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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 a Zither Banjo?

Written by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise™

This is a question I asked myself after a reader in the UK wrote me about one he owned. I had seen pictures of these and assumed they were "one-offs" or customs jobs because they are so rare in the US. Turns out they were once quite popular in Britain.

Click to see the German Zither whose sound the 'zither banjo' attempted to imitate.In the mid-to-late 1800s, a German stringed instrument called the "Concert Zither" became popular in certain kinds of music. The zithers of that era had both fretted and "drone" strings. They were played in the lap like modern-day Appalacian Dulcimer. They also had a sweet, subtle tone, similar to today's autoharps. In 1869, English banjo manufacturer William Temlett patented a 7-string banjo that was supposed to emulate that sound. He called it a "zither-banjo."

W. Temlett/H.R.Kranz 5-string zither banjo.One of Temlett's upgrades was a device that was intended to reflect the sound from the back of the banjo head out toward the audience. Previously, nearly all all banjos were "backless," which allowed the vibrations from the inside of the head to be deadened against the player's clothing. That was fine if you were using strumming styles that tended to be quite loud. But if you were going to fingerpick the banjo to imitate the zither sound, the banjo would need to be louder.

Temlett's zither-banjo had what we now call a "resonator." It is shaped like a shallow bowl a couple inches wider than the head of the banjo. This allowed the sound from the back of the banjo's head to come out the front of the instrument. The resonator increased the volume and sustain of the instrument and made fingerpicking it in a concert setting viable.

(An American, C.E. Dobson patented a resonator banjo in the U.S. in 1878. My guess is that they appeared in North America earlier, though.)

About 1877, an New York banjo-player - Alfred D. Cammeyer - apparently modified his banjo with a resonator, frets, upgraded tuners, and silk-wound strings, then attempted to play a zither solo for an orchestral performance. According to Cammeyer, after the banjo's head exploded in the middle of the second performance, he told the audience that it was a "zither-banjo," possibly introducing the term to American audiences. Despite that disaster, folks liked the sound he was getting out of the thing and he began finding more places to play.

Apparently, the main playing style difference he incorporated was a way of stroking the strings with the fingernails that produced a much mellower sound than most banjo playing of the day. Later, Cammeyer went to England with the thing and promoted it there. It "caught on," and Cammeyer promoted the "zither-banjo" relentlessly the rest of his life. He scored any number of arrangements for the thing, and contracted with W. Temlett to produce them under a joint contract. Later, he broke ties with Temlett's company and produced them under his own name. .

Zither-Banjo Construction

As far as I can determine (please contact us if you have any documentation to the contrary), most of the construction differences between zither-banjos and other kinds relate more to the way Temlett interpreted the banjo's design than anything else. Already equipped to produce guitar necks, Temlett kept the slotted heads that were designed to hold six tuners (although only five were usually needed).

Tunneling the drone string. Click for bigger photo.Tunneling the Drone String

The most obvious distinction from American 5-strings is a result of Temlett's decision to leave the tuner for the fifth - drone - string on the head with the rest of the tuners. (On American banjos, the fifth string starts five frets down the neck, and has a tuning peg or tuner that stick out of the side of the neck.) The English banjo manufacturers apparently reasond that since the first and fifth string were actually the same gauge, it wouldn't hurt the fifth string to go all the way up to the head as the first string did. But how would you keep from strumming or fretting it all the time, like any of the other strings? Put a little tunnel between the head and the fifth fret and run the string through the tunnel.

Tuning Pegs

At first glance, many zither-banjos look like six-string banjos with resonators and slotted heads. Some have all six pegs, although only five are used. The strings are tuned similarly to American five string banjos. If you're holding the banjo in right-handed playing position, the string farthest from your chin is the first string, usually tuned to D above middle C. The second string is usually tuned to the B below middle C. The third string is usually tuned to G below that, and the fourth string is usually tuned to the D below that. The fifth string - the drone string, the one closest to your chin - is tuned so that it plays G above middle C at the fifth fret. In fact the tension on this string is almost exactly the same as the first string, which also plays G above middle C at the fifth fret.

In addition to Temlett's original 7-string version, which didn't exactly catch on, a number of manufacturers experimented with putting six strings on the thing. The first four were the same as I described above. The fifth string would be tuned a fourth or fifth below the fourth string (Low A or G). Then the SIXTH string would be the drone string; it would come down through the tunnel and pop out at the fifth fret.

When I wrote my first article about American 6-string banjos, most of which lack a drone string and are often tuned like guitars, a couple folks reported that they had this 6-string banjo configuration. Now I know that they may have come from Britain or have been based on a British design.

Most of the zither-banjos that still exist still have the original vellum (scraped calfskin) heads. Folks who collect and play them try to replace the heads with real vellum. So they tend to have a distinctive sound, even if they're played "American-style."

Staggered second fret. Sorry, I don't have a bigger picture of this.Staggered Second Fret

Occasionally you'll see a zither-banjo with the second fret split in two pieces. Apparently, when the zither-banjo's first (D) string is tuned to precise "open tuning," the E made by fretting that string on the second fret is a little sharp. So a few makers compensated for that this way. There are other ways to compensate, including a modified tuning in which the first string is a tiny bit flat when open. So this wasn't a universal adaptation, but you'll see it occasionally. (Note: as a 5-string player, I have more trouble with my third string going sharp when I fret it, something a compensated bridge can help with. But I understand the frustration of someone trying to play a banjo in tune in a semi-classical concert setting.)

Picking Style

The other thing that distinguishes zither-banjos from other 5-string banjos is the preferred picking style, which seemed initially to use the thumb and first two or three fingers (depending on the artist), but almost never used picks. Cammeyer and his disciples tended to select or imitate classical, romantic, or orchestral music for their solos, rather than mountain music or rags as American banjo players would play. You could say that Cammeyer prefigured 3-finger picking in some ways. But even if you could go back in time and hand Cammeyer a modern Bluegrass banjo, you would wonder if he was really playing the same kind of banjo you were used to playing Scruggs licks on.

Tone

One more surprise, to modern American ears, is the tone of the things. Although Cammeyer and some of his disciples used steel strings for strings 1, 2, and 5, you can't tell. The silk-wound strings on 3 and 4, the vellum drum head, and the precise way you were supposed to trim your fingernails, led to a very muted sound compared to most American banjo playing. Listening to old recordings, I was reminded of the tone I would get as a child by stretching a rubber band across a cigar box. If you could make a rubber-band banjo play in great intonation, and use something like classical picking on the thing, you'd be approaching the sound of the old recordings. If you find my description offensive or hard to believe, just keep in mind that the thing's original proponents were trying to imitate the sound of a German concert zither, which also had a mellow, but rich plunky sound.

To hear for yourself, here's a link to a page that has a description and mp3 file of Olly Oakley's interpretation of the Stars and Stripes Forever:

It's worth pointing out that Oakley picked mostly with his fingernails, achieving a brighter tone than Cammeyer produced, using the fleshy tips of his fingers and very little fingernail (he even oiled his fingernails to keep them relatively soft). So some of the recordings may sound even mellower than this one.

For More Information

A nice English fellow named Derek pointed me to this concise account: http://creekdontrise.com/acoustic/zither_banjo/shlomo/shlomos_english_zither_banjo_article.htm

A more complete resource is: http://zither-banjo.org/pages/home.htm

Buried in its pages are several very old recordings of the thing being played by "serious" zither-banjo players. Plus tabs for several of Cammeyer's compositions if you want to take a "whack" at them. (You have to download a tab reader to see the tabs). Plus Alfred D. Cammeyer's account of how he gave the thing its name in North America (eight years after Temlett called his invention by the same name in England).

Conclusion

I'm not saying to rush out and buy one. Just that they do exist and were once VERY popular in England and places like South Africa, so if you come across one of these in a music store or museum in the US, know that it's just our American banjo's "English cousin," with its own - relatively respectable - history.

Our article "What Kind of Banjo Do I Want?" describes the main kinds of banjos and what they're good for.

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!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to visit the Creek Don't Rise discussion forum. Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.


All material, illustrations, and content of this web site is copyrighted © 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006,
2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
Creek Dont' Rise(tm) is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising
program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.

Note: Creek Don't Rise (tm) is Paul Race's name for his resources supporting the history and
music of the North American Heartland as well as additional kinds of acoustic and traditional music.

For questions, comments, suggestions, trouble reports, etc. about this page or this site, please contact us.

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