Mandolin vs. Banjo: What’s the Difference?

The mandolin and the banjo are very similar instruments, both in sound and appearance. These similarities persist throughout the numerous variations available in today’s world of music. So, what exactly are the differences that make it easy to distinguish the mandolin from the banjo? 

What Makes a Mandolin? 

The mandolin is a historical instrument that dates back to the 10th century, during the medieval times in Europe. Many different instruments appeared structurally and functionally similar to the mandolin at this time. 

Beyond Europe, historians have traced the mandolin’s origins back to North Africa. They were crafted in several unique styles, each with varying strings, distinctive tuning styles, and more. As time passed, mandolins began to take shape similar to that of a lute, distinguished by the following features:

  • Relatively short, but broader, fingerboard and neck
  • A shallower curve on the body 

Today, one of the most common mandolin styles is the Neapolitan, which originated in the 18th century. The feature that sets this model apart from most others is the angle on the soundboard. This angle allows for the strings to be stretched down to the mandolin’s tail, which increases the downward pressure. 

Moreover, this also expands the mandolin’s capacity to accommodate a higher tension for the strings, creating a higher volume that is better sustained over time. 

The Neapolitan mandolin’s tuning system is based on fifths, a system known to many as the Pythagorean tuning method. Moreover, this essentially means that the ratio between the first and fifth notes equates to 3/2, ultimately making the “perfect fifth.” Every fifth note is perfect in this system, except for those between B and F. 

Other Types of Mandolins

Despite the Neapolitan mandolin’s popularity, many different types of mandolins are widely used by musicians today, all of which are great crossover instruments for guitarists and fiddlers.

Alternatives to the Neapolitan mandolin include:

  • American mandolin: Americans were inspired by the mandolin’s similarity to the violin and wanted to take the design a step further. Moreover, this is how this design got its larger shape, unique f-holes, longer strings, and broader fingerboard. The American mandolin also does not have as much of a curve on the back.
  • F-style mandolin: Designed by Lloyd Loar, these also feature the f-holes present in the American mandolin and are highly favored in bluegrass music. These also have an asymmetrical design that makes the mandolin’s body appear to be leaning toward one side. 
  • A-style mandolin: Instead of an f-hole, these feature oval sound holes. Other than that, they are quite similar to the F-style models but produce a more “sweet, singing tone” than the other. 

The Basics of Playing the Mandolin

The violin inspires many of the techniques used to play the mandolin today. Furthermore, this is another aspect of the mandolin with deep historical roots. The violin was world-renowned in the world of music, so much so that it influenced the transition into the fifth tuning for the mandolin. 

Thus, the playing techniques associated with the mandolin began to change, falling more in line with the violin. However, one key point to keep in mind is that, despite the similarities, the mandolin has some features that set it apart from the violin.

For one, the mandolin has two of each string. The strings are positioned close together to be played as one string. Well, you might wonder: “Why have two strings if you’re just supposed to play them as one?” 

This doubling of the strings is the secret behind the mandolin’s unique resonance and ability to sustain notes. Before you get to play, you’ll need to tune your mandolin using the machine heads to adjust the tension of the four pairs of strings. Since there are so many, this can take a relatively long time. 

Although you have eight strings on your mandolin, you’ll only have four notes: G-D-A-E. To play it, you’ll need to follow the guidelines below:

  • Since the mandolin is a relatively small instrument, you’ll need to hold it close to your torso, in your lap for comfortable playing. 
  • Your dominant hand needs to manipulate the strings, so hold the neck in the opposite hand. 
  • It is relatively standard to play the mandolin with a flat pick. However, many people choose to play this instrument with their fingers as well. When you’re playing with a pick, make sure to hold it as loosely as possible – this is the most comfortable and will produce the best sound. 

What Defines a Banjo?

Banjos have a very different history than the mandolin, although they also emerged from African culture. While the mandolins were rooted in North Africa, the banjo emerged from the Africans themselves. 

During the times of chattel slavery in colonial North American and in the Caribbean, enslaved African people exercised their creative freedom by developing the banjo and passed the art down to their descendants across the Atlantic. 

The instrument was deeply intertwined with African culture from the 17th century onward to the 1830s. Thus, people widely considered the banjo to be an exclusive cultural property of African Americans that stemmed from their West African heritage. 

Still, though the West Africans and their descendants exclusively created the banjo, the design was not exactly pure in form. Moreover, this is because West African instruments did not solely influence its construction. Instead, the design integrated a functional and aesthetic blend of West African and European string instruments. 

The banjo’s earliest iteration shares many similarities with the guitar, featuring a drum-like body made not from wood but a gourd or calabash.  

On this gourd, the musician would attach a neck that held four strings in total. Three ran the neck’s length, and another extended only halfway down the neck’s side, specially positioned for the thumb.

Today, the gourd body and standard string lengths are exclusively attributed to the makers’ West African heritage. On the other hand, the flat fingerboard and tuning mechanisms are credited to European influence. 

There are two main types of banjos you’ll come across in music:

  • Resonator: These have an additional mechanical feature that attaches to the back of the banjo’s pot. This attachment, known as the resonator, enhances the volume, making the sound perfect for bluegrass music. 
  • Open-back: Most prefer to play these banjos in the clawhammer style since the sound is a lot softer than the alternative. 

Each of these types can come with either four or five strings, but five-strings are more often available with the option to include or exclude a resonator. Read our guide to the best banjo strings to select the best option for you.

What to Know About Playing the Banjo

As you get ready to play the banjo for the first time, you need to know how to hold it comfortably. Without the proper posture and positioning of your instrument, you might get uncomfortable and may even experience pain. This awkward stance can sour your banjo-playing experience

To hold the banjo correctly, follow the instructions below:

  1. First, understand whether your banjo is a left-handed or right-handed model. Moreover, this will determine which hand holds the neck. 
    1. Because of the banjo’s length, it will sit differently in your lap than a mandolin would, so please account for the extra space needed with this instrument. 
  2. Right-handed people will hold the banjo’s neck in their left hand to strum with their dominant hand. The opposite is true for left-handed individuals. 
    1. The tuning peg should be pointed up while holding the banjo in playing position. For this reason, you cannot efficiently play a right-handed banjo on the left-handed side. Instead, you’ll need to get a unique design. 

Strum close to the bridge (the piece of wood at the strings’ base) when playing your banjo. Many people prefer to play with their fingers, as opposed to the mandolin, which can be played with the fingers or a pick. 

Banjo vs. Mandolin Difficulty

When comparing a mandolin vs. banjo’s difficulty, understand that the challenge is entirely determined by your experience and preference. Thousands of people feel that the banjo is much easier to learn, especially if you have some background in guitar-playing. 

On the other hand, the same can be said of the mandolin, as many have attested to the ease of learning this instrument, even as a beginner. Another factor that may make the mandolin easier to understand is the fifths tuning system – many musicians find this easier to grasp than other techniques. 

To illustrate the issue’s subjectivity, people who have played both the mandolin and the banjo report that the banjo is much more difficult. However, this challenge is primarily because the banjo is played with the fingers, while the mandolin can be played with both fingers and a pick. 

The decision of whether you want to play the mandolin vs. banjo based on difficulty is entirely up to you, as opinions vary based on numerous factors and personal strengths. 

Summary: Knowing the Differences Between a Mandolin vs. Banjo

The mandolin and banjo are two wonderful instruments that can be picked up with relative ease by either past guitarists or those who are entirely new to string instruments. 
Now that you know the primary differences between the two, you can make an informed decision on whether you want to purchase a high-quality mandolin to adopt a new playing style or if you’ll opt for a banjo instead.

Michael Southard

Michael is a multi-instrumentalist with extensive knowledge of audio production. He loves trying new gear to discover gems to create unique sound.