Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Getting Blitzed with Tom Collins

A little more than a year ago, Salem, Massachusetts-based banjo player and teacher Tom Collins embarked on a yearlong project he called Banjo Blitz. The weekly YouTube series provided short banjo lessons on technique. Each video is about five minutes long, give or take, and presents a short pattern — or “ostinato” — designed to teach and improve a specific aspect of banjo playing.

The mission was to get the audience “to practice clawhammer in discrete chunks every day without the burden of trying to memorize tunes,” Collins says. He wanted to build skills rather than repertoire.

“Let’s take the tune off the table,” says Collins, who has been teaching banjo for 11 years. “Let’s focus on a simple, mantra-like ostinato that can train your body how to execute a technique properly, while training your ears how to hear it properly. Let’s also make it so that you can do this every day without it sucking every spare minute from your life. The big dirty secret about learning how to play an ins…

Clawhammer Picks and You: A Review

Clawhammer picks are a useful tool for increasing volume or to overcome fingernail challenges, such as broken, too short or weak nails. There are all sorts of commercial and homemade solutions available for banjo players, but it can be difficult to decide which options to choose. Thankfully, I've already done some of the work for you.
Just to be clear, I prefer my natural fingernail for frailing. However, there was a time when I experimented with regularly using a pick, and there are instances now where I find that a pick is necessary. Today, I'll take you through the five options I've tried. These are all available online at prices ranging from about $1 to $13.

Reversed/Reshaped Dunlop Pick ($0.75)
This was the most common suggestion before other companies started addressing the gap in the clawhammer pick market. Take a bluegrass pick, flatten it out and wear it backwards. The problem is that it's hard to get the fit right. While Dunlop picks are cheap and readily avai…

The Ongoing Search for Ohio's Old-Time Fiddle Repertoire

Since the beginning of my journey into old-time music, I have sought to find a connection to my home state. After studying the recorded repertoire of a dozen old-time fiddlers who spent a majority of their lives in Ohio, I have compiled a master list of more than 300 tunes. By cross-referencing this list, there were 12 tunes that I identified as “common,” based on their appearance in the repertoire of at least three fiddlers. The results of my findings follow.

This is far from a scientific method or academic study. I do not claim to be a musicologist or folklore scholar. I welcome any feedback.

Common Tunes:
Arkansas Traveler BirdieCumberland GapDurang’s HornpipeForked DeerGrey EagleJune AppleLeather BritchesMississippi SawyerRaggedy AnnTurkey in the StrawWild Horse At some point I would like to put together a list of tunes that are unique to Ohio or have a particular connection to an Ohio locale, such as Lonnie Seymour’s “Chillicothe Two-Step” or Arnold Sharp’s “Anna Hayes.” However,…