THE ENGLISH ZITHER-BANJO
America's first homegrown "pop" music craze, hit the world stage in the 1840s, the banjo was thrust
into the international spotlight. The 5-string banjo and its music took Western Europe by storm,
much like a yet another European American take on African American vernacular music would in the 1960s--
rock 'n' roll played on the electric guitar.
But it was in England and the British Isles that
the instrument made its biggest splash. In no time, the plunk of the banjo was heard in both
low-brow music halls and high-society parlors. In the 1880s, no less a figure than the Prince of Wales,
who would become King Edward VII played the banjo... albeit, an English-made one.
A far cry from its humble beginnings as the gourd banjar
of the West African slaves in the New World.
Early English Banjos
The banjo was introduced into England in the late 1830s by early blackface minstrels (white
musical entertainers who blacked their face in crude parody of African Americans) touring with
American circus companies. However, the instrument really took center stage in 1844 with the first tour of the Virginia Minstrels, the four piece ensemble from New York City which had launched the blackface minstrel show as a distinct genre of American popular entertainment on the stage of the Bowery
Amphitheatre a year earlier. (One of the founding members of the Virginia Minstrels was
Daniel Decatur "Old
Dan" Emmett> [1815-1904], the future composer of Dixie.)
Within a few years, Britain had adopted the banjo and
small workshops were churning out local versions of the American instrument. The first distinctly
British innovation was the 6-string banjo, developed by William Temlett, one of England's earliest banjo makers,
who had set up shop in London in 1846. This was not the banjo-guitar,
a banjo with a 6-string
guitar neck which is tuned and played like a guitar, invented by the
American banjo maker Edmund Clark in 1884. Rather, the British 6-string
five long melody strings with a short "thumb" string. Like the American
5-string, the earliest
models were fretless and played in the "stroke" style of down-picking
popularized by the minstrels.
Starting in the 1860s, major American companies like Oliver Ditson of
New York and its offspring,
Lyon & Healy of Chicago and John C. Haynes of Boston, imported and
distributed English 6-string
In the 1850s and '60s, Temlett and other makers also made 7-string
models (six melody strings and
one short thumb string).
The English zither-banjo was
actually "invented" by Brooklynite
Alfred D. Cammeyer (1862-1949), a concert banjoist, who had
switched over from the violin at the age of 14. While still a teen, A.D. approached an engineer
about creating a banjo that would be an improvement on the common fretless "tack-head" banjos of the
day. The instrument had a wood resonator (actually, fellow New Yorker George Teed had beat
him to the punch on that score in 1862) and metal "wire" strings (the 1st and 2nd melody
strings and 5th "thumb"
string; the 3rd melody string was gut and the 4th was silk covered) as well as frets and guitar-style tuning
machines (again, both of these features were found in several earlier banjo designs including George
Teed's patent of 1862).
And what about the "zither" in the term "zither-banjo?" Well, the story goes that young Cammeyer had
arranged a solo piece for his new instrument that he had heard played on the
also known as the Alpine zither. He was booked to debut it in a two-night concert
engagement with a big name orchestra at a fashionable summer resort in Long Branch, NJ. The first
concert was a success but on the second night his banjo head exploded right in the middle of his
solo. As A.D. later recounted: The conductor tapped his music stand and stopped the orchestra. He
looked down at me with a wry smile and with a wave of his hand indicated me to leave the stage. I
moved to the front and quietly crept away, exposing my damaged instrument to the audience which
created a wave of laughter which drowned any applause. As I reached the exit I muttered to myself,
"And that's the zither banjo!" I clung to the name of 'zither-banjo' and used it from that day.
(Interesting to note that, unbeknownst to Cammeyer, English banjo maker William Temlett was already
manufacturing a 7-string closed-back banjo, which he had patented in 1869, marketed as a
"zither-banjo." Ironically enough, Temlett was later subcontracted to make Cammeyer-style
zither-banjos for A.D.'s first British company, Essex & Cammeyer.)
Following up on the suggestion of British opera diva Adelina Patti that audiences back home would
"take kindly" to his zither-banjo, Cammeyer went to London in 1888. It wasn't long before he was
performing for the "cream of London society." Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame)
advised A.D. to compose more of his own solos for the zither-banjo. Cammeyer did and that really
helped "sell" the instrument to the British public.
In 1893, A.D. entered into a partnership with Clifford Essex to produce zither-banjos as well as
standard banjos. Originally the instruments sold under the "Essex & Cammeyer" brand name were made
by other British banjo makers such as Temlett, Weaver, Wilmshurst and Windsor. However, three years
later, Essex & Cammeyer set up their own London workshop to manufacture instruments and continued to
do so until the partnership dissolved in 1900. A.D. took over the company's
workshop and continued to make mostly zither-banjos under his own name until he retired in 1939.
The curious thing about most 5-string zither-banjos is that they had six tuning pegs. The main
reason for this was that many manufacturers found it more economical to use "3-on-a-plate" guitar
tuning machines. However some makers did make their custom tuners with one side "3-on-a-plate" and
the other "2-on-a-plate." Also, there were 6-string zither-banjos (5 melody strings and 1 short
"thumb" string) and 7-string versions.
Today, the zither-banjo is enjoying a revival of interest in Britain.
For more info, check out the website:
The Art & Times of the Zither-Banjo
-- Shlomo Pestcoe
Click here to return to the CreekDontRise.com What is a Zither Banjo?" article.
- An English 7-string banjo. Cabinet card. Holyhead, Wales, c.1895 (Collection of Shlomo
- An English 5-string zither-banjo. Cabinet card. Brondesbury, N.W., London, England,
c.1895 (Collection of Shlomo Pestcoe)
- British actress
Nancy Price (1880-1970) playing a 5-string zither-banjo. Real
photo postcard. London,
England, 1902 (Collection of Shlomo Pestcoe)