenon is present in all string-instruments, the drum head is more effective than other body types. Additionally, some banjos, such as those often played in bluegrass and country music, will have a resonator set behind the drum head, providing even more sound projection.
The amplified, twangy sound is the part of the banjo that the banjolele adapted. Hence, the significant resemblance to one another. In fact, when comparing an open back banjolele to an open back banjo, you can see that the two are nearly identical in design.
The Banjolele: Tiny and Mighty
While debate and uncertainty surround the question of who should be credited with creating the first banjolele, there is no arguing this instrument has an important place in 20th-century American culture. It was most popular during the 1920s and 1930s. However, you are living proof that it still has a healthy following of musicians today.
History does offer consensus that the ukulele premiered and evolved first in Hawaii then later came to the USA. It is believed that vaudeville musicians had a major influence on combining the ukulele with the banjo.
These performers desired the natural amplification the banjo had but preferred the compact size of the ukulele. Thus, the banjolele was born. It was the same size, playability, and tuning as a ukulele, but it had the look and sound of a banjo.
Playing Chords on a Banjolele
So if you are following along, the banjolele is not a mini banjo so much as it is just a typical ukulele with a banjo body. The size and tuning system of the banjolele are the same as the ukulele, which means you play it just like a ukulele. Therefore, the chords on the ukulele and the banjolele are the same.
This short video shows you this theory in practice:
If you already know the chords on the ukulele and have experience playing it, you should be able to pick up a banjolele and go to town on it. The only thing different will be the way the banjolele feels when you hold it and sounds when you play it.
The majority of banjoleles on the market are concert size so playing chords on these will be exactly like playing them on a concert-sized ukulele. You can also purchase a Tenor Banjolele which gives a longer scale length just as the ukulele version does. Of course, if you have large fingers, a Tenor will probably be your best bet.
GCEA Tuning on the Banjolele
A four-string ukulele typically uses the GCEA tuning system, except for the baritone ukulele, which commonly uses DGBE. The GCEA tuning is known as re-entrant tuning, which means the strings are not set in chromatic order. Typically the G string is higher than the C and E strings and one whole step below the A string. The common notation uses a lowercase letter for the higher note, so in this case, we have a gCEA string course.
When plucking the strings of a ukulele or a banjolele in order from top to bottom as you hold it, you will notice a distinct sound where the first string is higher than the next two strings. Compare this to a guitar and you’ll see that as you pluck each string, the sound goes in order from low to high as you make your way through all six strings.
5, 6, and 8-string ukuleles also utilize a variation of GCEA re-entrant tuning, so all of these instruments, including the banjolele, will have the same or similar chords and chord shapes.
The gCEA is the most common tuning used today as it lends to easy learning as chord charts and notation for this tuning are readily available. Furthermore, the fretboard configuration it creates makes playing in the key of C, the most common key to write in, easier to do.
However, back in the 1920s and 1930s, it was common to use aDF#B tuning. This tuning is just two frets higher than gCEA, which means you could set your banjolele with this alternative and be able to use the exact same chord shapes as you would otherwise, only the chords will sound higher and brighter. You could achieve this tuning by placing a capo on the second fret of the banjolele.
Whichever tuning you decide to use will shape the sound and character of your instrument, and you can choose whatever makes you the happiest.
The banjolele amplifies sound and has the twangy sound similar to what you would hear from a banjo, but it is played like a ukulele. Therefore the chords on the banjolele are the same as the ukulele. In general, any stringed instruments that share a tuning standard will have chords played the same way because the notes are located on the same spots on the fretboards. You may choose to use an alternate tuning system, which would modify the sound produced.
Since a banjolele is really just a ukulele with a different type of body, someone familiar with playing the ukulele will have no problems playing the banjolele. There is no need to learn different chords when switching between the ukulele and the banjolele.