You don’t have to be a fully certified folk-fanatic to wrap your hands around one of these guitar-like string-instruments, but which one is for you? Here, we lay out the differences between the ukulele, mandolin, and banjo. If you’re already a guitarist but fancy a little variation, then the transition shouldn’t be too tough and, if you’ve never touched an instrument in your life, each of these instruments offers a manageable introduction for both beginners and younger players since most ukuleles, mandolins, and banjos come with fewer strings and slimmer, shorter necks. This makes getting to grips with your first chords a little less complex and gives your fingers time to get used to applying pressure to strings. But don’t get us wrong – each of these noble instruments is just as fully-grown-up and versatile as a guitar or bass.

The Ukulele: Fresh Sound

The Difference Between the Ukulele, Mandolin, and Banjo

The ukulele is a four-stringed instrument that was first brought to Hawaii with Portuguese immigrants and has since become one of the most popular musical instruments on the planet. It comes in various shapes: baritone, tenor, concert, and probably the most played and best-loved format, the soprano ukulele. The standard tuning of a soprano ukulele is G-C-E-A (or A-D-F# B). Anyone who has played a stringed instrument before will immediately feel that the tuning is a little weird when they hear the open strings of a ukulele. The G-string is tuned to a higher pitch than the C-string (see the image included below), meaning that the strings are not in the logical low-to-high tuning order of a guitar or violin. It’s this that largely characterises the uniquely ‘cheerful’ sound of the ukulele. Also, the relative distance between the strings of a ukulele is the same distance between the higher pitched strings of a guitar, and since they’re fairly close together, this makes chords a little bit easier to grasp.

For more information about tuning up your ukulele, check out our blog here.

The Difference Between the Ukulele, Mandolin, and Banjo

Playing the Ukulele

The most popular ukulele playing position is to hug the body of the ukulele between your arm and ribs but, for a little extra playing comfort, a ukulele strap can also be used. The nylon strings of a ukulele are usually played with the fingers or with a plectrum, and since the strings are so flexible, a felt plectrum is often used and has the effect of softening the sound, making it a little less bright.

Learn more about playing the ukulele in our dedicated blog: Learn to Play Ukulele in 3 Easy Steps!

Shapes and Uses

The higher pitched and rounded sound of the ukulele has lent its particular voice to many classic songs. In the 1920s, the ukulele was a standard member of any popular Jazz ensemble but is now better known as a great vocal accompaniment. One of the most well known vocal-ukulele performers of all time was George Formby, who would also sometimes play a banjolele, – a kind of hybrid instrument that sits somewhere between a banjo and a ukulele. There’s also a 6-string version of the ukulele which has the size and sound of a tenor-ukulele but the standard tuning of a guitar, tuned up by one quarter. These guitarleles are pretty popular for obvious reasons (an example can be seen on the right in the image above) and give guitarists an easy transition while offering small children a comfortable first guitar experience. If you want to take your tunes to the stage or recording studio, there are electro-acoustic ukuleles available. These have been fitted with internal pickups that register the sound of the strings and send that sound to an acoustic amplifier or PA using a standard guitar jack cable. The sound can sometimes be adjusted with an additional fitted preamp with tone controls.

If you need a little help to pick out your perfect ukulele, you can find it here.

The Mandolin: Broad and Rich Sound

The Difference Between the Ukulele, Mandolin, and Banjo

Almost all mandolins have 8 strings divided into four pairs that are each tuned to the same pitch. Due to the unavoidable minute differences in pitch between the paired strings, a rich and broad sound is created and, by plucking a single pair of strings, strumming them up and down very quickly with a plectrum, that well-known mandolin tremolo sound is produced. A mandolin shares the same tuning as a violin (G-D-A-E), with a fifth between each note instead of a quarter – as you get with the tuning of a guitar. As such, the transition from a guitar or bass to a mandolin can be a little more tricky than the transition to a ukulele.

Origin, Shapes and Uses

The mandolin was first born in Italy and, while it was originally designed for classical music, ultimately became a folk instrument. As such, mandolins are used in traditional Irish, English, and Scottish folk music and even in Bluegrass. Bluegrass mandolin players often use an A-5-style (seen in the middle of the image above) or F-5-style mandolin (seen on the left in the image above). Electro-acoustic mandolins are also available and are essentially acoustic models with built-in pickups, while fully electric mandolins usually have a solid body and cannot be played acoustically, so they’re a kind of fusion between an electric guitar and a mandolin.

The Banjo: Sparkling, Bright Sound

What you probably already know about the banjo is that it produces a powerfully sparkling and bright sound that might even be loud enough to compete with an entire Dixieland band. This is down to the set of steel strings and the drum head that replaces the wooden top panel found on an instrument like a guitar. Resonator banjos have a closed back and generate the loudest sound and biggest projection, so if you’re looking for a milder sound, you might want to try an open back banjo.

The Difference Between the Ukulele, Mandolin, and BanjoBluegrass or Tenor Banjo

A lot of people know the banjo from classic Bluegrass or Dixieland Jazz. In Dixieland Jazz, chords are played on a tenor banjo with a plectrum as part of the rhythm section, and tenor banjos have four strings that are tuned precisely one octave lower than the tuning of a violin. The Bluegrass banjo has five strings and an entirely different tuning (open G: G-D-G-B-D). The fifth string is also shorter than the other four strings and the tuning peg for the fifth string is actually fitted to the side of the neck. The fifth string is played open, giving the instrument a constant note that’s played with any Bluegrass banjo chord and is often referred to as the ‘drone’ string. If you use a capo with a Bluegrass banjo, a special fifth-string capo is also needed to bring the fifth string in tune with the rest. The Bluegrass banjo is generally strummed, and a thumb plectrum or full set of finger plectrums is often used to play it.

The Guitarbanjo: Standard Guitar Tuning

Guitarists who simply want the sound of a banjo without learning to play an entirely new instrument will probably want to go for a guitarbanjo. This six-string instrument has the same standard tuning as a guitar so it can be played using the same scales and chords as you would play on a guitar. Since the low-E string sounds uncharacteristically low for a banjo, the string is generally swapped out for an E-string pitched two octaves above the standard E. If you already play a tenor banjo and want to transition to an acoustic guitar, then the identical six-string tenor-guitar will certainly help.

See Also …

» Learn to Play Ukulele in 3 Easy Steps
» How to Tune Your Ukulele
» How to Hold Each Size of Ukulele
» How Do I Choose the Right Ukulele
» Ukulele Strings that Are Right for You

» All Ukuleles
» All Mandolins
» All Banjos

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