Types of Guitars

01
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The Banjo

five string banjo
A five string banjo.

The basic construction of the banjo is fundamentally different than that of a guitar. The body of the banjo is essentially a drum head - a circular frame with material (plastic or animal skin) pulled taut over it. The neck of the banjo is bolted on to the circular frame. The strings run from the base of the frame up the neck, and hold the bridge in place. Because of its construction, the banjo has a thin, tinny sound - which isn't to say it is unappealing..

There are quite a few types of banjos - including banjos with 4, 5 and 6 strings. The 4-string banjo is generally tuned to CGBD, and is often played with a pick.

The 5-string banjo includes a "short" partial fifth string, which despite sitting below the lowest bass string of the banjo, is actually tuned higher than the other strings. The 5-string banjo is tuned many different ways, but one common tuning is G(partial string)DGBD. This type of banjo is generally played via the use of a thumbpick and two fingerpicks, or alternately bare fingers.

The 6-string banjo is essentially a guitar - it is usually tuned to the standard guitar tuning of EADGBE, and uses a guitar neck. The 6-string banjo is a favorite of many guitarists, as it doesn't require learning a whole new set of chords, thus the transition from guitar to banjo is relatively easy.

To hear a banjo in a rock music context, listen to the band Travis playing "Sing" (a 5-string banjo). To hear the banjo in its more traditional environment, listen to Duelling Banjos.

To learn more about the history of the banjo, read this concise profile of the banjo on About.com's World Music site.

02
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The Nylon String (aka Classical) Guitar

Nylon string guitar.

The basic shape of the nylon string guitar is similar to a steel string guitar, although the neck is generally significantly wider. The standard tuning for a nylon string guitar is also the same as the basic guitar tuning - EADGBE. The strings themselves are made from nylon (or, in the case of the bass strings, generally nylon wrapped in silver plated copper), which exert much less tension on the guitar than steel strings. These nylon strings produce a softer, warmer sound. While steel-string guitars are built for strumming, nylon-string are more likely to be plucked with the fingers than aggressively picked or strummed.

To hear what a nylon string guitar sounds like in several settings, first listen to Só Danço Samba from Getz/Gilberto and imagine what that would have sounded like using a steel string guitar. To hear the nylon string guitar used in a "classical" setting, listen to Christopher Parkening playing Leyenda. And to hear the nylon string guitar in a rock music context, listen to the intro on Rod Stewart's Maggie May.

03
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The 12-String Guitar

12-String Guitar
12-String Guitar.

Although 12-string guitars do indeed include 12 strings, they are arranged in six groups of two on the fretboard. When fretting a 12-string guitar, one finger holds down the two closely aligned strings at once. The result of this is that, although it feels a little different under your fingers, all notes and chord shapes are the same on both 6 and 12-string guitars. The low three sets of strings on a 12-string guitar are tuned in octaves - EE AA and DD - with the higher octave first. The top three sets of strings are tuned in unison - GG BB EE.

Because of the doubled strings, playing the 12-string guitar sounds similar to two guitars being played. If you've heard a "chorus" effect on a guitar before, this is the sound you should expect from a 12-string guitar. All those extra strings make bending notes on the 12-string guitar extremely difficult. In general, guitarists have a harder time moving around quickly on 12-string guitars.

To get a better idea of what the 12-string guitar sounds like, look to the music of The Byrds. Listen to the lead guitar part of Turn, Turn, Turn to hear an electric 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. To hear an acoustic 12-string guitar, try listening to Neil Young playing "Four Strong Winds".