The banjo and the ukulele are quite different instruments yet they both have some similarities. They are similar in the fact that they are both stringed, acoustic instruments. They have a neck with frets and they project sound as the strings vibrate.
However, with the sound that is projected from them, it’s easy for even the untrained ear to tell a difference between the two. Both of these instruments sound differently and are commonly used in different types of music.
While the banjo may not be as popular in the modern world we live in, the ukulele continues to gain in popularity. The ukulele offers an easy way to learn a stringed instrument for anyone interested.
I live in Kentucky and have been around banjos my whole life. I have been around Bluegrass music a lot during my time of living in the Bluegrass state and I’ve soaked it up. As the casual observer of this instrument as well as other stringed instruments, I have learned a lot about it over the years.
I have also been a ukulele player for many years so I have put together this list of differences that you can expect between a ukulele and a banjo. Let’s look at those differences and discuss why they matter.
The most obvious difference between these two instruments is the sound that they make. The banjo has a distinct sound to it and you’ll likely know when the banjo is being played in a song. The same can be said about the ukulele with its bright sound that can be heard in lots of popular songs.
These distinct sounds set them up to be played in specific types of music genres. The banjo is commonly heard in Bluegrass, Folk or Country music but can be found in rock music as well. The ukulele is most commonly found in classic Hawaiian music and can often be heard in other genres including mainstream music played on the radio like pop and rock genres.
The size of these two instruments is also quite different. The banjo is larger than the ukulele with the ukulele being one of the smallest of all of the stringed instruments. A standard banjo has a scale length of around 25 – 27 inches, depending on the instrument manufacturer and where the bridge is positioned. It is commonly measured at around 36 – 38 inches in total length.
Compare this to the ukulele where the concert-sized ukulele has a scale length of around 15 inches and measures in at around 24 inches in total length.
Even the largest sized ukulele, the baritone, measures in at only 30 inches in total length. This is quite a difference from the size of a banjo.
The chart below will help you to see the size difference between these two instruments.
NOTE: the measurements below are approximate and will vary instrument by instrument, depending on the brand.
|Instrument Type / Size
|Long Neck Banjo
A banjo comes in different configurations including 4-string, 5-string, and 6-string models. The most common of all these is the 5-string banjo. With 4 of the strings running the full scale length of the banjo and the shorter G string attached to a tuning peg further down the neck. These strings are made of steel.
The ukulele also comes in various configurations but the most common is the 4-string. These strings are made of a nylon material that is not as painful on the fingers. Picking the nylon strings of a ukulele has a different feel and creates a different sound than what a banjo does. Learn more about the finger pain that comes from playing the ukulele.
Although these are both stringed instruments, they both have different standard tunings that they use. This means that chord positionings will be different on each instrument. For example, forming a C chord on the banjo is going to be different than it will be on the ukulele.
Each instrument can be tuned in a variety of different ways but the most common for both is listed below (starting with the top string as you are holding it).
Ukulele standard tuning (G,C,E,A)
Banjo standard tuning (G,D,G,B,D)
An example of each can be seen in the image below.
Standard tuning comparison of the ukulele and the banjo.
5) Construction Materials
The materials that are used to construct these instruments have quite a few differences.
- Ukulele – generally constructed with various wooden parts. They often utilize a variety of different woods combined to create the instrument. The woods used depend on your preference as well as the price that you are willing to pay. A cheaper ukulele may use laminates while a more expensive model will use solid woods. Read more about the differences.
- Banjo – constructed with a combination of wood, metal, and plastic (or animal skin). The rim is usually made of wood (such as maple). The tone ring is made of metal material like steel or brass. The head of most modern banjos is usually made of a plastic material rather than calfskin.
As you can see, there are many different materials that make up a banjo. Whereas the ukulele is mostly made from wood or wood laminates, the banjo utilizes a combination of materials.
Learning both of these instruments will take some time and practice. However, the learning method and the level of difficulty is different among the two. Most would agree that the ukulele is an easier instrument to learn than a banjo is. A banjo isn’t that difficult to learn either but it does take a different approach than that of a ukulele.
Depending on how you are going to play the banjo, you might find it more difficult than the ukulele. However, it also depends upon how you want to learn the ukulele and the type of music and sound you want to produce.
The banjo typically utilizes the claw hammer style of picking which is something to learn within itself. Rather than the simple strumming that is generally easily learned on the ukulele, the banjo will require this different approach to duplicate the typical banjo sounds that you hear.
It’s not that one instrument is much easier than the other, but it’s the approach that you must take when playing them. It’s true that both are stringed instruments and have a fretboard to work with but the style of play will be different to learn for each instrument.
There is no doubt that the ukulele has become a popular instrument in recent years. The sounds of this instrument can be heard throughout popular songs on the radio. The ukulele is popular because it sounds great, it’s small, cheap, and fairly easy to learn.
The popularity of the banjo, on the other hand, is not trending in an upward position quite as much. If you listen to any other music besides Bluegrass, you might not hear the banjo being played very often. This instrument is not quite as popular as what a ukulele or other stringed instrument like a guitar is. The banjo has its own following of dedicated musicians that love to play and hear the sound of this amazing instrument.
While the ukulele will probably win in the popularity contest, the banjo enjoys its position in the world of music as well. The banjo is seen by some people as an instrument played by hillbillies that has no place in today’s music. It isn’t taken as serious and it doesn’t get the respect that it deserves as it did in days before. I grew up in Kentucky where the banjo serves a large purpose with the Bluegrass music throughout the state.
However, I have noticed lots of eye rolls from the younger generation at the sound of the banjo. Compare this to the ukulele and you will see a much different reaction. The younger generation is drawn to the sound of the ukulele and it is a popular instrument for younger people to pick up and learn.
The prices on both of these instruments vary greatly depending on the quality of the instrument that you purchase. You can purchase a cheap ukulele for less than $100 and a cheap banjo for less than $200. However, any instrument purchased at rock-bottom prices like this will ensure that you end up with an instrument that performs less than it should.
A high-quality ukulele can be purchased for about $300 and above. Anything above this level of price is bound to be a better quality instrument that will give you a great sound. With a banjo, you will probably need to pay more than this to end up with a high-quality instrument. Many of the cheap banjos sound like they are cheap and the only way to get away from this is to purchase a higher quality instrument.
The banjo will probably end up costing more money for you to acquire a high-quality model. While both of these can be purchased in the thousands of dollars, a good ukulele can likely be acquired for much less than a good quality banjo can.
9) Playing Style
As mentioned above when discussing the learnability of these instruments, the playing style of the two is going to be different. When you pick up the ukulele to play, you would likely strum chords as you play a melody. You might also use your fingers to pluck the strings and create a different sound.
The common sound of the banjo is created by using a different method. One of the popular methods is called the clawhammer method. The clawhammer style uses the backs of your fingernails in a downward stroke. If you don’t have fingernails, you can use standard banjo picks to add more sound to the
Here is a good video that shows you exactly what the clawhammer style sounds like.
There is also a three-finger style that some artists use.
You will not find this style of playing on the ukulele. What you will find is a basic strumming technique that most people do by using their index finger, their thumb, or all four fingers at the same time. I use my index finger when I strum the ukulele but there are also times when I use my thumb only.
The way you strum a ukulele comes down to personal preference and what feels best for you. You can also play each string of the ukulele by plucking the strings individually with your fingers. This is known as fingerpicking and is done by only using your fingers on the ukulele.
On the banjo, you will usually want to use banjo picks.
Both of these instruments originated from different parts of the world, with the ukulele coming from Hawaii and the banjo originating in Africa.
Let’s look at a quick history of each instrument and how they came to be in our modern world.
The ukulele originated from Hawaii but the influence of the ukulele started with a remodeling of the Portuguese machete. The ukulele was born in the nineteenth century in Hawaii. It has since become a very popular instrument all across the world. From its humble beginnings, now to a worldwide superstar that we have come to love.
The ukulele is popular in Hawaiian culture but it has also become a popular instrument throughout the world.
The banjo originated from African folk music and can be traced back to the eighteenth century. This instrument, in its most basic form, was nothing more than hollowed-out wood or a gourd with an animal skin stretched over it. Add a basic wooden neck and some strings made from horsehair and you have yourself a banjo. After arriving in America with the slaves, the banjo has taken on a whole new life in modern times.
Banjos have come a long way since this early iteration of the instrument. They have become one of the most popular stringed instruments and they play an integral role in producing certain genres of music.
Why These Differences Matter
These differences between these two instruments are important if you are trying to decide which one that you want to play. It might matter to you that an instrument is small or large. You may be looking for something with a certain sound or style of play.
Many people who have never played a stringed instrument before and are looking to learn, might appreciate knowing the main differences between the two. If you are just getting started and trying to decide on one of these two types of instruments, give some thought to the differences discussed.
Here are a few bullet points to consider and this will matter during your decision of which instrument to pursue.
- They have a different sound. The twang of a banjo is much different than the sound of a ukulele. Do you prefer the sound of one over the other?
- They are different sizes. If you want a small and lightweight instrument, choose the ukulele over the banjo.
- They use different strings. The steel strings of a banjo feel different than the soft nylon strings of the ukulele. Steel strings can be quite painful on the fingers if you aren’t used to it.
- They are constructed using different materials. Nearly all of the ukulele is made of wood while the banjo is made up of a combination of different materials, sometimes making them heavy.
- Which would you rather learn? The ukulele is a simple instrument to learn the basics on. The banjo may require a bit more study and practice, especially to perfect the clawhammer technique.
- The ukulele is going to be more popular. Ukuleles have become a popular stringed instrument. You’ll find lots of instructional material available online.
- The ukulele will cost less. You can buy a good ukulele for less than you can buy a good banjo.
Banjolele – The Perfect Mix Between A Banjo And Ukulele
If you have an interest in both of these instruments, you may want to consider the banjolele. This instrument combines aspects of both into one small package. It’s essentially a ukulele that has a banjo body so the sound will have more of a banjo sound than a standard ukulele would.
Like the ukulele, the banjolele has four strings and you’d think it was a standard ukulele if you just saw it from the neck to the headstock. However, a look at the body and you’ll see that it is more than just a standard ukulele.
These can be purchased at nearly any music store online and some of the big names in banjos and ukuleles produce these. You’ll find models from Deering, Luna, Gold Tone, Recording King, and others.
Both of these instruments have their place in the world of acoustic music. They are both fun to learn, play, and listen to. Whether you like the genre of music that these are often associated with or not, you have to appreciate the unique sounds that these two instruments produce.
Each will appeal to different types of people so make sure to consider the differences above when comparing the two. No matter which you choose, these two instruments provide a great way to enjoy learning a fun musical instrument.