The banjo is a stringed instrument with four or five strings. When a musician plays the banjo, the strings cause a thin sheet of plastic or animal hide stretched over the circular frame to vibrate.

The first banjos were thought to have been created and used in Africa in the early 1600s. The instrument was introduced to America by slaves who were brought over from Africa prior to the Civil War.

During the Great Depression, the demand for happy music declined. Since the banjo was thought to be a happy-sounding instrument, it became almost impossible to find a banjo to purchase during this time. It was even difficult to find replacement strings for existing banjos.

In the early 1940s, a man named Earl Scruggs developed a new three-finger style of picking. He combined it with a folk style, and bluegrass music was born.

Today, Earl Scruggs is often called the “father of bluegrass.” Bluegrass banjos have five strings and are played “three-finger style” by picking the strings.

You have probably seen a musician play the guitar using a pick. Unlike most guitarists who strum with one pick held between their fingers, bluegrass banjo players wear finger picks.

Typically, bluegrass players will wear a plastic pick on their thumb and a steel pick on the index and middle fingers on their right hand. Finger picks help the banjo player amplify the sound of the music.


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    • We think it’s AWESOME that you like the banjo, Emmy! We bet you are great at playing! There are many different people who live and work here in Wonderopolis, and we each have our own favorite instruments! Some of us like the piano, some of us like the flute, some of us like the xylophone…the list goes on and on! Thanks for leaving us such a great comment! :-)

    • We aren’t certain, Devin! Documents from that long ago are hard to find sometimes. But you can Wonder on your own– perhaps you’ll come across a certain date! We’d love to hear about what you find! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Why do you pick a banjo?
  • Who is the “father of bluegrass”?
  • What is a finger pick?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Ready to try your hand at the banjo? You don’t need to spend a lot of money to make beautiful music.

You just have to make your own musical instrument. Grab a couple pie pans, and you’ll be jamming in no time!


Still Wondering

Click over to the Smithsonian’s History Explorer to see and learn a bit more about a Five-String Fretless Banjo from 1846!


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amplify  banjo  bluegrass  folk  pick  vibrate 

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