The fretless banjo is a uniquely American instrument born in slavery, finding a voice on the Minstrel Stage, playing successively classical music, jazz, folk and bluegrass, across the ages the banjo stands as an important part of our cultural heritage.
Called Fretless Banjos, Gourd Banjos, Frailing Banjos, Minstrel Banjos, Civil war, Gut String, or Tack Head Banjos, these instruments were common in the American 19th Century cities, villages and frontier.
Fretless Gourd banjos have their beginnings in the mid to the late 18th Century. Before that, there existed gourd and bladder instruments far into African antiquity. The Akonting, Buchundu, Busunde, Koliko, Kokoli, Temba, Kaburu, Gurmi,Komo and Wase are all ancestral string instruments that survive in Africa to this day. From the 16th century Caribbean sugar plantations to the cotton fields of antebellum America, these gourd instruments developed into what we now call the banjo.
From the beginning, the common form of the instrument consisted of a rawhide covered gourd, a simple fretless neck and a short drone string accompanied by one or more, longer melody strings. Until the 1830’s four string banjos also existed (3 melody strings + the short treble drone), but after the 1840s the 5 string configuration became the de facto standard. At this time many professional musicians and those with the financial means, started to play on the adjustable tensioned head banjos of makers like Sweeney, but for the common folk and many of the minstrels, the tack head wooden shell banjo predominates until well after the civil war.
What began as a simple folk instrument used to create a background rhythm for story telling and relaxation in the evenings after a backbreaking day of labor for the "masters", the banjo became an increasingly precise and sophisticated musical instrument used to accompany professional performers. From simple tacked on heads the minstrel performers began using wooden shells in lieu of gourds and began to use adjustable tension rods to tighten the banjo heads.
The 1850s represented the heyday of minstrelsy, the minstrel show and the banjo. By the end of the Civil War, the banjo was generally shunned by the blacks, largely because of its association with slavery and the demeaning themes of minstrel shows. The popularity of the American Minstrel Show then helped elevate the banjo into a stylish parlor instrument of Victorian white society.
Though frets began to appear in the 1850s, they remained rare until after the "late unpleasantness". The first banjo frets were not raised, as they are now, but rather inlaid markers on the neck. By the end of the Victorian era, the banjo even did a stint in the orchestra pit performing classical symphonic music.
Plantation folk art circa 1790 showing a banjo player
Sweeney has been credited with adding the fifth string to the fretless banjo, but modern scholarship disputes this anecdotal tradition. The short drone or chanterelle has been with both the banjo and its antecedents from the very beginning. It is equally unlikely that Sweeney added the fourth bass string.
Whether Sweeney set the trend or was simply following it, we can see that after he popularized it on his banjos in the mid to late 1840s, the fifth string was a de facto standard. His other influence was the wooden shell in lieu of a gourd body. After Sweeney, almost all minstrel banjos are made with a wooden shell.
Tension Rods & Wire Strings
In the latter 19th Century there were several adaptations made to the banjo’s form. Tension rods became the most common improvement. Though tack head banjos persisted even into the steel string era, wooden shell banjo heads made the application of this drum technology a simple matter.
After 1878, mechanized wire machines came to America and for the first time made steel strings easily and economically available. Coincidentally at this same time, mechanized gut polishing machines became popular and the quality of gut went down. Unlike precision hand polishing, the early mechanical polishing machines could not auto center on the diameter of the strings like they can today. This caused them to polish off highs and lows in an absolute manner that often weakened the strings and caused them to break. By the turn of the century, steel strings were the new emerging preference. They were louder, cheaper and more durable.
With the advent of steel strings, mechanical tuners were almost a necessity and became a common sight on banjos. Mechanical tuners were available on guitars from the 1820s, but with the exception of Ashborn's banjos in the late 50's, did not really catch on until after the civil war. In most cases, early banjos were not made by skilled luthiers, but rather plantation made by slave wood workers and later by drum makers and turners (carpenters). Geared tuners and frets are not part of their skill set or among their usual tools of the trade. It was not until after the 1870s, that the fretless banjo became less and less common and frets became the new standard.
The 4 string Tenor Banjo was the next evolution of the instrument. The twentieth century ushers in the hybridization of the banjo with other string instruments such as the ukulele and the guitar. Banjo guitars and banjo mandolins still persist, but never became as widely accepted as the traditional banjo.
One of my favorite early 20th Century innovations was the Banjo Light and Heater. Light sockets were clamped into the head with bulbs behind the skin. The warmth of the bulbs kept the head skin tight and had the bonus effect of making it glow in the dark!
The Banjo Player 1856
By the 1890s the banjo pretty much completes its metamorphosis to its present form. S.S.Stewart in Philadelphia starts mass [Modern Banjo] producing standardized banjos in a true factory environment. He made both plain and fancy models in large numbers and begins marketing them with great success to the general public.
Elaborate tone rings, resonators and sound reflectors allow the banjo to compete in volume with any orchestra instrument, but as the banjo passes through the Rag Time era, the four string tenor banjo begins to eclipse the 5 string in popularity and dominates the jazz era. The 5 string, leaving the orchestra pit, makes a retreat to rural America. There it remains until the dawn of Bluegrass music and that brings us to the present.
It is hard to imagine Bluegrass music without a 5 string banjo. Whether rock, blues, jazz or old time folk music, you can hear the sounds of the banjo as artists make use of its unique voice to color their sound palette.
Though the banjo has never regained the mass popularity it enjoyed in mid-19th Century America, it retains a faithful following in all its forms and today its voice is heard around the world.