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Do you know what the differences between the mandolin vs banjo are? Wondering which of these instruments is easier to play?
If you’re unfamiliar with these two musical instruments, you might think that the banjo and the mandolin are pretty much the same. Truth be told, both are a bit odd and not as commonly used as the piano or guitar in modern music. In addition to this, both of them play a big role in bluegrass music and other similar genres. However, once you learn a bit more about these two instruments, you’ll realize that they’re more different than you might have expected!
As someone who plays both the banjo in the mandolin, I think that both of these instruments are a lot of fun. However, they have some very clear differences. Anybody who simply wants to learn more about the banjo or mandolin or is thinking about learning an instrument should keep these differences in mind.
In this guide, I’ll tell you about the main differences between the banjo vs mandolin and will give you my opinions on which is easier to play.
What Is a Mandolin?
The mandolin is a small, stringed instrument that is similar to a lute and typically has 8 strings in total. When tuned, each string is doubled, so in practice, it feels the same as playing just 4 strings.
Because of the way the mandolin is set up, the sound is very unique and distinctive. The way the strings are tuned and doubled is similar to a 12-string guitar.
The mandolin has been around since the late 1700s and has played a role in many different music genres over the years. This includes classical music, Irish music, and gypsy jazz music.
Today, the mandolin is also one of the premier instruments in bluegrass music. It also has a strong presence in folk and country music and is still often used in classical music as well. While less common, players sometimes use the mandolin in jazz and rock music as well.
What Is a Banjo?
Traditionally, the banjo is a 4-string instrument that has a long neck and a rounded body. The body is similar to a drum and features a unique resonant sound and “twang” that is very distinctive.
Originally, the 4-string banjo was played in the clawhammer style or in the “classic banjo” fingerpicking style which is much different than what is played today. Later on, around the early 1900s, many players played the 4-string banjo with a pick like a guitar.
The banjo evolved from traditional African instruments and had some of its earliest use in African-American music. The banjo also played a role in early Dixieland jazz music as well.
These days, however, the 5-string banjo is actually the more common type of banjo. It’s also played a bit differently than the original iteration of the banjo. When it comes to modern banjo, the 5-string banjo fingerpicking style that Earl Scruggs popularized is actually the most popular playing style of the banjo today.
The banjo is now seen as a key part of the bluegrass genre. It’s also commonly found in folk, country, and indie rock music as well.
Be sure to check out our complete guide on the banjo if you want to learn about all of the ins and outs of this unique musical instrument.
Is the 5-String Banjo or Mandolin Easier to Learn?
Generally speaking, I think that most newbie musicians will find the mandolin easier to learn compared to the banjo. However, this will depend on the style of banjo or mandolin you decide to play and your goals.
Here are a few of the main differences of the banjo vs mandolin you should think about when choosing which instrument to learn.
When it comes to playing chords and using one of these instruments for accompaniment, the two aren’t very different. It’s easy to play basic chords on both of them.
The mandolin technically has 8 strings and most common banjos technically have 5 strings. However, the unique tunings and setups of these instruments make it so that you’ll really only need to form chords that require you to press down on 4 strings.
As far as learning the most basic chords go, however, the banjo might be a little bit easier than the mandolin. Because the banjo features an open tuning, you can play a G major chord without fretting any strings at all. You can also easily make additional major chords by placing a finger all the way across a fret.
Fingerpicking Vs Strumming
Bluegrass is the most popular genre for the 5-string banjo. Most players learning the instrument will focus on Scruggs-style fingerpicking when starting out.
If the banjo is your first musical instrument, it can be very difficult to learn this style. Fingerpicking requires a lot of coordination and it can be tough to utilize not only both of your hands but also multiple fingers on both hands as well.
Mandolin, in contrast, is a good bit simpler. You’ll play the mandolin in the same way that you can play the guitar and will use a guitar pick. You’ll almost always be picking notes one at a time or strumming the instrument’s strings all at once instead of fingerpicking.
For beginners to stringed instruments, this can make the mandolin much easier to handle when starting out when compared to the banjo.
When playing lead parts and solos on the 5-string banjo, you’ll typically play many different notes in quick succession in addition to the melody notes. You’ll be playing playing “banjo rolls” in which you’ll need to fingerpick the notes very quickly and with great coordination.
When playing the mandolin, playing lead parts will be much simpler and easier to handle. You’ll typically play only one note at a time. In some cases, you’ll play double stops, in which you’ll play two notes at a time with just a single pick.
If you want to start playing lead melodies quickly and get the hang of it faster, then the mandolin will likely be a better choice than the 5-string banjo will be.
Availability of Learning Resources
Keep in mind that when learning either that banjo or the mandolin, you won’t have a lot of trouble finding great learning resources, both online and offline.
While there are fewer resources to use for either of these instruments when compared to more common instruments such as the guitar or piano, mandolin and banjo are pretty equal in this regard. There are private tutors for both types of instruments available online and locally. There are also many free online lesson websites, YouTube video lessons, and lesson books available to purchase for both the banjo and the mandolin.
Getting to an Intermediate or Advanced Level
Keep in mind that the basics of both the banjo and the mandolin are pretty easy to learn, especially when it comes to playing chords and playing single notes. However, to get to an intermediate level and to play more advanced techniques, the mandolin will typically be easier for most people.
It’s not necessary to use fingerpicking when playing the mandolin at an intermediate or advanced level. This means that you’ll be able to get to a higher level more quickly. On the other hand, learning the ins and outs of the banjo is likely to take more time overall. It will take a lot of effort to become a banjo player with an advanced skill set.
While the mandolin is generally easier to learn than the banjo in many ways, it can be tougher to play if you have large fingers.
Mandolin frets are pretty small and this is especially true for the frets that are higher up the neck. Players who have big hands might find it tricky to successfully play notes and chords on the mandolin.
The banjo, on the other hand, is a fairly large instrument and the frets will offer plenty of room for your fingers. A banjo is more similar in size to a guitar, so even if you have large fingers, you’ll likely be able to place them on the frets of the banjo just fine.
While we generally think that the mandolin will be easier for new musicians to get started with, don’t let us dissuade you from playing the banjo! The best instrument to learn will always be the one that you’re the most excited about.
To learn an instrument successfully, you need to be dedicated to it and should love the way it sounds. Even though the banjo is harder than the mandolin in some ways, you should still choose to learn it if it seems more interesting to you.
If you have a true interest in an instrument, it will be easier to play it and you won’t get tired of practicing as quickly. Be sure to keep your own preferences in mind and know yourself well to pick the best instrument to learn.
Playing the Mandolin Vs Clawhammer or Plectrum Banjo
I consider the mandolin to be the easier instrument when compared to the 5-string banjo. However, it’s a bit of a different story when compared to less common clawhammer or plectrum banjo playing styles.
Like with the 5-string banjo, you’ll play the clawhammer banjo with the fingers rather than with a guitar pick, but the pattern is simpler and easier to grasp. The plectrum banjo is even simpler and you’ll be able to play the banjo with a pick, making it very similar to playing the mandolin or guitar.
Just like with the mandolin, alternative banjo playing styles, such as clawhammer banjo, are very rhythmic. With chord shapes being just as easy to learn on either instrument, it’s my opinion that there’s not much difference in difficulty overall when playing either the mandolin, 4-string, or clawhammer banjo.
Although learning the mandolin can be a bit simpler than the 5-string banjo, these other banjo playing styles will be just about equal in difficulty. Learning any of these is likely to be easier than learning the 5-string banjo style.
If you’re interested in playing the clawhammer banjo, be sure to check out our list of the top clawhammer banjo books after reading this post.
Banjo vs Mandolin: Other Differences Between the Two Instruments
Aside from how easy these musical instruments are to learn, there are many other differences between the mandolin and banjo that you should know about. Here are a few of the main differences between the banjo vs. mandolin.
One of the clearest differences between the banjo and mandolin is their respective sounds. Banjos have a distinctive “twang” while the mandolin has a high-pitched ringing sound that’s very interesting as well.
The resonant, round body of a banjo allows it to have an interesting sound that few other instruments can compete with. On a 5-string banjo, the droning, high-pitched 5th string gives the banjo an even more interesting tone.
The mandolin’s double-string setup, which is similar to a 12-string guitar, allows it to have a powerful sound when played. Mandolin players can also use unique techniques such as tremolo to make use of these doubled strings. This makes the instrument sound especially exotic.
Another big difference between the banjo and mandolin is the number of strings each of them has.
Generally, banjos will have between 4 and 6 strings. However, 5-string banjos are the most popular option.
Mandolins, on the other hand, very commonly have 8 strings. However, these strings are doubled, so it feels like playing only 4 strings.
However, like with the banjo, there are other mandolin types as well. The banjolin features 10 strings and the mando-guitar has 12 strings.
The mandolin and the banjo are both popular instruments in the bluegrass, country, and folk genres. You can occasionally find both in pop and rock genres as well. However, the other genres that you’ll find them in tend to differ a bit.
In addition to the genres above, the banjo was commonly used in early jazz music, known as Dixieland jazz. Some players, such as Bela Fleck, use the banjo in progressive jazz as well, although the banjo isn’t generally found in jazz often these days.
On the other hand, the mandolin wasn’t used often in Dixieland jazz and hasn’t played a big role in it over the years. However, the mandolin has played a role in gypsy jazz music.
Beyond jazz, the mandolin has also been commonly used in many different world music traditions over the years in countries ranging from Russia to Greece and more. The mandolin has traditionally played a large role in baroque and classical music genres. Many orchestras and ensembles still utilize the instrument today as well.
With its similarity to bluegrass music, Irish traditional music has also featured the mandolin prominently throughout the years as well. You can also find other instruments in the mandolin family, such as the bouzouki, in Irish music as well.
Although these are both stringed instruments, the ways that the mandolin vs 5-string banjo are usually played are pretty different.
5-string banjo players will be focused on fingerpicking both when providing accompaniment and when playing leads, often striking 2 or more notes at once. A mandolin player, on the other hand, will almost always play their instrument with a pick in the same way that a guitar player will.
Mandolinists will play chords and will play leads while picking only 1-2 notes at a time. Mandolin players will also use special playing techniques, such as tremolo, in which they’ll strike 1-2 strings rapidly back and forth. They may also use mandolin chopping, which is a more rhythmic version of strumming.
Overall, the way that players use 5-string banjos and mandolins is very different. With that being said, however, the clawhammer banjo, 4-string banjo, and tenor banjo are more similar to the mandolin. These banjo instruments will typically be more rhythmic and may be played with a pick.
The pitch and frequency ranges of these instruments are also pretty different as well. Mandolins are higher in pitch while banjos reside a bit lower in the sound spectrum.
Based on the pitch, banjos are more similar to guitars. Some of the notes in a banjo tuning are exactly the same as in the standard guitar tuning.
After taking one glance at the banjo and mandolin, it’s easy to recognize that they have a completely different look and feel to them. While the mandolin is a small instrument, the banjo is relatively large and is almost as large as a standard-sized guitar.
The bodies of both A-style and F-style mandolins are very different in appearance from the body of a banjo. Mandolins feature wood and sunburst finishes and colorful styles while banjos usually have white drumlike bodies.
As far as stringed instruments go, the banjo and the mandolin couldn’t look more different.
Making Your Choice Between the Banjo Vs Mandolin
Whether you want to learn the banjo or the mandolin or you’re simply fascinated by these unique musical instruments, this guide should tell you everything you need to know about the differences between them. Both instruments have a great sound and are worth learning to play, so be sure to choose the option that’s right for your preferences.
Are you thinking about buying a banjo? Check out our guide to the best beginner banjos now.
Hi, I’m Harrison! I created this website to help musicians navigate the ins and outs of their craft and to help them choose new instruments and gear to add to their collection. I have 15 years of experience as a guitarist and singer and have also played many other instruments throughout the years including the bass guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin, and harmonica.