The guitar and the banjo are both interesting instruments, and they both belong to the same instrument family, but the truth is that they are completely different from one another. If you want to learn a string instrument and you are deciding between the guitar and the banjo, there are some important differences to understand and some critical considerations to make before deciding which is better for you.
The guitar and the banjo are very different instruments. The guitar is dynamic and versatile with a well-rounded tone. The banjo has a unique sound used mainly for country and folk. The guitar is more challenging to learn overall, as there is more to learn playing the guitar.
The banjo and the guitar are somewhat similar in some ways but vastly different in other ways. Deciding which of these instruments is a better choice for you to learn is dependent on some critical factors and differences. Let’s take the time to explore these two fascinating instruments to better understand them, compare them well, and help determine which one you should choose.
Guitar vs. Banjo: an Overview
The guitar and the banjo are both unique instruments, but they are also both part of the same string instrument family. This is because both the guitar and the banjo have a similar string layout, and the strings of the instruments can be plucked or strummed.
However, these minor definitions are where the similarities between the guitar and the banjo end and where the differences begin. Anyone who has ever heard or seen a guitar and a banjo will instantly notice that these two instruments are not the same, even if they do fall under the same family of stringed instruments.
The truth is that the guitar and the banjo share some common traits, but there are significantly more differences between them than there are similarities, including the way the instruments are played, what they sound like, what they are like to learn, the techniques and methods used to play the instruments, the way the instruments are built, and even how much they cost.
These two instruments are intended for specific playing styles and techniques, and they produce very particular sounds that are useful in different circumstances. The guitar and the banjo both have their own place in the musical world, and they are both very interesting to learn and play.
The family of string instruments would be incomplete with either of these instruments, but if you want to learn one of them and are deciding between them, there are some very important distinctions to make between them that will determine the trajectory of your musical journey and experience.
Let’s explore the major differences between the guitar and the banjo, including what they are like to learn and play, how useful they are in a musical context, how much they cost, how they are built, what they are like to own and maintain, and what these instruments sound like in comparison to one another.
Size, Weight, and Build
The first and most obvious difference between the guitar and the banjo is the way these two instruments are built. When comparing two string instruments, the size, weight, and build of the instruments are typically three different comparisons, but when comparing the guitar and the banjo, we must consider all three of these characteristics together.
Let’s begin with the strings. Guitars typically have six strings, but some can have more than that. The modern banjo almost always has five strings, with the top string only being three-quarters as long as the others and attached at the fifth fret. Some banjos have four strings, as per the original design of the instrument, and rare banjos have six or seven strings.
The fifth string on a banjo is often used as a drone string, but it can be fretted to change the pitch as well. This fifth string is the same gauge as the bottom string in most string sets.
Both banjos and guitars can be tuned to multiple tuning variations and can use different string gauges, but the standard tuning for the five-string banjo is G D G B D, and the standard for the six-string guitar is E A D G B E.
The guitar is typically larger than the banjo in most dimensions, except for the scale length and neck length. The banjo has a longer scale length than standard guitars and has a longer neck as well.
The banjo is also heavier than typical acoustic guitars and heavier than most electric guitars as well, simply due to the heavier and more complicated hardware that banjos have to mount the banjo skin to the body of the instrument.
This brings us to the banjo and guitar body build comparison. The guitar generates a sound when the strings are played by either vibrating the top part of the body of the instrument, which allows sound to be transferred into the body of the instrument and amplified naturally by the acoustic chamber that is the body of acoustic guitars.
Electric guitars generate a sound when played when electro-magnetic pickups receive the vibrational frequencies of the strings and transfer them through an instrument cable to an amplifier, which then outputs the sound through a speaker cone.
A banjo has a completely different sound generation mechanism, as it has a hollow body, but rather than having a wooden top, back, and sides, it has what is essentially a drum skin stretched over the bracing of the body.
When the strings are played on the banjo, this skin resonates with the strings to amplify their sound, in the same way, that a drum amplifies sound when it is struck.
These two build designs are why these instruments look the way that they do, and the design of each directly impacts the sound that the instruments produce.
The construction and design of the banjo and the guitar both serve to sculpt the way these instruments sound, and the way these instruments sound dictates the way they are played. The unique build of the guitar and the banjo are what make these instruments sound so different when compared to one another.
The banjo has a very thin, twangy sound that is produced by the vibration of the banjo skin. This vibrational resonance is produced by the skin when it is pulled tight over the banjo body bracing, and as the strings are played, the frequencies that they produce are picked up and amplified by this skin.
The banjo skin combined with the unique strings that are used on the banjo is what gives this instrument its distinct, thin, resonant tone that no other instrument can replicate. This sound is very useful for bluegrass, country, and folk music, but it has become widely popular in the pop and indie music space as well.
The sound of the guitar is produced by the way the instrument is designed, as is true with the banjo, but the materials that are used in the guitar and the way the instrument resonates and amplifies sound produce a far more versatile instrument and a much more pleasing musical tone.
The sound of a guitar is iconic, warm, rich, dynamic, and versatile. The sound that this instrument produces when the wood that it is made from combined with the strings it used resonate together can be used in almost any musical context and style.
The tone and sounds produced by the guitar are the most versatile and usable of all string instruments, and this is why the guitar is so widely seen in most genres and musical styles in western music.
Now that we have identified some of the major physical differences between the guitar and the banjo, as well as the differences in sound, it is time to explore the differences in the way the instrument is played.
The main differences in playing technique between these instruments are the techniques that define their iconic sounds.
For example, the banjo is played by picking the strings with individual fingers and is typically played by picking the strings in very quick succession. This creates a rolling-plucked sound as the instrument is played and forms the iconic ‘banjo style’ sound that we all know.
The banjo is rarely strummed, but it is possible, and the instrument is capable of a very wide range of dynamic techniques that include bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides that are all crucial to drawing the most from the instrument.
The guitar is a very dynamically diverse instrument. There are far more techniques to learn on the guitar than on the banjo, and this instrument is capable of producing a much wider range of notes, sounds, and tones than the banjo.
This diversity and versatility mean that there is a wonderfully wide range of playing techniques used on the guitar that ranges from simple strumming and picking to intense percussive techniques and complicated playing methods such as cascading harmonics.
The banjo and the guitar are very different instruments to learn and vastly different to play. This means that both instruments come along with a unique set of learning challenges.
Learning to play the banjo is more challenging than the guitar in some areas, as this instrument requires the player to learn complicated finger-picking techniques and playing methods that require advanced coordination and muscle memory.
While the guitar has a very wide range of available techniques and playing methods, it can also be played very simply by strumming the strings and playing basic chords, which makes it easier than the banjo in some regards.
However, the guitar is more challenging to learn overall, as there is more to learn playing the guitar. There are more techniques, more notes, more patterns, more chords, more strings, more shapes, and more playing methods to learn when playing the guitar compared to the banjo.
The versatility of the guitar makes it more interesting and dynamic, but it also makes it a more challenging instrument to master.
Another very important consideration to make when comparing these two string instruments is the maintenance that comes along with owning them. The guitar and the banjo require very different levels of care and maintenance and can be a challenge to keep for new musicians.
The banjo requires far more maintenance than the guitar. The banjo has more hardware to maintain, the strings and the banjo skin must be changed regularly, and the banjo is far more susceptible to damage than the guitar is.
Maintenance for a guitar simply involves changing the strings, oiling the wood every few months, and slightly tweaking the setup of the instrument when the seasons change.
Maintaining a banjo is far more complicated and much more involved than maintaining a guitar of any kind, and more expensive as well.
Universality and Usability
An important aspect to compare when deciding between the guitar and the banjo is the universality of the instruments. This includes how much music there is written for the instrument, how easily available the learning material is, and how well the instrument can be used in a musical context.
The guitar is a more versatile instrument compared to the banjo and, therefore, can be used in a broader range of musical environments and ensembles. There are also more songs written on the guitar than on the banjo, and the wide popularity of the guitar means that there is far more readily available learning material for this instrument as well.
The banjo is less popular and less widely used, which means that there is less learning material available, and it is harder to find somewhere to use the instrument. Every band needs a guitar, but not every band or ensemble needs a banjo. If your goal is to play in a band, it is easier to find a group when you play the guitar than when you play the banjo.
When considering which instrument to learn, considering the price of the instrument is critical. If you can afford one of the instruments more than the other, go with the one that is more accessible to you.
The real-world pricing of guitars and banjos may be surprising to some, but guitars are generally less expensive to buy than banjos. This is due to the construction of the instruments and the hardware that is required for the instrument.
Guitars can be bought new at prices ranging from $60 to $20,000, but the workable range for a decent guitar is typically between the range of $300 to $2000.
Banjos cost around the same in general figures, but the truth is that decent-quality banjos are more expensive than guitars of the same range. A good banjo will generally cost upwards of $500 and can cost up to a few thousand dollars.
Which Instrument should you Choose?
At the end of it all, which instrument should you choose to learn when considering the guitar and the banjo?
The truth is that you should learn the instrument that excites you the most. If you love the sound of a banjo and it inspires you to play more than the guitar does, then choose the banjo. The opposite is true as well. If you yearn to play music on the guitar, and if the guitar appeals to you more or excites you more, then choose the guitar.
It is important to choose the instrument that inspires and excites you the most, as this will keep the instrument interesting when practicing is difficult, and it will keep you hungry to learn the instrument, regardless of the challenges. This is the key to learning any instrument well.
The guitar and the banjo both fall into the same string instrument family, but these instruments are vastly different. The guitar is much more versatile and dynamic, but the banjo is highly unique, and the sounds that it produces cannot be replicated on any other instrument.
Take your time to consider each instrument when choosing between them. Visit a local music store and play both of them to get a better understanding of which appeals to you more, and then be sure to dedicate the time it requires to learn the instrument well!