Music Theory and Composition : Music Theory and Composition

Saturday, October 20th, 2018

The Banjo

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The Banjo

Banner - Banjo The banjo is a member of the musical instrument classification of chordophones. It is also in the sub-classification of stringed and fretted instruments. The banjo offers its own unique sound and tonal characteristics. The banjo continues to be featured in several music genres, in a variety of countries and in a variety of applications. For example, it was used frequently in old time vaudeville and in folk music. In more modern times the banjo is still found in use in the folk music genre and it is predominately used in both bluegrass and country music. Also, the banjo has been featured in motion pictures such as the well known movie titled “Deliverance” where along with the acoustic guitar, the banjo was used in the main music theme for this film.

The banjo is very capable of holding its own as a solo stringed and fretted instrument. Also, it holds respect in various countries throughout the world including Japan, South America, Ireland, China and throughout the United States. The banjo is found throughout much of Africa where it is said to have originated.

The unique sound of the banjo can best be explained by listening to it. A performer uses an arpeggio method quite frequently. Arpeggio basically means to play a chord by plucking one note followed by the series of notes within the chord being held by the left hand.  The notes can be played from bottom to top, top to bottom or any number of patterns while remaining within the chord. Passing tones are played sometimes using the same pattern or in different patterns depending upon the desired effect the performer is looking for. The notes are sounded by using the fingers of the right hand, with or without finger picks. Generally, the notes are played in rapid succession. Another commonly used performance technique is a rapid up/down full strum or rapid up/down stroke across one or more strings.

To best demonstrate some of the playing methods and to get an understanding of the unique sounds produced by the banjo, the following video of a popular Japanese banjo player Ken Aoki performs one of his original banjo compositions titled “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise“. Aoki’s performance is backed up by a jazz ensemble in the video shown here. Please take note of the rapid succession of notes, rapid strumming and frequent chord changes as Aoki performs this composition. He is using the rapid strumming and rapid up/down strokes on one string and across all strings of the banjo as presented earlier in this article.

We wish to thank Ken Aoki for his compositional skills as well as his performance on the banjo. The video is hosted at YouTube and we are using it under the embed rules of use for an educational purpose, as detailed by YouTube’s terms of use statements.

We hope you have enjoyed this brief presentation about the banjo to seek out other resources for gaining more knowledge about the banjo and its many uses in contemporary music. Maybe your interest will be enough to consider it as your preferred instrument.

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The Banjo

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