Creek Don't Rise

European pre-war 6-string jazz banjo questions
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Author:  paulrace [ Wed Oct 26, 2016 8:21 pm ]
Post subject:  European pre-war 6-string jazz banjo questions

A reader writes:

Trying to solve a mystery. A French friend, Philippe, an accomplished musician, recently inherited from his grandfather, another professional, a 6 string guitar-banjo with a slot head, pearl headstock and entire pearl fretboard. May be a one-off. Built in Europe, perhaps Germany, between 1900-1925. Have a photo if you'd like to see it. Just drop me a mail. Thinking you might be as intrigued as I am. Thanks & Best, Jeb


Thanks for getting in touch. Do all six strings cross the nut, or does the sixth string tunnel under and come out at the fifth fret like the high G string on a 5-string?

The reason I ask is that six-string Zither banjos had a drone string like 5-string banjos but also an extra "bass" string. The tuner for the drone string was on the head, not on the side of the neck, but the string didn't cross the nut - it down a tunnel and came out at the fifth fret. Six-string zither banjos weren't all that common, but they were more common in Europe than in the US.

Six-string banjos where all the strings crossed the nut (and the 6th string was a bass string) were more common in the US than in Europe. They tended to be used for Jazz or in "Banjo Orchestras" where many unusual banjo styles were used. Very few of those have survived, either. So whichever your friend has, it's a rarity.

I don't know if I can tell you anything more by seeing photos, but I'd love to see them. Maybe if I post them, someone else will have more information than I do.

If you forward me e-mil address to Philippe, and tell him to send them as attachments, that would be great.
Also if he could tell me the diameter of the head, that would be helpful, too.

Do we know what kind of music Philippe's grandfather played?

Have a great week!

Paul Race

Author:  paulrace [ Wed Oct 26, 2016 8:26 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: European pre-war 6-string jazz banjo questions

The reader replied:

Hi Paul, thanks for your quick reply.
I asked Philippe about the tunnel chord passage, not there, so it looks like it isn't a zither type.
Attaching two photos.
First of the banjo itself.
Second of the Nowak Family Band. Looks like Polish origin, played polka(?) music in Germany. The banjo in the photo is clearly not the one Philippe inherited. His grandfather is the accordion player.
Interesting mystery, right?
philppes six string banjo.jpg
philppes six string banjo.jpg [ 54.57 KiB | Viewed 19642 times ]

Nowak Family Band.jpg
Nowak Family Band.jpg [ 54.83 KiB | Viewed 19641 times ]

Thanks for the photos. BOTH banjos are European construction. The one in Philippe's possession now is a later, more advanced design, not far different from Deering's "Boston" line of banjos - of which Keith Urban plays the 6-string. It also seems to have a tone ring, plus the mother of pearl indicates that it was probably a more expensive instrument. In addition, mother-of-pearl on the fretboard is almost always an indicator that the banjo was made specifically for jazz.

The one in the photo of the jazz band is made the same way early 1900s zither banjos were, with all the clamps over the rim of the resonator. As far as I can tell the vast majority of this sort of banjo that has survived were 5-strings, but it's nice to see a 6-string example.

Most Americans would see the accordion and violin and wonder how this could possibly be in a Jazz band. But both instruments were ubiquitous in all kinds of German popular music in those days. What "cinches" it is the unfortunately racist logo on the drum head. Such graphics were a sort of "code" for Jazz in Germany in those days. If you want to know more about that side of prewar German culture, check out the movie "Swing Kids."

Thanks for sharing the photos and I hope Philippe's banjo is being put to good use. :-)


Author:  paulrace [ Wed Oct 26, 2016 10:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: European pre-war 6-string jazz banjo questions

Also, notice that the fret markers are at the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 10th, and 12 frets, the same as the markers on 4- and 5-strings. Guitar makers making 6-strings usually put them on frets 3, 5, 7, 9, and 12. Some modern 6-string makers who DON'T make guitars do that, too, as a convenience for people coming over from guitar. But a prewar banjo with markers at 3, 5, 7, 10, and 12 indicates that it was made by someone who understood banjos in general.

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