What Is a Banjolin?

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While I recently went over the differences between banjos and mandolins in a previous article, the truth is that you don’t have to choose one or the other. If you want to have the playability of the mandolin while also having the unique sound of a banjo, you might want to buy a banjolin.

The banjolin, also known as a mandolin banjo, is a musical instrument that looks like a small banjo but is actually played in the same way that a mandolin is played. The instrument is a great buy for mandolinists who want to venture into using banjo sounds at home, in the studio, or at live gigs.

While these instruments aren’t very common or well-known, they are a lot of fun to play. In this guide, I’ll answer all of your questions about this distinctive musical instrument.

What Is a Banjolin?

The banjolin is one of many instruments I refer to as banjo hybrid instruments.

Because the tone of the banjo is so unique and exciting, instrument manufacturers make many different instruments that play like other instruments but sound like a banjo. The banjo ukulele is probably the most well-known of these instruments, but there are many others as well.

One of these instruments is the banjolin. The banjolin is the perfect choice for mandolin players who want to experiment with banjo tones. It’s tuned like a mandolin and can be played in exactly the same way. It features the same amount of strings, the same tuning, and is roughly the same size.

The only difference is that, unlike the mandolin, the banjolin features a banjo-style drumhead body. It may also feature a resonator on the back just like a banjo does. The result is a musical instrument with a distinctive banjo sound that a mandolin player can easily pick up and play without a hitch.

How Many Strings Does a Banjolin Have?

Banjolin with Mandolins
Banjolin and Mandolins. Source: Emma dusepo via Wikimedia Commons

Like the mandolin, a banjolin has 8 strings in total. However, the way that the strings are grouped together and tuned makes it so that it’s like playing only 4 strings.

Each string is doubled and each pair is tuned to the same note. This gives the mandolin as well as the banjolin each a distinctive sound and also allows for special techniques such as mandolin tremolo. The standard tuning of a mandolin is GDAE. The banjolin is tuned in the same way.

From the lowest string to the highest string, you’ll tune a banjolin like this: G-G-D-D-A-A-E-E

How Do You Play the Banjolin?

The banjo mandolin plays exactly like a mandolin. It can be played in the same way since it’s tuned the same and has the exact same setup. However, while it offers a similar tone to the banjo, it’s not ideal for playing banjo “rolls” and using other banjo techniques.

Instead, you’ll probably want to use mandolin-specific techniques on the banjolin such as strumming, chopping, tremolo, and double stops. You can also play some great mandolin-style solos on the banjolin as well.

What Does a Banjo-Mandolin Sound Like?

A banjolin sounds a lot like a banjo thanks to its drumhead body. However, a banjo mandolin doesn’t sound exactly like a banjo.

As the name would suggest, most banjolins sound like a cross between a mandolin and a banjo. They typically don’t offer the same resonance and volume as a full banjo but don’t quite sound like a mandolin either. Some players think that banjolins also sound a bit like ukuleles as well.

The best way to understand what a banjolin sounds like is to listen for yourself by watching YouTube videos or checking out some recordings.

Remember, however, that the banjolin’s brand and the specific model will affect its sound. Not all banjolins sound exactly the same. Be sure to compare your options carefully before making the decision to buy one.

Deciding Whether This Instrument Is Right for You

So what is a banjolin and should you buy one? By now you should have an idea of whether you would be interested in buying one of these interesting musical instruments. If you already have some mandolin skills and want to play a small instrument that sounds like a banjo, you might want to consider buying a banjolin of your own.

Want to learn more about banjo hybrid instruments? Check out my Music to My Wallet article about the best banjo guitars now.

Cover Image Source: Sally V via Wikimedia Commons