The modern-day banjo is the one musical instrument that is undeniably American. Its ancestry is African, but the banjo as we know it is a far cry from the hollowed-out gourds with crude necks and strings first played here by slaves on the Southern plantations. Music was one of the few pleasures the slaves were allowed, and in the earliest days the homemade banjo was the only instrument they had. Played solo or as an accompaniment to their singing, which in itself became the wellspring of the Negroes' social and cultural life, the banjo soon came to the attention of the slaves' white masters. In his Notes on Virginia, written in 1784, Thomas Jefferson noted that the Negroes' musical instrument was "the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."
In the 19th century improved models of the banjo, with machined pegs for precise tuning and vellum heads with adjustable tension, were a staple instrument in the minstrel shows; virtuoso performers, both black and white, began to appear on the stage. The first banjos had a smooth neck, as does the violin. But early in the days of minstrelsy wire crosspieces, called frets, were added to the neck for more precise intonation. The banjo first had four strnigs. Later models had as many as nine, but by the minstrel days four strings were standard. Then, in the late 1800's, the five-string evolved. It has a short, unfretted drome string that is played with the thumb. This is the instrument that country singer Earl Scruggs took in hand and used to bring forth the propulsive sounds that have made the Scruggs-style banjo the backbone of the music known as bluegrass.
The four-string, or tenor, banjo had a remarkable resurgence in the 1920's. Inspired by the technical wizardry of Eddie Peabody and others, banjo bands, schools, and clubs flourished from coast to coast. In the late 1960's renewed interest in folk and country music brought the banjo into prominence again. While its musical stock may fluctuate, it will always be available and in demand.