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I have a four string plectrum banjo, which is essentially like a five string banjo but without the short drone string.

Why is a plectrum banjo played with a guitar pick and not fingerstyle or with a thumb pick and two finger picks like the five string banjo?

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The following historical look at the plectrum banjo is from the work of late musicologist and musician, Shlomo Pestcoe (banjo artist and banjo historian).

(The early 1900s saw the emergence of two major occurrences in American music: the advent of traditional jazz and the modern 4-string banjos-- the plectrum and the tenor.) Unlike the 5-string banjo, these new instruments were designed to be played plectrum-style with a flat-pick rather than plucked with the fingers. The plectrum banjo was born at the turn of the last century as the change in popular musical tastes forced banjo players to come up with new innovations and techniques for playing their favorite instrument. (This was especially noteworthy as the banjo became adapted as a rhythm instrument in the early traditional jazz bands of New Orleans.) Many 5-string banjo players who performed with pop dance bands switched over to the plectrum-style in order to get more volume out of their instruments and better facilitate single-line melody work and chordal "comping." As the short, thumb-plucked drone string was pretty much useless and a hindrance when it came to playing with a flat-pick, plectrum-style players simply removed the offending 5th string from their standard banjos. To capitalize on the new trend, banjo manufacturers developed a version of the standard banjo without the 5th string and marketed it as the plectrum banjo. The new banjo was tuned CGBD-- the same as the four long melody strings of the 5-string banjo in standard "C" tuning-- and its neck featured the same scale length as found on the regular 5-string banjo. This enabled 5-string banjo players to transition over to the plectrum without having to learn a whole new fingering system.

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Easy strumming was probably the market reason for the creation of the so called plectrum banjo. For strumming you don't need a pick for each finger, and because of the metal strings the most natural choice is a flat pick. And, with a flat pick you can also do soloing or combine melodic lines with selectic pluking of two or more strings (a kind of guitar style flat picking).

However the name "plectrum banjo" is deceptive as you can still apply a number of other techniques with it.

There's no written rule that says you mustn't use thumb and finger picks with a 4 string banjo, and apply some kind of finger picking technique (you would have to use patterns more similar to guitar's finger picking, than to banjo's, as you don't have the drone 5th string).

Or, for that matter, that you can't play with any pick at all, like with a folk guitar, or try a kind of clawhammer style (although without the 5th string the result will not be equivalent to true clawhammer).

Dom Flemons (of Carolina Chocolate Drops fame) has an amazing 4 string banjo mixed technique, using a single thumb pick to alternate strumming with soloing (see for example here)

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Accident of history.

The fingerpick style of banjo playing became the predominant style when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1945. Before that, the five-string banjo was played "clawhammer" style.

The "classic" period and style for the plectrum banjo was dixieland jazz from the 1920s.

I see no reason why you couldn't play a 4-string "plectrum" banjo like a five-string banjo, just without the drone string.

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    Well, the thumb work alternating between the drone string and other strings is what gives banjo finger picking ("bluegrass style") it's characteristic sound. Let's not forget the 5th string is a high pitched string (what technically is called a re-entrant tuning, as the strings are not strictly ordered high pitch to low pitch). If you remove the drone you just can't do the same style and patterns of picking. It's like if you removed the 4th string from a ukulele, it would become just a very little guitar with only 3 strings, not a 3 string ukulele. – José David May 3 '16 at 20:27
  • Well, sure. But you can still play it. – Dave Jacoby May 4 '16 at 4:53

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