The Ukulele vs Banjo competition is about to start! Trying to decide if you should learn the ukulele or the banjo first? Wondering what the differences are between the two, and which one is easier to play? Hoping to figure out which instrument would win in a boxing match? If you answered yes to either of the first two questions, you’ve come to the right place! We can’t help you with the third one unfortunately.
While they may appear similar to the musical layperson, the banjo and ukulele are actually quite different. From their construction and string material, to their tuning and sound, we are here today to explain how the ukulele differs from the banjo, and vice versa.
So, without any further ado, let’s begin!
Ukulele vs Banjo: The Big Differences
If you think this section is about going to the gym, I’m guessing you are the one here looking for videos of boxing instruments, and again, we are sorry to disappoint you. No, this section is about the difference in how the two instruments are built.
The ukulele is a wooden instrument, created by a process of cutting, shaping, and gluing pieces of wood together. The wood for the top and bottom of the body is cut to shape and then dried, while the wood for the sides is cut into strips, softened in water, and then placed in a mold to create the rounded shape of an ukulele body. Wooden struts are then glued to the bottom piece to strengthen the instrument, and then the sides and top of the body are attached.
The body of a banjo on the other hand, is made of both wood and metal, as well as a plastic drumhead (which used to be made of calfskin). A metal tone ring is attached to a circular wooden frame for the sides, and then a plastic drumhead is used for the top and the back is either a piece of wood, or is left completely open.
Read more: The Best Ukulele Books For Music Players
The type of sting material is another area of difference between the ukulele and the banjo. Ukuleles are primarily fitted with nylon or synthetic strings that imitate old gut strings, while banjos are more commonly fitted with nickel plated/steel strings. There are exceptions for both instruments here, as there are ukuleles that use steel strings, and banjos that use nylon strings, but they are less commonly found.
String Number and Tuning
Speaking of strings, one of the biggest differences between the ukulele and banjo are the number of strings they have, and how those strings are tuned.
Most commonly, ukuleles have 4 strings, and these strings are tuned either GCEA (soprano, concert and tenor sized ukes), or DGBE (baritone). If you come across 5, 6, or 8 string ukes, you’ll find there are still only 4 different notes, again, GCEA, but 1, 2 or all 4 of the strings are doubled up. This is called a course (two strings close together tuned to the same note and meant to be played and fingered simultaneously).
Furthermore, the G string on most ukuleles is what is known as a high-G, meaning its pitch is an octave higher than the G you might expect of the lowest string. This is primarily what gives the ukulele its unique and very recognizable sound.
Meanwhile, the most common form of banjo has 5 strings, but there are also 4 and 6 stringed options, and the tunings vary quite a bit. For 5 stringed banjos, the most common tuning is GDGDB, but will often be slightly different depending on the style of music you are playing on the banjo. It’s also worth noting that the top string on a banjo is shorter than the rest, with its tuning peg falling around the third fret.
A quick Google search suggests that a 4 stringed banjo can be tuned CGDB, or CGDA or even CGDG. There’s also the banjolele, a 4 stringed ukulele with the body of a banjo, which is tuned like a normal ukulele – GCEA. Talk about the best of both worlds!
Like the banjolele, a 6 string banjo is really just a guitar with a banjo body. Tuned EADGBE, the 6 string banjo is sometimes aptly called the banjitar.
Sound and Playing Style
Given all the differences listed above, it should come as no surprise to you that the ukulele and banjo can sound quite different from one another. The wooden body and nylon string of an ukulele give it a much softer, warmer tone, while the metal pieces of a banjo body, along with the plastic drum head and steel strings give it a much punchier, thin tone. An ukulele is generally a much quieter instrument than the banjo, so if you are a parent reading this article to help you decide which instrument to get your child, consider that!
In fact, the banjo has little to no dynamic control (ability to play at different volumes), and is generally played with a pick, or several finger picks, while the ukulele can be played at different volumes, and is usually played just with the fingers/the pad of the thumb.
Both instruments are associated with certain musical genres, like bluegrass, americana, or Irishfolk music for banjos, and Hawaiian music for the ukulele, but in reality they are versatile and can be made to sound good in many styles.
Trying to declare with any authority which of these two instruments is better would be a foolish endeavor. It’s totally subjective. However, when it comes to which one is easier to play, at least for the beginner, I believe that the ukulele is the clear front runner. Nylon strings are easier on the hand than steel, and strumming on a uke is much easier than on a banjo. Furthermore, most styles of banjo playing are centered around finger picking, which is harder than strumming, and while fingerstyle ukulele is most definitely a thing, it is less common on the uke than simple old strumming.
For more lessons on chords, techniques, and songs to help you along on your own uke journey, make sure to check out our site www.ukelikethepros.com. We offer you a bunch of great ukulele content that comes hand-in-hand with an awesome ukulele community that will support you in this journey.