Banana production in East Africa is threatened by declining yields partly caused by plant-parasitic nematodes. Attempts to ameliorate this damage are hampered by a lack of information on the characteristics of the root systems of healthy and nematode infested roots of commonly grown banana cultivars. An experiment in hydroponic culture, where healthy root systems were established, demonstrated that there were differences in number, size and distribution of primary, secondary and tertiary roots among the cultivars Nabusa, Pisang Awak and Sukali Ndizi. Field experiments carried out at three sites in Uganda showed that nematode damage on the same cultivars increased the number of primary roots and root bases, either increased or decreased root length depending on the cultivar or nematode species involved, but always decreased root length density. Root number and size are probably critical factors in determining plant tolerance to nematodes. Our findings should help plant breeding programmes, which must establish those selection criteria that are most likely to reduce the debilitating effects of nematode damage.