The Standard 5 String Banjo (gDGBD)
This type of banjo is the most common type that we are all familiar with and that we see most often in bluegrass and folk music..
The standard 5 string has 22 frets. This number of frets is the oldest design, frets having been first put on the banjo in about 1880 probably by A. C. Fairbanks a commercial banjo manufacturer. Brackets were added about the same time, but there is evidence that both were used as early as 1870. This could be true but Fairbanks was the first commercial banjo house to add frets.
Before the 1880’s a typical banjo was an open backed five string designed to have gut strings. They had thin rims, animal skin heads and no tone rings.
Afro-American banjoists were active in Ragtime music beginning in the 1890’s.
The Plectrum Banjo (CGBD)
In the early 1900’s jazz was developing. After the Civil War, New Orleans became a centre of this new music because of the concentration of band instrument manufacturers and there was a surplus of instruments dumped on the market after the War. In this type of Jazz the banjo was used as a rhythm instrument playing chordal accompaniment to the “voices” of the cornet, trombone and clarinet. The banjos used were not the 5 string but the plectrum banjo which is identical in all aspects to the 5 string except it doesn’t have a fifth string. Even the turning was the same, CGBD. It was played with a plectrum whereas the 5 string had always been finger picked or frailed. So it was just a matter of removing the 5th string and you had a plectrum banjo. Minstrel and Classic banjo player could easily adapt to the new styles using their usual tuning. A plectrum banjo has 22 frets the same as the 5 string.
The Tenor Banjo (CGDA)
As Jazz developed the banjo player needed more volume to compete with the brass instruments so steel strings were used, heavier rims were built, tone rings fitted and a reflecting resonator was added to the back. The neck was shortened so that thicker and therefore louder strings could be used. The tenor banjo was developed with 19 frets. It is tuned CGDA (a 4th below a fiddle or mandolin which is GDAE). This tuning was developed so that mandolin and fiddle players could easily transfer to the banjo; the pool of minstrel player having died out. Anything you can play on a mandolin you can play on a tenor banjo. It is popular in Irish music for that reason and they also tune it a full octave below the mandolin (GDAE)
The Long Neck 5 String Banjo (eBEG#B)
In 1957 the Kingston Trio recorded “Tom Dooley” and started the folk boom which lasted until 1963 in the United States. Folk groups proliferated most of them sporting a long neck 5 string, a model popularized by Pete Seeger. This type of banjo had 25 frets, the 5th string peg placed between the 7th and 8th frets (between 4th and 5th frets on the standard banjo). If you tune it to eBEG#B and capo it at the 3rd fret you get the standard gDGBD.So, to a five string banjo player the term “long neck” has a different meaning than to a four string banjo player.
To a five string banjoist long neck means the 25 fret model but to a 4 string player it means a banjo with the same number of frets as the standard 5 string i.e. 22 frets. Confused ?
5 string: Standard (22 frets) Long neck (25 frets)
4 string: Tenor (19 frets) Plectrum (22 frets).