Classic Banjo

Musical Instruments

The classic banjo era saw not only a change in banjo music but also a change in the instrument itself. The more rudimentary, lightweight instruments associated with minstrelsy gave way to heavier, sturdier banjos which could accommodate higher tunings, providing greater volume and brighter tone. Ornamentation became a focal point and some instruments were created more as presentation pieces than instruments to be played. Inlays of mother-of-pearl and exotic woods were common, as were elaborately carved necks and engraved metal components. In England, some manufacturers began adding extra strings; it was not uncommon to see banjos with six or seven strings.

S.S.Stewart banjo

The most important development was the addition of frets to the banjo fingerboard. Up until the mid-1870s, banjo necks were fretless. The first frets were actually flush strips of wood laid perpendicularly to the strings, making it easier for the banjoist to accurately play past the fifth fret, greatly expanding the musical potential of the instrument. Raised metal frets came into use about 1880, which made for even more accurate noting while increasing the volume of the banjo. Volume became an especially important issue as the banjo entered the concert hall.

Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia became important banjo manufacturing centers. Names such as Fairbanks, Cole, Vega, Stewart, Bacon and Orpheum dominated the industry. These manufacturers, and many others, (see the Mugwumps.com site) fought for the market by offering banjos with elaborate tone enhancers, some of which actually improved the sound of the banjo.

S.S.Stewart banjeaurine banjo

A good example is the tone ring, which was placed on the top of the wooden banjo rim, allowing the head, which was stretched over the tone ring, to vibrate more freely than when it was just mounted over the rim itself, thus greatly increasing the volume. Tone rings usually had round or square profiles, were made of brass or other metal, and were sometimes raised slightly above the banjo rim by an additional ring of metal. Probably the most famous tone ring-equipped banjos were those made by the Fairbanks Company of Boston. The Fairbanks Electric and Whyte-Laydie were extremely popular models in their day and are now highly prized by modern banjo players.

Other improvements to the banjo did not catch on so readily with the public. American banjoist and instrument maker Alfred A. Farland (1864-1954) offered a harp attachment for his banjos, which supposedly created a tone similar to a piano or harp. Many Farland banjos came equipped with an enameled steel head, instead of the customary skin head (sometimes called the vellum). Skin heads are easily affected by weather changes, and require frequent adjustment to keep the instrument's tone from becoming too dull or too thin and sharp. Farland's metal-headed banjos were touted to be not only immune to weather changes, but also to increase the volume and clarity of the instrument-- an important consideration when playing in a large concert hall.

S.S.Stewart piccolo banjo

Entirely new kinds of banjos were developed in the late 19th century. One of the most important of these banjo hybrids was the banjeaurine, invented by Samuel Swain Stewart around 1885. The banjeaurine had a rim which was about the same size as a regular banjo (10 1/2"-11 1/2") but it had a shorter neck and was tuned a fourth higher. In the orchestral setting it took most of the leads, like the violin in traditional orchestras. Other instruments developed during this time include the piccolo banjo, banjo mandolin, cello banjo and even the contra-bass banjo, a rarely used behemoth that stood over five feet tall. Banjo orchestras of the time mixed these instruments with guitars and mandolins to achieve a unique and popular sound.

Another important part of classic-banjo development was the zither banjo. This instrument was invented in approximately 1888 by an American composer and performer, Alfred D. Cammeyer. His zither banjo had a relatively small rim-- usually eight to nine inches in diameter, as opposed to the eleven- or twelve-inch rims of regular banjos. This rim was set into a deep resonator and the instrument was strung with steel on the first, second and fifth strings, and gut on the third and fourth. This set-up provided a more sustained, ringing tone than the regular open-back banjo. Both Cammeyer and the zither banjo attained tremendous popularity in England, and Cammeyer's own banjo company made the finest zither banjos. However, the instrument never really caught on in America. Go to the Zither Banjo Web Site for more information.

S.S.Stewart cello banjo

For the most part, today's classic banjoists still play music on original instruments, some more than 100 years old. As with their musical ancestors, they do not use finger picks of any kind, nor do they use steel strings on their instruments, the exception being zither banjoists. Rather, they play with bare fingers or fingernails on nylon strings, which have replaced the gut strings originally used long ago. Most players use instruments with plastic heads, rather than tempermental skin heads.

Banjos manufactured in the classic era were designed for finger-style playing, primarily by white urban banjoists. A great irony today is that these banjos are the most revered and sought-after instruments of clawhammer players, who play in a manner not unlike the old stroke style of the minstrels-- exactly what the promoters of finger-style banjo were trying to rise above!