A Conversation for Banjos
BuskingBob Started conversation Jan 24, 2001
I'm doing a small project on the development of folk music, and was intrigued to discover a copy of a poster advertising a minstrel band around 1860. This clearly shows a fretted banjo - although many authorities still stick to the 1880s as the time of the first frets on a banjo. However, as fretted string instrumnets had been around since the 1400s, it seems likely to me that some enterprising musicians had been experimenting with fretted banjos well before the recognized date of the 1880s.
Unfortunately, as history gets distorted, we will probably never know the full truth!
Dr. Funk Posted Mar 14, 2001
Hey there, BuskingBob.
Sorry for the delay in responding--I only checked back occasionally to see if this site had reopened, and only today found that it had.
The thing about banjos having frets in the 1860s is really intriguing. As you have already said, most folks put the frets on banjos a good deal later. I suppose this is easily rectified, though. My guess is that some enterprising guy decided, hey, why not try putting frets on banjos and see what people think? He then advertised his product, but, being too far ahead of his time, his idea didn't catch on.
It's also possible that, in the poster for the minstrel band that you saw, the banjo player, or a buddy of his, put the frets on himself. Putting frets on a banjo (or a broom handle, for that matter), isn't rocket science, after all, even if it does involve a little math, and this particular banjo player may have decided that he'd had enough of this fretless nonsense--thus going against the trend of the times.
I'm actually inclined toward the second guess. Recently I had some work done on my own banjo (which is fretless), and the guy who worked on it said that, judging from the marks left by previous work, my banjo started off fretless, then got frets put on it, then got them taken off again. Pretty crazy, eh?
At any rate, in my entry I tried to talk more about trends in banjos. Allowing for the specific variation that makes life fun and exciting, one can still say with confidence that people liked their banjos fretless until the 1880s or so, and then peple started to like them with frets. Thankfully, there will always be people who are dissatisfied with these trends: me these days, the man in your picture back then. And let's not even talk about the variations in string material.
BuskingBob Posted Apr 2, 2001
Thanks for the info. Another thing that I have discovered is that a lot of early fretted instruments had frets formed of catgut just tied around the neck. The fact that these were easily adjustable would have been necessary as in earlier times the tonic scale that we are all used to was different eg a flattened or sharpened note wasn't exactly halfway between the notes above and below - they weren' quite a full semitone.
It certainly makes sense to me that someone was more than willing to experiment - and an instrument such as a banjo would have been a prime target for trying new things.
Again, thanks - I might weave your comments into my talk, if I ever get round to doing it!
Dr. Funk Posted Apr 2, 2001
Catgut frets? Wow. That's a pretty great idea. Then you don't even need the aforementioned math--though I imagine they must have worn down pretty fast. What with the frets and the strings, you could go through a lot of cats.
As an aside--though you probably also know this already--it's astounding what kinds of things people have made banjos out of. I've seen a few pictures of guys playing banjos where the neck is a plank of wood and the body is a tin can. At a bar that I often play in, there's a banjo on the wall made from a bedpan. I don't know how either of them sound, but they can't be all that bad.
What kind of cool job do you have that allows you to give talks about instrument history?
BuskingBob Posted Apr 3, 2001
I do networks support for a university - a lot less hassle than doing it for industry! I am in the right place for volunteering for "non-work" tasks - I recently visited a folk music master class in Ireland, all sponsored by the university. One of the presenters was Mel Mercier, son of the percussionist for the Chieftains Irish band.
I am now at an age where my personal enjoyment of life comes before any career requirements!
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