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Play an MP3 clip of 'If the Creek Don't Rise' as arranged for banjo.

Click to go to home page.What is Classic Banjo?

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't RiseTM

A photograph of a blackface minstrel ensemble, from the University of North Carolina's NPR radio web page.  Click to see the article.Though banjo is unquestionably of West African descent, the banjo in its modern form (with a drum head, wooden "pot," and fingerboard) entered the American music mainstream as a component of a very white, very racist entertainment form - the "minstrel" show. Minstrel banjos typically had five strings, with the fifth string starting a ways down the neck, as it does on most banjos today. They did not have tone rings and seldom had resonators. Given that the most common ways to play them all involved a lot of strumming (as "frailing" and "clawhammer" banjo players do today), that's just as well - too much sustain on a banjo that is strummed can create an indistinguishable mess of sound, like shouting into a rainbarrel (or an oil drum, if you're not old enough to remember rainbarrels).

Certain players and manufacturers, though, felt that the banjo had potential as a more "serious" instrument. Plucking the gut strings like a classical guitarist produced a warm, soft sound that was ideal for the parlors of the upper class. In fact, most of S.S. Stewart's banjos were designed specifically for this use, and dozens of songs were composed specifically for this playing style.

Buckeye Banjo, which could have been used for minstrel or Classic banjo. Click for bigger photo. Frets, which had been optional earlier, became important because they contributed to better intonation. The photo to the right shows a late 1800s or early 1900s "Buckeye" banjo which likely would have been a student instrument. It could have been used as a minstrel banjo, but it has the frets and simplified headstock of most banjos that found their ways to private homes in that period.

The name attached to this style of banjo playing retroactively is "Classic banjo." Not "classical banjo." That would imply playing preexisting classical music on the banjo, as classical guitarists do when they adapt a Bach concerto. Some well-known banjo players of the late 1800s and early 1900s did this. But most of the music composed for and played by "Classic banjo" players of the late 1800s was specifically targeted toward the banjo and this style of playing.

Christchurch Ladies band, from New ZealandDuring this period, it was common for girls' schools, volunteer fire departments, and other organizations to have "banjo bands," "saxophone bands," and "mandolin orchestras." Such groups tended to play custom, pseudo-classical arrangements and have instruments, such as bass banjos and mandolins, that were seldom seen outside those ensembles and are almost never seen today. When you see photos of old banjo bands, like this photo of a "Ladies band" from Christchurch, New Zealand, keep in mind that they were not playing minstrel music, but something that would sound very nearly like classical music to modern ears. Nearly every note was plucked, not strummed. (Too much strumming would have been considered "vulgar" in such circles)

It is hard for today's 5-string players, some of whom have been involved in heated arguments over whose technique is more "authentic," to face the fact that, when the 5-string banjo was at its all-time peak of popularity, the vast majority of players were using techniques that barely anybody uses today. Yes, minstrel shows were still going strong, and they tended to use strum-heavy styles. But many - if not most - of the banjos manufactured between, say 1880 and 1915, were purchased for home use by would be "Classic banjo" players.

A typical 'Zither' banjo.  Though its slotted head looks like it is tensioning six strings, it's really only tensioning five, and the fifth, drone string actually runs down a tunnel and comes out at the fifth fret. Click for a bigger photo.How Does "Classic Banjo" compare to "Zither Banjo"? - There is some similarity in playing styles and history to "Zither banjo," which achieved prominence in western Europe about the same time "Classic banjo" was becoming popular in North America. "Zither banjo" pickers tended to use some steel strings, rather than the "gut" favored by "Classic banjo" players. Also, due to a different manufacturing history, many "zither banjos" looked different (they often had slotted heads and the fifth string "tunneled" so that it emerged at the fifth fret, rather than using a separate tuner partway down the neck). "Zither banjos" also adopted resonators earlier than most North American banjos. But, like "Classic banjo" pickers, "Zither banjo" players also used fingerpicking (sans picks) to play in styles similar to classical guitar.

I confess that, even though my default banjo picking techniques are similiar to those styles (inspired by classical guitar), I cannot sight-read the sheet music composed for either style. But when I compare the sheet music, I can't help thinking that most "Zither banjo" music would have been playable by most "Classic banjo" players, and vice versa.

The Rise of Jazz - By 1910, banjo had become America's most popular fretted instrument, edging out the mandolin, which was also wildly popular (guitar was a distant third). But America's musical tastes were changing. The rise of Ragtime demanded volume and the ability to play in many keys easily. To simplify playing Jazz chords fast, the banjo lost its drone (5th) string. To compete in volume with horns, players started strumming all four strings using flatpicks. Eventually the neck was shortened and the tuning was changed into what we now call the "Tenor Banjo. That banjo, in turn, came to rule the "Jazz Age," and even laid the foundation for jazz guitar technique.

The Survival of the 5-String - In the meantime, five-string banjos of all styles fell more-or-less out of favor. Some were stored in attics or basements where they eventually self-destructed. Some were converted to four-string banjos. In the Deep South, in Appalachia, and in other isolated regions that had never been seriously impacted by "Classic banjo," "Zither banjo," or Ragtime styles, they continued to be played, usually in strumming-heavy styles based on the old plantation and minstrel techniques.

Banjo Historians at Work - Unfortunately for "Classic banjo" history, though, the cultures where 5-string banjo remained popular were not wildly interested in the sheet-music-oriented traditions like "Classic" or "Zither" banjo. So both of those traditions were close to disappearing altogether until modern enthusiasts rediscovered them and began making their music and even some recordings available.

Resources for learning more about Classic Banjo include:


I find such histories fascinating. In part, because they show the potential of the instrument that reaches beyond the predominant playing styles being used today. In part because they put the "my way is the only truly authentic way to play the banjo" arguments into perspective. And in part, because they remind us that the 5-string banjo, far from being the province of one or two musical genres, was once the most popular fretted instrument in the United States and used for virtually every genre.

Right now, the "Classic banjo" enthusiasts are few in number, but with any luck, their influence will be felt throughout the popular music world, as it once was.'

Please get in touch.if you want to share photos of a unique instrument or ask any related questions.

Whatever road you decide to travel, I am certain that it will be made more fun with a properly chosen and set-up banjo or banjo-like instrument. :-)

- Paul Race

Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

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