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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Why is the 5th string short ??

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lrbsammyswannabe - Posted - 09/04/2008:  14:49:27

OK , a guy I jam with asked me a question I could not answer . All I could tell him is that the 5th. string is a drone string , but the question he asked me was why is the 5th. string 5 frets shorter than the rest ?? After thinking about it for a second , the only answer I could give was that it was to acheive the high G tone without having to crank down on a peg with a string of equal lenth as the rest .

dangibson - Posted - 09/04/2008:  15:00:30

Because, these days no one can afford five long ones.

Dan Gibson, Storyteller/Banjoplayer

RONLD - Posted - 09/04/2008:  15:05:26

There are full length 5 string banjo's, tuning is d on the 5th on them i think!

Job 33:4 - Fitch fan #1

Beardog - Posted - 09/04/2008:  15:16:19

I always assumed that this allowed for easier chording/picking on the first four frets for the basic chord positions.

Here's a link to a banjo with a full length 5th string.


mrphysics55 - Posted - 09/04/2008:  15:36:18

"Yates WL5"

That's just WRONG!


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Edited by - mrphysics55 on 09/04/2008 16:16:46

xnavyguy - Posted - 09/04/2008:  15:40:04

I think it's God's way of punishing those of us who choose to play a 5 string, rather than a plectrum or tenor banjo.


Nothing difficult is EVER easy.

Banjoman - Posted - 09/04/2008:  15:45:39

Back in the day when the 5th was added banjo strings were made of gut and to streach a gut string the leangth of the banjo and to reach it's high note would cause the string to fail. Since the 5th string was a drone string it didn't matter if it reached the peg head, so the 5th string was shortened to remove half the tension so it wouldn't break and still could be used as a drone.

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Edited by - Banjoman on 09/04/2008 15:47:03

carteru93 - Posted - 09/04/2008:  15:51:33

Yates WL5


Blaylock Bear Tracks maple

EggerRidgeBoy - Posted - 09/04/2008:  16:19:15

That short "drone" string has been a feature of the instrument since it (or its ancestors) came over from Africa. It is noted in early descriptions of banjos, can be seen in early drawings and paintings of banjos, and is present on the oldest existing banjos themselves. Most of those first banjos were three or four string instruments, but they had the short "drone" string. As I understand it, the fifth string that was added and standardized at the beginning of the minstrel era was an additional long string.

Of course, that doesn't really answer your question - why the short string in the first place? I think you'd have to go pretty far back into the origins of the instrument in West Africa to answer that.

Below is an image of the oldest known banjo, the Stedman Creole Bania. It was collected in Surinam during the 1770's by the Dutch Capt. John Gabriel Stedman. He also published an account of his naval service in South America and the Caribbean, from which the engraving below is taken - in the upper right hand corner is an illustration of a four-string "bania" similar to the one he took back to Holland.

Those photos are both from, as is the following:

The Early 4-String Gourd Banjo

From the 1690s on through the emergence of the wood-rim 5-string banjo in the early 1840s, the most commonly documented form of the early gourd banjo throughout the New World was an instrument with a 4-string configuration: three long strings of equal length with a short ‘thumb string’ as the top fourth string. While there were a few reports of early gourd banjos with three strings, most period descriptions refer to 4-string instruments.

We find all the aforementioned common design elements present in the only known extant 4-string early banjos: the Stedman Creole Bania (see above photo; for more information, see the Influences section of the left column on this page) and the Schoelcher Banza (see the photo below). The Creole Bania-- considered to be the oldest example of an early banjo and the only one known to have had a body made of calabash, rather than gourd -- was collected in the northeastern South American country Suriname (also formerly known as Dutch Guiana) by Captain John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), sometime between 1773 and 1777. French abolitionist writer Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893) acquired the Banza in Haiti during his 1840-41 sojourn through the Caribbean. Likewise, these features are evident in the instrument depicted in the The Old Plantation (anonymous folk painting, South Carolina, c.1777-1794), the oldest and most detailed depiction of an early 4-string gourd banjo in North America (see illustration above).

The short 'thumb string', in particular, is a feature that connects the banjo to its West African heritage. It's also found on West African plucked spike lutes like the Jola ekonting (akonting), the Bujogo ngopata, and the Manjak bunchundo as well as those lutes that are exclusive to specialist griot music artisans, such as the Bamana (Bambara)/ Maninka n'goni, the Wolof xalam, the Fulbe hoddu, and the Soninke gambare, to name but a few.

Edited by - EggerRidgeBoy on 09/04/2008 16:41:30

1four5 - Posted - 09/04/2008:  16:32:52

Last year I built a poor boy version of the Yates WL5, and it works REALLY REALLY REALLY good. For me it makes the question even more of a mystery.


Jaminbanjo - Posted - 09/04/2008:  16:41:29

We get credit for playing five strings, but we only have to fret four. Pretty good deal.

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JohnTheWhite - Posted - 09/04/2008:  16:45:07

The design of the 5 string banjo makes it easy to play chords and also easy to play melody. It's a wonderful and versatile design that takes advantage of the human opposable thumb design. It's "made" for finger picking. Finger picking, however, requires a certain manual dexterity that is only obtainable from a reasonable amount of practice. Thus, when the banjo became more and more popular in the 1920s, people wanted to be able to play chords with a flat pick. This caused an almost wholesale abandonment of the 5 string in favor of the same scale in a 4 string (plectrum). This evolved to a shorter scale tenor model that has even easier chord positions up the neck. Now we've come back full circle to the original design, because the instrument no longer needs to be so approachable. Back in the 1920 the banjo was the iPod. Now people look for more and more difficult things to try to play, and the instrument doesn't disappoint.

This is bluegrass type advice; you can do what you want to with it.

richmondgeorge - Posted - 09/04/2008:  16:49:26

I think it's so there is an even number of tuners on the headstock

Klondike Waldo - Posted - 09/04/2008:  16:50:25

look up "akonting" on you tube. There's your answer - the short fifth string is a vestigial organ left from its evolutionary antecedents, including th ethree string version still played in West Africa.

deligo ergo renideo,
Bob Cameron

earlsway - Posted - 09/04/2008:  16:51:03

The first five string banjo I owned I got in Germany and all five were at the top,I didn't know there was a difference at the time, and it made it alot easier to capo............

JohnTheWhite - Posted - 09/04/2008:  17:14:16

Originally posted by 1four5

Last year I built a poor boy version of the Yates WL5, and it works REALLY REALLY REALLY good. For me it makes the question even more of a mystery.


You banjo doesn't look all that much like a poor boy version to me!
I assume the question's mystery is why not a full-length 5th string on all banjos? It was probably originally a technical problem, as was stated above. Later it became a tradition. I personally own a Windsor Zither banjo that has a tunneled 5th string. The interesting thing is that the neck is full width, just like yours, (and the Yates and the Nechville Nuvo), but the string goes into the peg head on the far side of the nut and emerges at the 5th string. The whole tunneling could have been accomplished with one RR-spike!

The real advantage of your design is that the interval of the 5th string with respect to the other strings is maintained no matter how the instrument is capod. The tradeoff is that the thinner 5th string might have a little different tone. The other thing I like about the design is that you could have a lower pitched 5th string using RR-spikes and still be able to fret the 5th string up the neck. I would really like this, because I play about half the time with a flat pick and my middle finger, (chickin' pickin'), so I often use the 5th as a melody string and the 1st as a drone.

This is bluegrass type advice; you can do what you want to with it.

Edited by - JohnTheWhite on 09/04/2008 17:16:56

rowdy13 - Posted - 09/04/2008:  17:23:31

I think its so the "string makin' companies" can make more money.

"It''s not a banjo, it''s a MANjo"

wrightedward - Posted - 09/04/2008:  17:47:59

Check out Barry Abernathy's banjo ,tunneled 5th ,no 5th string peg hanging on the side of the neck .Love that Barry ,he really encourages me ..But that doesnt tell you who did the 5th string ????
Phillippians 4:13

Edited by - wrightedward on 09/04/2008 20:59:14

Jammer - Posted - 09/04/2008:  17:55:34

For years I had friends ask me that question. But, those were pre-internet days, and I did not feel like researching for the answer at the local library. So I got to speculating how it came about. I knew about the banjos from Africa not having 5 strings, so that ment it might of been an American that built the first 5-string banjo with the short drone string. (Actually I recall reading that it was not an American, but nevertheless)....

I cooked up my own dea of what MIGHT of happened. I figured that maybe in the mid 1800's a cowboy got a little too drunk while playing his 4-string banjo and broke the 1st string. I next speculated that this same drunk cowbow took the broken string and invented the drone string by tacking the string on where we now put the 5th string. I just figured the cowboy wanted to keep using the broken string, but it was too short to be strung like the other ones were. (' sounded good to my friends too) -

Turns out my speculation was wrong. Somewhere online there is a long story about the guy they give credit to for inventing the drone string- on a 5-string banjo. As I recall, he wasn't drunk at all.


1four5 - Posted - 09/04/2008:  18:47:35

The tradeoff is that the thinner 5th string might have a little different tone

The tone of the full length 5th string is actually deeper and rings fuller than a shorty. You know, the octive G string on a 12 string guitar is also a full length high G, and they've been sounding good on 12 string guitars for a long time! I love it, because if you don't fret the 5th, the banjo plays identical to a traditional banjo. If you capo, a guitar capo is all you need for all 5 strings. Thumbovers on barr and movable chords can change the drone note with the chord... or even give you alternating drone, sort of like alternating bass on a guitar. Higher notes are in easy reach giving some neat chord posibilities. I'd love to see what Bela would do with a Yates WL5, and when a few big names play one, and Deering and Gold Tone follow suit...


EggerRidgeBoy - Posted - 09/04/2008:  19:21:48

Originally posted by Jammer

Turns out my speculation was wrong. Somewhere online there is a long story about the guy they give credit to for inventing the drone string- on a 5-string banjo. As I recall, he wasn't drunk at all.


Joel Sweeney was for a long time - and often still is - mistakenly credited with adding the done string to the banjo. What he may have done is add a fifth long string to the instrument - mostly likely a bass string (the one we would today call the fourth). He can certainly be credited with popularizing the five-string banjo, to the extent that it became the standard configuration. But adding a fifth string is not to be confused with adding what we today call the fifth string. That short drone string had been a part of the banjo for at least 200 years before Sweeney arrived on the scene.

mike gregory - Posted - 09/04/2008:  19:30:01

MY version goes:

Ancient Music Fellow was stringing the First Banjo, which used the animal's hide for the head, and the guts for the string.
The first four went fine, but the fifth was a bit short.
Rather than taking the life of another animal, for just a few inches of gut, the Ancient Music Fellow decided to peg it off, right there.
And that was the fine example set by him, which has been followed to this day.

(Hugh has the bad habit of letting provable facts get in the way of a good story, but I do appreciate that he did post the basic facts, above.)

=):{ )
Mike Gregory, Banjo Maker Infraordinaire
When I say my instruments are as good as anything Gibson or Martin ever made,
I mean MEL Gibson and DEAN Martin!

My banjos can be seen on my own website

imac50 - Posted - 09/04/2008:  23:58:45

I thought it was because you have 4 long fingers and a short thumb. If all your fingers were the same length it would look odd. Same with the banjo. It's a representation of your hand.


John Gribble - Posted - 09/05/2008:  06:44:29

Because it smoked when it was young.

John Gribble
Tokyo, Japan

zac - Posted - 09/05/2008:  08:00:07

Why. Tim you are right.
After putting my looking glasses on I cannot do anything else but verify that mine has one shorter too.

If there is a wide-spread quality control issue or worse...fraud, we should unite and sue the banjo manufacturing industry. Cutting corners and selling 4,75 as a 5 is outrageous. Maybe we could get them take those defected necks back, no matter how old the instrument is and publicly burn them and then... oh yes...Let's make them to give us full square, no bumps, full five-string necks... no that wont do... six-string necks for free replacement.

I am angered

Edited by - zac on 09/05/2008 08:07:36

wrangler - Posted - 09/05/2008:  09:01:31

I thought it was a capo makers conspiracy.


To peace, happiness, banjos that stay in tune and people likewise

roger martin - Posted - 09/05/2008:  09:41:44

Just for giggles I'm building a fretless as a 7th fret peg . My understanding is in the 1880's some banjos were built with a 5th string fret and some were built with a 7th,so for fun I'm building a rough ( hopefully old looking) 7th fret .
I'll probably have a hard time selling this one but thats ok, I still want to see how people react to a 7th fret " 5th"

Roger MArtin

Thor - Posted - 09/05/2008:  15:15:49

I still want to see how people react to a 7th fret " 5th"

Long necked banjos have the fifth string peg at the seventh fret. Of course, the scale is different..
How are you planning on tuning that fretless?

fretlessinfortwayne - Posted - 09/05/2008:  18:25:46

A simple birth defect that we should all overlook.


"Hooray Jake, Hooray John, Breakin'' up Christmas all night long."

brokenstrings - Posted - 09/05/2008:  18:38:38

I think J Bonefaas has the fifth-string peg at the sixth fret.


Frailaway, ladies, frailaway!

Gareth Banjoland - Posted - 09/05/2008:  23:26:09

I just tell people mine is a budget model.

"why not? there''s no one here to tell you not to!"



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