THUMBNAIL HISTORY OF THE BANJO
By Bill Reese
Banjos belong to a family of instruments that are very old. Drums with
strings stretched over them can be traced throughout the Far East, the
Middle East and Africa almost from the beginning. They can be played like
the banjo, bowed or plucked like a harp depending on their development.
These instruments were spread, in "modern" times, to Europe through the Arab
conquest of Spain, and the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. The banjo, as we
can begin to recognize it, was made by African slaves based on instruments
that were indigenous to their parts of Africa. These early "banjos" were
spread to the colonies of those countries engaged in the slave trade.
Scholars have found that many of these instruments have names that are
related to the modern word "banjo", such as "banjar", "banjil", "banza",
"bangoe", "bangie", "banshaw". Some historians mention the diaries of
Richard Jobson as the first record of the instrument.. While exploring the
Gambra River in Africa in 1620 he recorded an instrument "...made of a great
gourd and a neck, thereunto was fastened strings." The first mention of the
name for these instruments in the Western Hemisphere is from Martinique in a
document dated 1678. It mentions slave gatherings where an instrument called
the "banza" is used. Further mentions are fairly frequent and documented.
One such is quoted in Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians from a poem
by an Englishman in the British West Indies in 1763: "Permit thy slaves to
lead the choral dance/To the wild banshaw's melancholy sound/". The best
known is probably that of Thomas Jefferson in 1781: "The instrument proper
to them (i.e. the slaves) is the Banjar, which they brought hither from
White men began using blackface as a comic gimmick before the American
Revolution. The banjo became a prop for these entertainers, either
individually or in groups. By the early part of the 19th century, minstrelsy
became a very popular form of entertainment. Joel Walker Sweeney and his
Sweeney Minstrels were already popular by the 1830s. By 1843 the Virginia
Minstrels began to do an entire show of this blackface entertainment and
this is usually the date used to mark the beginning of the minstrel era. The
Virginia Minstrels had 2 Banjo players, Dan Emmett and Billy Whitlock, a
pupil of Sweeney. In addition Minstrel shows usually had a fiddler, a bones
player and a drum/tambourine. We know from early Banjo instruction books by
performers like Thomas Briggs, 1855, Philip Rice, 1858 and Frank Converse,
1865, that the minstrel style of playing was the "downstroke", what we call
frailing today. This style was learned from the slave performers themselves.
Briggs in Banjo Instructor of 1855 describes playing as follows: "In
playing the thumb and first finger only of the right hand are used; the 5th
string is touched by the thumb only; this string is always played open, the
other strings are touched by the thumb and first finger...The strings are
touched by the ball of the thumb and the nail of the 1st finger. The first
finger should strike the strings with the back of the nail and then slide
Frank Converse in his Banjo Without a Master describes the style of playing
as follows: "Partly close the hand, allowing the first finger to project a
little in advance of the others. Hold the fingers firm in this position.
Slightly curve the thumb. Strike the strings with the first finger (nail) and
pull with the thumb."
THE FIFTH STRING
Joel Walker Sweeney of The Sweeney Minstrels, born 1810, was often credited
with the invention of the short fifth string. Scholars know that this is not
the case. A painting entitled The Old Plantation painted between 1777 and
1800 shows a black gourd banjo player with a banjo having the fifth string
peg half-way up the neck. If Sweeney did add a fifth string to the banjo it
was probably the lowest string, or fourth string by today's reckoning. This
would parallel the development of the banjo elsewhere for example in
England, where the tendency was to add more of the long strings with seven
and ten strings being common. Sweeney was responsible for the spread of the
banjo and probably contracted with a drum maker in Baltimore, William
Boucher, to start producing banjos for public sales. These banjos are
basically drums with necks attached. A number have survived and a couple of
them are in the collections of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington.
Other makers like Jacobs of New York or Morrell who moved his shop to San
Francisco during the Gold Rush, helped to supply the growing demand for the
instrument in the mid 1840s as the minstrel shows traveled Westward to
entertain the gold diggers.
MINSTREL TO PARLOR
From the 1840s through the 1890s the Minstrel show was not the only place to
see banjo players. There are records of urban Banjo contests and tournaments
held at hotels, race tracks and bars, especially in New York to the
enthusiastic cheering and clapping of sometimes inebriated crowds. Most of
the contestants were white in the early contests but there are records of
black players taking part in the post-civil war era. During this time (c.
1857) metal strings were invented. It seems they were cheaper than the
normal professionally made gut strings and more long lasting then the
home-made fiber or gut variety. Urban bar room players, minstrel show
performers, slave performers, southern country players, all these performers
were to come together during the Civil War (1860-1864). Regiments and
Companies formed Minstrel groups and bands to entertain themselves during
lulls in battle as did sailors aboard gunboats. The most famous of the Civil
War banjoist was perhaps Samuel Sweeney, the younger brother of Joel
Sweeney, who was an orderly of Jeb Stuart. Stuart apparently liked banjo
music and when he wanted to relax he had Sweeney play for him. Sweeney also
entertained Stuart's entire regiment.
After the War soldiers carried the knowledge and appreciation of the
instrument home to almost every corner of America. During most of this time
the banjo was looked-down upon by the more well-to-do classes of the
population. Articles in the papers of the day like that in the Boston Daily
Evening Voice of 1866, classified the Banjo of the 1840s and 1850s as an
instrument in "the depth of popular degradation", an instrument fit only for
"the jig-dancing lower classes of the community..." By 1866, however, the
instrument had become a "universal favorite" with over 10,000 instruments in
use in Boston alone. The cause of this sudden popularity was the introduction
of the banjo as a parlor instrument. This is the somewhat misnamed
"classical" period of the banjo. The banjo was played in the "classical"
style which meant that it was picked with the fingers in imitation of the
popular guitar players of the day. Many outstanding performers and teachers
had banjos named after them that incorporated their own changes in the
instrument in an attempt to make the banjo more refined and above all
The Dobson Brothers and their sons were among the most active in the early
stages. Henry C. Dobson is credited with adding the first frets about 1878.
He is also credited with producing the first resonator and the first attempt
at the use of a tone ring. Though the designs were his, many of the
instruments were actually made by the Buckbee Company located on Webster Ave,
in New York City until 1897, and later on 13th St. The company was later sold
to Rettberg & Lange who went on to produce the Orpheum Banjo. Lange after
leaving Rettburg would produce one of the finest sounding Banjos of the day,
The Paramount. George C. Dobson, the son of H. C. Dobson continued to be
active in the development of the banjo and continued performing almost until
his death in 1931.
A.A. Farland (1859-1954) was another famous performer and was most outspoken
about the development of the banjo. His banjos were also produced by
Buckbee, and later by Rettberg and Lang. About 1915 he produced Farland's
Patent Banjo Head made of "annealed steel, beautifully enameled" in an
attempt to give more volume to his playing. He abhorred wire strings saying
that "... the z-z-z- given by the final vibrations of wire strings is so
offensive that I could not bear to use them." He claimed that "all but the
deaf" in an audience of 12,000 could hear his banjo when he used his new
"annealed" steel head !
Perhaps the most prolific of the banjo makers and enthusiasts of this period
was S.S. Stewart of Philadelphia who made a whole range of instruments to
fit every pocket book. He began in 1878 and produced banjos of all sizes and
models, some made especially for ladies and for children. In 1898 SS Stewart
was awarded the Sears contract and teamed up with the Mandolin maker Baur.
Stewart died the same year but his sons teamed up with Baur to continue the
Sears contract which ended in 1901. His sons continued making banjos until
1904. It is estimated that the Stewarts produced somewhere in excess of
25,000 banjos from 1878 to 1904. In addition Stewart published his own
magazine for the banjo player were he regularly expounded his "philosophy"
on banjo playing. It was Stewart who spread the story that Joel Sweeney
"invented" the banjo by adding the fifth string.( Mike Holmes, banjo
historian and editor of Mugwumps Online Magazine >http://www.mugwumps.com <
adds that it was "Louise Scruggs, in a 70's lady's magazine who perpetuated
the myth, and who most everyone has read as the "source" of this
No discussion of this period would be complete without a mention of A.C.
Fairbanks of Boston who either on his own (1870-1880) or with Cole as the
Fairbanks & Cole Co. (1880-1890), or as Fairbanks Co. again (1890-1894)
produced some of the most beautiful instruments ever produced. In 1890 he
began producing the "Electric" (having a scalloped metal truss, usually
topped with a brass rod, all set into rim), the forerunner of the Whyte
Laydie. By late 1890s the company had grade designations for the Electric and
names like "Special" "Imperial" Other cheaper, non-"Electric" models were
the "Columbian" "Regent", and "Senator". They also made an "Electric"
model banjeaurine. Metal name plates saying "Fairbanks Company" appeared
about 1895-1896. About this time Fairbanks left the firm. In 1901 David Day
joined the company and introduced the "White-Laydie" which had a bracket
band which fit around the outside of the rim eliminating the need for holes
drilled through the rim for shoe bolts. The model used the "Electric" tone
ring and unstained maple wood for both rim and neck and hence the name. It
was produced in two models; No. 2, a plain model; and the No.7, with carved
heel and elaborate inlays.
After Fairbank's departure the company continued the production of fine
instruments under David Day until 1904 when it was purchased by Vega to
produce the Vega-Fairbanks Co. . Vega introduced the Tubaphone in 1909 and
finally sold out to the Martin Guitar Co. in 1970.
After breaking with Fairbanks in 1890, William Cole started his own company
with his brothers. They began producing the "Eclipse" which consisted of a
simple tone rim sitting on small nails set into the rim. He received the
patent for his Eclipse in 1894. He was also said to have perfected the
banjo-mandolin around 1910
Some of the banjo players of the "classical" period were outstanding
banjoists and could indeed play anything . The great Armenian- American
banjo virtuoso Harry J. Chopourian was said to be able to play any violin
score at sight and performed regularly as a soloist with symphony
orchestras. But the majority of the music of the period was not really
classical and included popular airs, marches, waltzes and dances of the day.
It could be better termed parlor music.
The First World War, like the Civil War, was a watershed in the popularity of
the banjo. America entered a time of isolation and turned to "American made"
music for pleasure. Jazz entered the picture and the banjo became an integral
part of the early jazz bands. At first it was the plectrum banjo, a five
string, without the fifth string, that led the way. This gave way to the
shorter neck Tenor banjo, thought to be a corruption the word "Tango" because
it rose to popularity through the Tango dance craze that swept America.
The stock market collapse of 1929 and the world wide depression that
followed wiped out the banjo. To quote Robert Webb, "Demand for its bright
happy sound disappeared almost overnight. Professional orchestras made a
quick transition to the "arch-top" guitar, developed in the 1920s by Gibson
and others which provided a mellow and integral rhythm more in keeping with
the subdued nature of the times."
SOME IMPORTANT DATES
1620- Explorer Richard Jobson mentions "gourd with neck and strings"in
1678- "Banza" noted in Martinique as played by blacks
1769- white banjo players performed in blackface
1813-1860 Joel Walker Sweeney
1843-first documented minstrel show by Dan Emmett & Virginia Minstrels
1840s-1850s Minstrel Craze; Banjo becomes urban instrument
1830s to 1850s Boucher of Baltimore first "shop-made" banjos
1850's- metal strings invented;James Ashhorn, guitar and
banjo maker between 1851-56 made silver wound silk guitar strings at
factory in Wolcottsville, Connecticut.
1851-Stephen Foster writes "Old Folks at Home"
1855-Thomas Briggs Banjo Primer published
1858-Philip Rice's banjo method published
1859-Dan Emmett writes "Dixie"
1859- Stephen Van Hagen patents 7 string (1 short) guitar banjo with frets
1860s-1870s first closed back banjos and first top tension banjos marketed
by Dobson (i.e. Buckbee) in US & England
1865- Frank Converse Banjo primer published
1863-1897 James H. Buckbee Co., of New York largest maker.
1870-Uncle Dave Macon born in Tennessee
1878-Henry Dobson produces 5 string with frets (made by Buckbee)
1880-1890 Fairbanks and Cole of Boston.
1881-Dobson patents a tone ring
1890s-Steel strings widely available: cheaper than gut
1890-1904 Fairbanks Co.
1878-1904. SS. Stewart Co. of Philadelphia Made 25,000 banjos !
1880s- first banjos documented in "the hills"
1892-Charlie Poole born in North Carolina
1894-first patent for a banjo mute
1894-first Grover bridge patent
1898-Dock Boggs born
1901-Whyte Laydie introduced by Fairbanks
1904-1970 Vega of Boston
1907- J. B. Schall of Chicago invents Tenor Banjo or 4 string banjo tuned
like a mandolin.
1909-Vega Tubaphone introduced
1910- Tango craze reached America. Tenor, corruption of Tango Banjos;
Cole said to have perfected Mandolin-Banjo
1914-Dave Akeman "Stringbean" born.
1918- First Gibson Banjos
1921-first modern flange and resonator by William Lange & Paramount Banjos
1921- Mc Hugh of Gibson company patents adjustable truss rod for guitar and
Mando, adjustable tension rods for banjo & adjustable bridge
1923-first geared tuners patented by C. Kremp
1924-Earl Scruggs born
1925-31-Charlie Poole popular rural recording artist
1925- Gibson "Mastertone" introduced
1927-Ralph Stanley born
1929-modern banjo arm rest invented by L.A. Elkington
1929- Stock market collapse
1930-1945 5 string Banjo almost disappears. No strings available
1939 -Bill Monroe & Bluegrass Boys on Grand Ole Opry without banjo
1940s- Earl Scruggs develops his 3 finger style based on classical style
1941-Bill Monroe adds banjo to band-"Stringbean" Ackeman. 2 finger style
1940s- renewed urban interest in banjo, beginning of "folk-revival"
1943- Seeger creates ,long-neck
1945- Scruggs joins Monroe band with 3 finger style
1948-Seeger published "How to Play 5 string Banjo"
1950s-plastic heads become available
1960s when folk boom hit, Gibson and Vega were only companies to still have
banjos in their catalogues as compared to 200 makers in 1900, and only Vega
still had banjos in production.
SOME IMPORTANT GIBSON BANJOS DATES
1896- Orville Gibson (1856-1918) launches musical instrument company;
bought out in 1902
1918-First Gibson Banjos TB, 12 inch head open back
1919-1924 -LLoyd Loar (1886-1943) works at Gibson
1920- Introduced Style 2 plainer than TB
1921- Mc Hugh of Gibson company invents adjustable truss rod for guitar and
mandolin adjustable tension rods for banjo & adjustable guitar and mandolin
1922- introduced TB-1 with trap door
1923- introduced TB-3, TB-4 (used to be just TB)
1923-24 One piece pyralin resonator replaces trap door on Style 4 & 5
1924- RB (5 string) introduced only as RB-Jr., RB-3, RB-4
1925- Mastertone tone ring introduced with ball-bearing by Loar:two piece
flange with 3/4" rim.
1926 UB 1
1927 Style 6 introduced with checkered binding; Florentine & Bella Voce
1928 -springs under ball bearings by Altermatt
1929-one piece flange, with 5/8" rim on Mastertone models pot metal prone to
1930 PT-6 sparkle introduced- discontinued 1937
1930-Arch top tone ring available
1930-Kel Kroyden introduced
1931-TB-11 like Kel Kroyden
1937-flat head tone ring becomes standard on new 7, 12 & 18 top tension tone
ring models; before this it was option. also introduced low-priced
Mastertone Style 75:
SOME INTERESTING READING
Baily, Jay. "Historical Origin and Stylistic Developments of the Five
String Banjo." Journal of American Folklore v. 85, n. 335: pp. 58-65.
Baroody, Elizabeth. "Banjo: The Sound of America." Early American Life 7
n. 2 (Apr. 1976).
Bellson,Julius The Gibson Story, Kalamazoo Mi, 1973
Bollman, Jim; Kimmel, Dick: Unger, Doug, "Vega/Fairbanks Banjos" Pickin',
June 1978, pp. 28-38.
Epstein, Dena. "The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History." Ethnomusicology
Green, Douglas B., & George Gruhn, "Gibson Banjos." Bluegrass Unlimited 7
Heaton, C. P. "The 5-string Banjo in North Carolina" Southern Folklore
Quarterly, March 1971, pp 62-82.
Johnson, Robert. Stewart banjos." Relics v.5, n. 4 pp 10-12, 24 1969.
Kaufman, Elias. "S.S. Stewart banjos." Mugwumps v. 3, n.3-6, 1973.
Linn, Karen, That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular
Culture, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Marshall, Catherine. Christy. New York: Avon Books 1967.
Morgan, Tom, Gibson Banjo Information (Revised 1990), Gibson Banjo Catalog
Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy. Norman
Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962.
Post, Charles N. " The Origin and Growth of the Guitar, Mandolin and Banjo
Industry in America." Music Trades v. 26, n. 24 p.77, 1903.
Sharpe, A. P. A Complete Guide to Instruments of the Banjo Family.
London: Cliford Essex Music Co., 1966.
Smirnoff, Roger. "Gibson: The Early Years." Pickin' (June 1975).
Tallmadge, William. "The Folk Banjo and Clawhammer Performance Practice in
the Upper South: A Study of Origins." In Barry M. Buxton, ed. The
Appalachian Experience. Boone, N.C.: Appalachian Consortium Press, 1983,
Toll, Robert. Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.
Tsumura, Akira. Banjos, The Tsumura Collection. Kodansha International, New
Webb, Robert Lloyd. Ring the Banjar ! The Banjo in America from Folklore to
Factory. MIT Press, 1984. (Contains extensive bibliography)
Winans, Robert. "The Folk, the Stage, and the Five-String Banjo in the
Nineteenth Century." Journal of American Folklore 89(1976):407-37.
Wittke, Carl. Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage. Durham, N.C. :Duke University Press. 1930