West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature

The Banjo

 Listen to the banjo music.

The banjo was brought to America by the slaves. It can be traced to an African instrument called the bania. The banjo orginally had four strings, but now the five-string banjo is the most popular.

The banjo has a metal or wooden body with a tightly stretched skin on the top. The neck is long and thin. The neck is divided into sections by thin metal bars called frets. As one moves to different frets, the pitch becomes higher or lower.

The "clawhammer" style of strumming is commonly found in the mountains of West Virginia. The strings are gut as opposed to steel. It is played with the fingers, not using picks. Another name for this style is "knockdown" style. This style was created to back up the fiddler at dances.

 Listen to the clawhammer style of banjo playing.

The music that the banjo plays is generally lively and rhythmic. It often plays the melody line, or it plays fill-ins behind the singers. It often creates the rhythmic foundations.

Banjo strings are tuned to "G D G C D," which is called "sawmill" tuning.

Many times the band was comprised of only the banjo and the fiddle.

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West Virginia's Appalachian Music and Literature is a self-contained teaching unit by Avis Caynor and Reneé Wyatt (1997), reprinted with permission in 2003 in the larger web site AppLit.

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