You’ve got to hand it to the banjo: its loud, unique sound forced string-instrument manufacturers and musicians to adapt to compete for an audience during its peak in trend and popularity. The result was the birth of two new hybrid instruments–the banjolele and the banjolin–that are still enjoyed by strummers and pluckers today. But do you know the difference between these two instruments?
The difference between a banjolele and a banjolin is how they’re played. Both instruments have bodies resembling a banjo but are played with the same neck and tuning as their respective partnered instrument, i.e., the banjolele plays like a ukulele; the banjolin plays like a mandolin.
Whether you’re trying to decide which of these instruments you’d like to learn, or you’re just curious as to what the banjo-fuss is all about, continue reading to learn the difference between the banjolele and the banjolin. With just a little history of these instruments, you’ll be able to distinguish one from another with ease.
Ukuleles and Mandolins: A Family History
We associate ukuleles heavily with Hawaii, as that is where their rise to fame took place. In fact, the word ukulele is Hawaiian for “jumping flea.” This term was chosen because a musician’s rapid finger-movement about the fingerboard resembled a quick jumping flea. But the history of the ukulele goes back further than that.
This small, guitar-like instrument belongs to the lute family, as the lute was the first stringed instrument to have a neck feature. The lute evolved considerably and inspired several new instruments throughout the centuries, leading to and including the ukulele. One of the closest relatives is the machete de braga, which traveled out of Spain and into Hawaii during sugar cane production in the late 1800s.
Generally, the ukulele is a smaller instrument, as were its predecessors, with today’s soprano ukulele representing the traditional size. It is a great choice for children and beginning musicians alike as it is generally regarded as one of the easier instruments of its kind to play because of its size and simple chord structures.
However, don’t assume that a ukulele is just a toy or only something that children should play. On the contrary, the ukulele is a serious instrument that professional musicians play. You are hearing more and more of this instrument within mainstream music nowadays. Learn more about why the ukulele is a serious instrument.
The mandolin has roots that go deep into the history of music, as it is a direct descendant and member of the lute family as well. History suggests a very close relationship between the mandolin and ukulele, specifically Italy’s 15th-century instrument, the chitarrino (also known as a gittern).
This instrument was commonly tuned in the same way we tune a ukulele today with re-entrant tuning where the higher string is on top. Later, during the baroque period, we see the mandola, a ukulele-like mandolin with four strings. By this point in history, it seems that the mandolin was finally recognized as its own instrument (not simply a modified version of an existing instrument).
The mandolin was often used in classical music, particularly during the Baroque period, by composers including Mozart, Beethoven, and Vivaldi. During this time, the popularity of the mandolin spread throughout Europe and quickly made it all the way to India. Since the 1900s, we’ve seen mandolins used in various genres, including bluegrass, jazz, and Celtic music.
The Evolution of the Banjo
Typically, a banjo has five strings, though 4-string and 6-string versions are also available. The body is a circular frame with a thin membrane stretched across resembling a small drum. It is the body that makes the banjo’s sound so loud, which is one of the prized characteristics of the banjo that led to banjo-hybrids being created.
We first see mention of the banjo in history is in the 1600s, and it is believed to have originated in Africa and the Middle East. Primitive versions of the instrument were made by attaching bamboo necks to hollowed gourds with animal skins stretched across them.
Thomas Jefferson noted his observance of this instrument as popular among slaves in the 1700s. He mentioned that they called it a banjar, perhaps suggesting how we’ve come to have the term banjo today (though the decided origin of this name has yet to be determined).
European settlers enjoyed this instrument as well and were quick to adopt it. By the time the banjo crashed the American music scene circa 1920, other musicians–particularly ukulele and mandolin players–were taken aback by its explosive popularity, as it took away members of their listening audience. Its popularity only grew from there, and it was only a matter of time before it became a derivation of new instruments.
You may have also heard of this instrument by another name, as it is also referred to as a banjo uke and a banjo ukulele, though the blended term banjolele seems to be the popular choice. This hybrid instrument was first created in the 1900s to provide vaudeville musicians with a compact instrument that was loud enough to carry sound far across a performance venue. This instrument combines the banjo body with the ukulele technique.
Banjoleles look as though they are just small banjos. Many are made of wood and have metal fixtures, while some may be made from solid metal. Traditionally, calf-skin was used for the drum head, but today synthetic materials are often utilized. The body will either be open-backed or have a built-in resonator to encourage a strong amplification of the instrument’s sound.
However, in terms of playing a banjolele, the neck generally has 16 frets and shares the same tuning and scale lengths as soprano, concert, and tenor ukuleles. Most commonly, a G-C-E-A, or C tuning, will be used with the 4th string as the re-entrant, though A-D-F#-B, or D tuning, is popular as well.
The banjolin also takes on the banjo’s physical attributes to adopt the characteristics of its sound, but the technique used is that of the mandolin. When the banjo started gaining popularity in the 1900s, mandolin players were hard-pressed to compete for an audience that was trending toward their new competition. So mandolin makers created a hybrid banjo/mandolin that had the round drum body of a banjo but the short neck and strings of a mandolin.
Much like the banjolele, the banjolin still has the loud, percussive, twangy sound of a banjo, but it is played the same as a mandolin relating to scales and chords. It has four strings and is commonly tuned to G-D-A-E, the same tuning found on a mandolin (derived from the tuning for violin).
The Banjo Mandolin
To keep you on your toes, there is another instrument out there that can draw confusion. The banjo mandolin is not just a different way to say banjolin, as we see with banjolele and banjo ukulele. Rather the banjo mandolin is a modification of the banjolin. Specifically, it is a banjolin set with two-string courses. However, this distinction is not accepted unanimously in the music world.
John Farris apparently coined the term banjolin in an 1885 patent for a new musical instrument that was a part banjo, part mandolin, and part original instrument, and originally had eight strings. Eventually, it was changed to have only four strings that utilized G-D-A-E tuning just as the mandolin and violin, sharing their scale length.
Banjoleles and banjolins are similar in that they both resemble a small banjo; however, they are played like a ukulele and mandolin, respectively. These hybrid-instruments were created to benefit from the amplification produced by the drum-head body of a banjo. Still, they retain the simpler chord structure and tuning systems as their coupled instruments.