Banjo History

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.

Gourd Banjos

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

Plantation folk art circa 1790 showing a banjo player

The 5th String

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

The Banjo Player 1856

Banjo Light and Heater

 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.