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A New Golden Era

The banjo. What a glorious instrument.

The five-string banjo is an American invention. It has roots in a gourd-bodied instrument that slaves brought from Africa and then became mega-popular during the 1800s, when the black-face minstrel shows exploded like Rock and Roll did in the 1950s.

After the Civil War, banjos became a hot business item for manufacturers in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago -- heck, even Cleveland had a banjo company headquartered there. From about 1880 until the Great Depression, innovations abounded in banjos from builders like the Dobson brothers, S.S. Stewart, Fairbanks, Bacon, Cole, Buckbee, Lyon & Healy and many more.

(For an in-depth history of the banjo, check out America's Instrument by Philip Gura and James Bollman. See Bill's Banjos and Mugwumps for some photos of these vintage gems.)

Banjos made during late 19th and early 20th centuries are highly sought after. Talk to any bluegrass banjo player and you'll likely hear them mention a "pre-war Gibson Mastertone" with a certain reverence. Old-Time banjo pickers often lust after Fairbanks White Laydies or Vega Tubaphones from the early 1900s. And these desires are well-merited, as these banjos were made during what might be termed a Golden Era for the instrument.

By in large, all those old manufacturers are gone. Their shadows appear in the models of current manufacturers that have bought the rights to a name, but have not duplicated the same quality as the originals.

However, if you look around today, you will find that building banjos has become a kind of cottage industry, with small boutique makers who are producing banjos that rival the vintage instruments made between the Civil War and World War II.

As this blog progresses, I will introduce some of the big names among the small builders. My primary focus will be on open-back banjos, as those are the banjos I'm interested in playing. We'll explore names like Jason Romero, Brooks Masten, Bart Reiter, Mike Ramsey, Doug Unger, JR Burns, and as many more as I can think of down the line. If you have a banjo builder you'd like me to write about, please make a suggestion in the comments.


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