Thumbnail History of the Banjo

By Bill Reese

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Banjos belong to a family of instruments that is 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".

The first mention of 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. The best known is probably that of Thomas Jefferson in 1781: "The instrument proper to the [slaves] is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."


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 two 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.


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 the gold diggers.


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 banjoists was perhaps Samuel Sweeney, the younger brother of Joel Sweeney, who was an orderly of Jeb Stuart, the famed Confederate cavalry officer. 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, louder. 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, most of the instruments were actually made by the Buckbee Company of Boston, which was active until 1897, when it was sold to Rettberg & Lange in New York. George C. Dobson, the son of H. C. Dobson continued to be active in the development, and performed on the banjo 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 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, where he regularly expounded his "philosophy" on banjo playing. It was Stewart who spread the story that Joel Sweeney had "invented" the banjo by adding the fifth string.

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 made. After Fairbank's departure, the company continued the production of fine instruments under Day until 1904, when it was purchased by Vega to produce the Vega-Fairbanks Co. The famous Whyte Laydie was first produced by Day in 1901, based on the Fairbanks model called The Electric. Vega introduced the Tubaphone in 1909. Vega finally sold out to the Martin Guitar Co. in 1970.

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.

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from: Phillip Mann's Banjo Tab Collection and Bluegrass Information Site