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FAQ Page 4:  About the development of the banjo

Questions Covered On This Page:
What's the origin & history of the banjo?
What are the "Banjo Ages"?

What's the origin & history of the banjo?
The banjo seems to derive from instruments originally made in West Africa.  It appears that it travelled across the Atlantic in the 17th century.  Banjos made from pieces of large gourds with skin stretched over them are reported in the West Indies as early as the late 17th century.  The skin heads appear to permanently tensioned (fixed with nails or tacks - hence "tackhead").  The necks are fretless and the strings appear to be twisted gut or horsehair.  The short, high pitched, drone string on the bass side of the instrument seems to be a feature of even the earliest instruments.  Other materials (particularly wood of various types) seem to have been used for the bodies at quite an early stage - presumably depending on what was available in places where appropriate gourds didn't grow naturally.  Banjos of this type are sometimes referred to as "plantation" banjos and they are very variable in style and construction.

Banjos continued to be made in this way until the advent of the minstrel era around the 1830's.  The requirement for more durable performance instruments gave rise to craftsman made banjos.  An extra bass string (the present fourth string) seems to have appeared about this time.  The requirement for more reliable skin tensioning led to the abandonment of fixed (tackhead) skins and the adoption of various methods for tightening or loosening the skin.  Some experiments were made with fretted banjos in this period but, in general, the banjo remained fretless.

The growing industrialisation after the American Civil War led to the creation of banjo factories and the banjo as we know it today.  Between 1865 and 1890, the banjo evolved into a very stable fretted instrument with elaborate mechanisms for tensioning the head.  Apart from the addition of synthetic heads and planetary tuners, most modern open back 5-string banjos would be entirely familiar to a banjoist of 1890.

After 1900, the banjo began to develop serious variants - the 7 and 9 string banjos of the late 19th century being relatively little different from the commoner 5-strings.  Mandolin, ukulele, plectrum, guitar and tenor banjos proliferated and almost every conceivable device was tried out to improve tone, volume or playability.  The sheer diversity of banjo making between 1919 and 1939 makes any attempt at a short summary futile - in general, almost all the possible ways of making a banjo got tried out during that period.  These days, when I hear of a "new development" in banjo making, I can almost always find something very similar from the inter-war years!

With the advent of electric guitars and changing fashions in music, banjos went into a relative decline though there has been a considerable increase in interest over the last few years.

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What are the "Banjo Ages"?

In very broad general terms:-

up to about 1830:  "plantation banjos"  - all hand made, fretless instruments with fixed skins showing considerable variations

about 1830 - 1865:  "minstrel banjos"  - mostly craftsman made, fretless instruments some with tensionable skins and some standardisation beginning to appear

about 1865 - 1900:  "classical banjos"  - craftsman making begins to give way to factory construction (though it never disappeared entirely), frets & tensionable heads become general and banjos are largely much more elaborate

about 1900 - 1940:  "the banjo age"  - banjos are made in increasingly large numbers and many new variants appear. Banjos generally get much heavier and louder and the older types of 5-string banjo fall into a relative decline. Extremely elaborate banjos are fairly common and large factories produce very wide ranges of models. Craftsman banjo making survives in a fairly small way.

about 1940 onwards:  "the post-war era"  - banjos go into a general decline with only "bluegrass" banjo showing any real growth in terms of numbers produced (the bluegrass banjo itself is a curious hybrid - it is fundamentally a very heavy jazz banjo fitted with a 5-string neck.  Original examples from the 1930's are very rare!!).  For the rest, the banjo retreats to "niche" music - traditional jazz, folk and Irish music.  The numbers of banjos made are very much reduced and large factories almost disappear.  The craftsman banjo makers resurface (though they never entirely disappeared) and the majority of high quality instruments are made in relatively small establishments.  The only remaining mainstream factory production is in the Far East where quality standards fall far below the norms established by pre-war makers.  Many well established brands disappear or are used on mass produced factory items bearing little resemblance to the original instruments - though the tide may be beginning to turn with the resumption of the manufacture of Vega banjos by Deering in California.

This is very "broad brush" summary and the dates must be taken as very approximate.  Most changes took a number of years to become general practice - for instance, fretted banjos began to appear in the 1850's but most manufacturers were still offering a fretless style of banjo as late as 1890.  Other changes were more rapid - for instance, the advent of resonators in the early 1920's - but not necessarily all encompassing.  Open back banjos continued to be made on a regular basis all through the "banjo era" and didn't disappear from most maker's catalogues until the 1950's.

All the above represents my view of the progress of the banjo and it is accepted that some of these points could be open to other interpretations.

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