Need something a little louder than your average ukulele? Want a peppy, punchy sound for traditional jazz or bluegrass? The banjolele might be for you! Plenty of people have fallen in love with the banjolele, but there are many differences vs a regular ukulele beyond just the volume.
There are many factors to consider when weighing up whether to get a banjolele or a regular ukulele. Depending on what you’re looking for, how you play, and what you want out of your instrument, one or the other might be the best for you. Here’s our guide to the main differences!
The Banjolele Is MUCH Louder
Like, MUCH louder. That’s pretty much its whole reason for existing in the first place. Back before amplification, you couldn’t just plug your acoustic-electric ukulele in and be heard over a crowd. You needed something that packed an extra punch. That’s why, for example, old-time jazz bands use banjos rather than guitars.
Even after ukuleles got electrified, the banjolele has become a go-to for anyone who needs to be loud acoustically. For example, it’s popular with street performers who have to rise above the din of the city. Anyone who has picked up a banjolele, especially a well-made one, can tell you how loud it can be. If you’re struggling to be heard for any reason, you will struggle no more with a banjolele.
The Ukulele Has More Sustain
One of the trade-offs that you get with more volume on the banjolele is less sustain. The drum-like head just doesn’t resonate the same way as the body of a regular ukulele. If you pluck the same note on a banjolele vs ukulele, the ukulele will ring out longer.
This has major consequences for fingerpicking. The usual styles of fingerpicking on the ukulele don’t work quite as well on the banjolele. Without the longer sustain, the notes sound plunky and don’t blend into each other. This can work for certain songs, but many fingerpicking tunes will sound flat on a banjolele.
The Banjolele Sits Differently
You’ll have to adjust the way you hold your ukulele with a banjolele. It’s not necessarily hard, just a little different, since it’s a very different shape. This is particularly true of you’re used to resting your forearm on the ukulele’s body. Some banjoleles, like the Deering Goodtime, have large heads that are fairly easy to rest your arm on. A lot of others, though, don’t have a ton of space. Plus, you’d be dampening the sound of the head by resting your arm on it.
Banjoleles are also usually heavier than a regular ukulele. This is partly by design, since there’s a lot more metal and thick wood in a banjolele. In fact, the heavier the banjo, the better. Heavier banjoleles tend to be louder and more resonant, with better balance across the strings. Adding a resonator on the back will increase both volume and weight.
Because of the weight and shape, many banjolele players end up opting for a shoulder strap. You can put strap buttons on your banjolele, or tie onto the hooks and headstock. Either way, this may give you a more ergonomic way to hold your banjo ukulele.
The Ukulele Is (Arguably) More Versatile
This is where we start getting subjective. I’m sure some banjolele enthusiasts will say that they can do anything the regular ukulele can and more. However, overall there are many instances where the banjolele just doesn’t fit. For jazz, especially old-time dixieland-type stuff, it’s dynamite. For bluegrass, country, old-time, and other genres that often feature the banjo, it’s a fun sound.
But tender fingerpicked melodies are not going to sound the same on the banjo ukulele. The loud, brash nature of the instrument will punch through at times when you may want to stay a little further in the background. And if you’re a quieter singer, the banjolele may actually cover up your voice a bit too much.
The Banjolele Is A Lot Of Fun
While we’re being subjective, I have to say that the banjolele is something everyone should try. I’m not saying you’ll enjoy it; some people just don’t get it. A lot of people do, though, and some get obsessive about it. The jaunty, punchy sound is like nothing else, and can put a smile on your face instantly.
Comedian and banjo player extraordinaire Steve Martin has said that “The banjo is such a happy instrument. You can’t play a sad song on the banjo, it always comes out so cheerful.” Even if it’s not your go-to instrument, it sounds so unique that it can end up scratching a particular musical itch.
The whole banjolele vs ukulele argument comes down to a matter of taste. Some people love the sound of banjolele, a lot of people don’t. Ultimately, the vast majority of people who own a banjolele also own a regular ukulele. They’ll use whatever one strikes their fancy, and bring out the banjolele when they really need to project.
There are other options for louder-than-usual ukuleles. One popular banjolele alternative is the resonator ukulele. It uses a resonant metal cone to project, and is based on the resonator guitars popular with blues and bluegrass players. You’ll still lose some sustain compared to a regular ukulele, but not as much as a banjolele. Still, the resonator ukulele isn’t as loud and doesn’t project as far as the banjolele.
The obvious alternative is to plug your ukulele in, which requires either an acoustic-electric ukulele or a pickup. You’ll have to worry about electricity, EQing, and a bunch of other options, but you’ll be able to get much, much louder than any banjolele can. There are some great external ukulele pickups available to make any ukulele an electric one.
But there’s something so fun about the plunky sound of a banjolele. If you’ve never tried one before, give one a whirl! You don’t need to give up your regular ukulele to see the magic of a banjolele.