Banjos + Mandolins


The banjo and mandolin are commonly mistaken for one another. As musicians have developed variations on these instruments, they have looked to both instruments for inspiration. This has led to the creation of the banjolin and the mandolin banjo, both of which are also typically mistaken for each other.

For those who are looking to begin playing either the banjo or the mandolin, a common question is related to the learning curve for both instruments. Among those who play both instruments, there is much division. Some musicians say that learning to play the banjo is much more difficult than learning to play the mandolin by nature of the technique. Other musicians say that neither instrument is necessarily more difficult than the other. It is interesting to note that it is rare for a musician to say that the banjo is easier to learn than the mandolin, so this suggests that the banjo may be more difficult for beginners. Although this should not dictate one's choice, beginners should take this possibility into consideration along with all the aforementioned details.

The Mandolin

The mandolin represents an entirely different history although many people think that the mandolin is simply a variation of the banjo. While the banjo is rooted in the Middle East and Africa, the mandolin is a symbol of Western civilization. It evolved from the lute in Italy during the 1300s. It was first recognized as a unique instrument during the 1600s. It was popular in Italian towns, particularly Naples, and it spread all throughout Europe. Mandolins also made their way to India during this period.
 The mandolin became popular in Baroque music, especially as it was used by Giovanni Battista Gervasio and other famous musicians of the time. Gervasio even toured Europe and gave mandolin lessons to interested parties.
 Since the 1900s, mandolins have been popular in Celtic, bluegrass, jazz, and classical music.
Comparing the Banjo and Mandolin

These two instruments differ in three basic ways: sound, physicality, and technique. By considering the instruments' unique historical origins and these three attributes, one can decide which instrument to choose.

The Banjo

The banjo originated in the Middle East and Africa. It was developed by African slaves who based it on musical instruments found in their native regions. Richard Jobson was the first European explorer to document the existence of the banjo in the 1600s. Early forms were made of hollowed gourds with animal skins stretched across them. Each gourd was attached to a bamboo neck.
 Thomas Jefferson observed the existence of what he called the "banjar" in the late 1700s. He noted that it came to America with the African slaves. The banjo became a popular instrument among the slaves because it was one of the few reminders of their home, and even the European settlers began enjoying its music. White Americans began using banjos in minstrel shows. One of the most famous minstrel performers was Joel Walker Sweeney. His use of a five-string banjo helped popularize that variety. Modern banjos have either four or five strings for plucking while a six-string banjo is strummed in the same manner as a guitar.
 Based on its rich heritage among African slaves and southern Americans, this instrument is important in bluegrass, folk, country, and traditional African music.