So, you’re trying to decide whether to buy a ukulele or a banjo.
Maybe you can already play one of them and are wondering how difficult it would be to pick the other up.
Whatever it is, you’ve definitely got a lot of questions.
Want to know the good news?
I’ve made it my mission to set the record straight and give you those much-needed answers.
So, let’s get stuck into this battle of the instruments and find out whether you should add a banjo or a ukulele to your collection.
Banjo’s & Ukulele’s Compared – 5 Top Questions Answered
1. What’s the difference between a banjo and a ukulele?
At first glance, there are some obvious differences between the banjo and the ukulele. The ukulele is a small guitar-like stringed instrument, whereas a banjo has a drum-shaped body and has a stretched-skin head. However, you’re not here for the obvious answer, so let’s dive in a little deeper…
Materials & Build
Ukuleles are traditionally made from solid wood but, having grown in popularity, they are now made from more affordable materials like laminate, carbon fiber, and plastic. The Banjo’s body, however, is made up of a wooden (or metal) circular rim with a tensioned head.
Originally this would have been animal skin but nowadays the stretched head will usually be made from synthetic materials. Like the ukulele, the banjo’s neck will usually be made of solid wood like mahogany, walnut, or maple. Obviously, banjos and ukuleles have different shaped bodies made of different materials, which is the main difference. Although, what people often don’t realize, is that their necks are built differently as well. Banjos have longer necks generally with more frets, whereas ukuleles have much shorter necks.
Variety of Sizes
Another difference between banjos and ukuleles is the variety of sizes that they come in. Ukuleles come in four different sizes, soprano (13inch scale length), concert (15inch scale length), tenor (17inch scale length), and baritone (19inch scale length). Whereas the banjo only comes in two different sizes, plectrum (26-28inch scale length) and tenor (22-23inch scale length). Now, there are also 5 and 6-string banjos, but I won’t go into that yet. This is a lot to take in, huh?
Of course, different materials create different tones. So let’s compare the way they sound. Generally speaking, ukuleles are sweeter sounding than banjos. They have a warm, bright Hawaiian tone as a result of their wooden bodies. Banjos, on the other hand, have a much more distinctive twangy, metallic sound.
Ukuleles have four nylon, no matter their size. Banjos are a bit more complicated as they can either have four, five, or six strings, the most popular being the five-string banjo due to its fuller sound. The main difference between them though is that ukuleles have nylon strings, whereas banjos have steel strings, also adding to their differing tones. While this may seem like a small note, it makes all the difference when you’re playing, trust me!
2. Which is easiest to learn, the banjo or the ukulele?
Simply put, it’s easier to learn to play the ukulele than it is to learn the banjo. But, the answer to this question may differ depending on your experience. If you’ve never touched a string instrument in your life then you will 100% find playing the ukulele easier than playing the banjo. The ukulele’s soft nylon strings won’t hurt your fingers and, given that they have fewer strings and a smaller neck, there’s generally just less to learn.
However, if you already know the pain of playing a steel-string instrument like a violin, acoustic guitar, or mandolin, then you’ll probably find them both much the same to learn. If you’re a serial musician like myself and enjoy the challenge of learning new instruments, then start with the ukulele and work your way up to the banjo. Your fingers will thank you later. Plus, that’s what I did!
3. Are Banjos Tuned the Same as Ukuleles?
Technically, no. The most commonly played ukuleles (sopranos, concerts, and tenors) are tuned to the key of C (G, C, E, A), whereas the most popular 5 string banjo is tuned to the key of G (G, B, D, B, G). Ukulele players tend to stick to the standard tuning but it’s much more common for 4 string banjo players to change theirs.
From the standard tenor tuning (C, G, D, A), to Irish tenor (G, D, A, E), Plectrum (C, G, B, D), and guitar or Chicago tuning (D, G, B, E), there’s a lot more variety where banjos are concerned. Still with me? I know, it’s a lot to take in. Ultimately, the standard tuning for banjos and ukuleles is different, but it is possible to tune a 4 string banjo the same as a ukulele.
4. Are Ukulele and Banjo Chords the Same?
If you were to tune a banjo the same as a ukulele then, of course, the chords would be the exact same. However, if you were to keep your instruments with their standard tuning then, unfortunately, you wouldn’t be able to play ukulele chords on a banjo or vice versa.
5. Are Banjos More Expensive than Ukuleles?
Well, this is an easier one to answer. Unfortunately, yes, banjos are quite a bit more expensive than ukuleles. To get a good quality banjo, you’re looking at spending upwards of $150, whereas you can actually get a really good quality ukulele for around $50. So, if my other answers hadn’t made your mind up, then maybe this one probably has. My budget is usually what makes my mind up, anyway!
If you’re still a bit stuck on whether to buy a ukulele or a banjo then I’d say, with their price points in mind, start with a ukulele. I mean, if you’ve read any of my previous blogs, then you’ll know ukuleles are pretty close to my heart. So, maybe I’m a little biased but I do think that’s the best way to do it.
The Common Misconception About Banjos and Ukuleles
There’s a common misconception that playing the banjo and the ukulele is one and the same.
I hope answering your questions has cleared things up and given you a bit more clarity as to where to start when it comes to these guys.
I know, I know, a lot of you will be thinking “but the ukulele isn’t really a serious instrument”, right?
Well, if it is then I’m happy being childish!
If you’re reading this then you’re obviously someone after my own heart who finds joy in the challenge of learning new instruments.
So, if that’s the case, then I would definitely recommend starting with the ukulele and then moving on up to the banjo.
Ukes are a great stringed instrument to start with as most people can pick them up really quickly, so get your jam on and start choosing your ukulele today! There are lots of types of ukulele to choose from so have fun.
What’s stopping ya?
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Fiona is a musician and writer. When she’s not working, she’s either playing the ukulele or finding another instrument to add to her collection.