Bluegrass Banjo

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The modern five string banjo has its origins in Africa, where Africans who would become North American slaves strummed an instrument with a long neck, tambourine-like head, and four gut strings called a banja or banju. The four string African banjo reached the height of its popularity in America and in Europe during the 19th Century. In 1831, Joel Walker Sweeney, sometimes called, "The father of American minstrelry," added a fifth string to a standard four string banjo and the uniquely American banjo was born. Blackface minstrel companies like Sweeney's popularized this new style of banjo playing in which the thumb played the added fifth string and a special body of American banjo music developed. As Americans went West, so did the banjo. Five string banjo music remained popular in America until the 1890's.The turn of the century saw banjo music decline and almost die as interest in jazz music grew. Jazz musicians found that a smaller, short necked, four string banjo could best produce the volume needed to be heard among brass instruments. This four string, strummed jazz banjo bore little resemblance to its earlier ancestors.By the 1930's, the five string banjo was almost unknown outside remote Southern communities and the four string, jazz banjo was rarely used in musical ensembles. By 1940, even Country music bands no longer had a banjo player. It was not until 1945, when Earl Scruggs introduced his unique, five string finger picking technique on the Grand Ole Opry that the banjo was once again in demand. Within two years, manufacturers were once again producing new banjos and banjo music was regaining its old popularity. Because of Scruggs and those like him who preserved and enlarged upon the banjo's unique American sound, the modern five string banjo is now a standard instrument in every Bluegrass band.

 

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