Jeez, no one knows. The versions most similar to modern banjos, with pegged tuning and fingerboards, turned up in the 17th century. Before that, though, nearly every culture known had some sort of resonating instrument that could have been the father of the banjo.
Since this a rock and roll post, your “when” question might be “when did white people steal the banjo from black people?” We know this one: sometime in the 1830’s. And we know who!
Joel Walker Sweeney, who at least had the courtesy of wearing blackface when he played it onstage, unlike Bill Haley.
What and How?
The modern-day banjo is made with a resonator, or “pot”, with a tightly-stretched drum-like head over a wooden circular frame(for those doubting the place of the banjo in rock, please note that a banjo is a guitar with a drum on it, and the drum is named “pot”. We’re good now, right?). Banjos have either four or five strings; the fifth string starts near the bottom of the banjo and is used mainly for playing “drones”, which are unmanned and armed filler notes that make hillbilly Tea Partiers weigh their patriotism against their love of hoe-downs.
The banjo is articulated in two distinct ways; either strummed, which is typical of old-time music, or finger picked, which is typical of Bluegrass music.
[A 70,000-word sub-essay about the difference between old-time music and Bluegrass goes here]
There at least three reasons why.
1. The Steve Martin Initiative
If you feel the need to describe something other than rock-and-roll music as “rock and roll”, the stand-up comedy of Steve Martin is a good noun qualifier. If the idea of Martin’s comedy, continuing to remove all comfortable and recognizable conceits of humor and forcing the audience to find a place to laugh just for a tension release, isn’t “rock and roll” enough for you then consider the mere scope of his comedy tours in the Seventies; sold out arenas, cocaine jokes and actual cocaine, and hype that got so big that Martin, no longer able to control it or turn it on its head, quit touring.
Steve Martin used the banjo as a non-sequiter, but he wasn’t just joking with it; he was and still is a great banjo player, and his love of the instrument is sincere. Much like Andy Kaufman having to nail his Elvis impersonation for the joke to be funny, Martin’s banjo wouldn’t seem out-of-place enough to be successful if he was up there just half-assing it. He was not. Listen to him play an old-time tune, which is way different than a bluegrass style and oh god I’ll shut up.
[note: I am not justifying the use of “rockstar” as a predicate nominative here. Fuck that.]
2. The Mastodon Incident
3. The James Taylor Quandary
Let’s do a quick test to see if we associate drugs and rock music!
Who is more rockin’?
A. James Taylor, who’s duet with Carly Simon on “Mockingbird” made your ears wither into dried apricots, made mealworms pour from the speakers of your stereo, and made you question the divination of Christ.
B. James Taylor, a heroin addict that played banjo for Neil Young.
Honestly, you could have replaced “banjo” with “oboe”(coming soon!) and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Whether you’re doing a rail of choice Bolivian or fucking Ned Beatty in his piggy-white ass, why not rock out with the banjo this week? The Pirate George Letters approves!
Neil Young: Old Man[WARNING: CONTAINS SIX-STRING BANJO]