You do not have to be a fan of folk music to play a folk-oriented string instrument. First, let’s focus on three instruments more or less similar to the guitar: the ukulele, the mandolin, and the banjo. If you already play the guitar and want to discover something else, you can easily switch to one of these instruments. They are also very suitable for beginners and young musicians, thanks to the reduced number of strings and the thinner and shorter neck. In addition, the agreements are less complex. But make no mistake: these are three full-fledged instruments with many sound possibilities, just like the guitar and the bass..
The ukulele is a four-string instrument from Hawaii. It is available in four different sizes: baritone, tenor, concert, and soprano. The latter, the most used format, is tuned in the GCEA (Sol-Do-Mi-La) or AD-Fis-B (La-Re-Fa # -Si) range. If you have already played on another stringed instrument, you will notice that the strings of a ukulele sound different. Indeed, the Sol string is tuned higher than the Do string (see picture below). The strings are not ranged from the most serious to the most acute, as is the case on a guitar or a violin, for example. Thus, this small instrument produces a pleasant sound and his own. Note that the distance between the strings is the same as that between the highest strings of a guitar. The forms of the chords are therefore similar. For more information, check out the blog ” How to award a ukulele? “.
The most common way to hold a ukulele is to stall the instrument in the crease of the arm and ribs. For added playing comfort, you can opt for a ukulele strap. A ukulele has nylon strings that you can play with your fingers or using a pick. However, nylon ropes are more sensitive to wear than steel ropes. That’s why we recommend using a felt pick . This results in a less lively sound.
Applications and other models
The high-pitched, round sound emitted by a ukulele can be used on pieces of very different styles. In addition, the ukulele can also be used to accompany singing. George Formby, one of the most famous ukulele players, played a lot on a banjo-ukulele. There are also guitalélés (right on the image). Very popular, this six-string instrument is tuned a quarter of a tone higher than a guitar and has a size similar to that of a tenor ukulele. It allows guitarists to continue using the same chords and children to easily switch to the acoustic guitar. If you play regularly on stage or in-home studio, an electro-acoustic ukulele is a good solution. Indeed, it has a built-in microphone that captures the vibrations (usually using a preamp with tone and volume settings) and transmits to a 6.35 mm jack output.
If you need help choosing a ukulele, read our ukulele buying guide.
Mandolin: a rich and wide sound
The vast majority of mandolins have eight strings, which match in pairs. Due to the small differences in tone between the strings of each pair, you will have a rich and wide sound. In addition, if you make a quick movement with a pick on a pair of strings, you get a tremolo effect. The mandolin fits in the same way as a violin, either in the GDAE range (Sol-Ré-La-Mi). There is a straight distance between the strings and not a quarter, as is the case on a guitar. That’s why switching from guitar or bass to mandolin is more difficult than moving from one of these instruments to the ukulele.
Origins, use, and different types
This compact instrument, originally from Italy, was originally used mainly in classical music, but it is also found in folk music. Thus, the mandolin appears in Irish, English and Scottish folk music, but also in bluegrass. In this last style of music, we mainly use A-5 and F-5 style mandolins (in the middle and on the left in the image). Just like with ukuleles, there are different types of mandolins, like the electric mandolin (right on the picture). This should not be confused with the electro-acoustic mandolin since the latter is an acoustic model with a built-in microphone. The electric model, it has a body completely massive and must be amplified. It is, therefore, a hybrid instrument between a mandolin and an electric guitar.
Banjo: a bright and crystalline sound
Whatever type of banjo you choose, you are sure to get a powerful, crisp, crystal clear sound. Indeed, even if it is not amplified, a banjo allows you to easily pierce the mix of a Dixieland group, for example, this thanks to the steel ropes and the skin (as on a drum), the place of a wooden table. A resonator-type banjo, equipped with a closed-back, generates the sound that carries the farthest of all the different types of banjos available. If you’re looking for a softer sound, opt for an open-back model.
Banjo bluegrass or tenor banjo
The banjo is best known for its central place in bluegrass and jazz Dixieland. In the latter case, we use a tenor banjo, on which you play chords with a pick. This type of banjo has four strings that are generally tuned one octave lower than those of a violin. However, a bluegrass banjo is tuned differently (Sol-Re-Sol-Si-d (gDGBd) in open ground) and has five strings. The fifth string is significantly shorter than the other four strings and its mechanics are directly on the neck. When playing, we do not fret the fifth string, but we let it ring empty. If you use a capo to play in a different tone using the same fingerings, you need a podcaster for a five-string banjo. With a banjo, one usually uses a thumb pick and two finger picks.
Guitar banjo: standard tuning
If you are a guitarist and you only want to enjoy the sound of a banjo, choose a guitar banjo. This six-string instrument works the same way as a guitar, allowing you to play with the same chords. As the string of Mi gives a relatively low sound, it is often replaced by a string of Mi which rings two octaves higher. In the case where you play the tenor banjo and you want to switch to the acoustic guitar, a tenor guitar, which agrees in the same way, will be a good choice.
If you need help choosing a banjo, check out our banjo shopping guide.