Who Really Knows?

One of the reasons I took up blog writing was to learn more about the banjo. The most important thing I have learned in the last few years is this: The more I learn, the less I realize I know! I have on occasion been guilty of trying to sound like an expert, but the truth is I speculate a lot, in a vain and not always successful effort to put 2 and 2 together, and to generate conversation.

The feedback and commentary I get is how I learn, and while I never like doing it, I am certainly willing to eat crow when necessary. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; one should never be afraid to voice their opinion. At the same time, one should always be skeptical and question authoritative information, and take “fact” with a grain of salt.

Always remember, never deal in absolutes!”

Ron Hinkle

You would think that there would be plenty of historical information on our instrument—being fairly recent history—but there are an awful lot of holes in the plot. The most vexing factual vacuum regards the four-string banjo’s “origin” story. For example, I have heard “experts” insist that the plectrum banjo was “invented” in 1922, but I have in my possession sheet music from 1913 that specifies finger or “plectrum-style.” The first players simply disabled their drone string (which really wasn’t used a lot in the Classic style music of the period), and played the banjo with a plectrum (aka single pick); the original Grimshaw method book even showed how to do this.

So, is a five-string banjo—played plectrum-style—a “plectrum banjo?” I used to be a bit of a purist in this regard, and saw the use of a five-string for four-string playing as a matter of ignorance (as in not knowing there is a difference). This attitude came from my career in the Army Band system, where most bands truly don’t know the difference, and buy a cheap five-string (and tune it guitar) for use in their Dixieland combo. One infamous example of this is when a band had a left-handed guitar player, and had a left-handed five-string banjo (fifth-string peg on the wrong side) made for him on which to play Dixieland (truly “the blind leading the blind”)! To add insult to injury, he got kicked out of the Army before it could even be used. You can bet the bands I was in got set straight, and bought real, quality four-strings for my use! Of course, there are a few excellent players today (who certainly do know the difference!) who play both styles in the course of one performance; for them, having one instrument that does both makes a lot of sense.

The upshot of this is, nobody really knows when the first actual four-string plectrum banjo was manufactured; there have always been custom instrument makers (or simply small-scale manufacturers), who could have easily made or modified one-off banjos for paying customers. I would speculate (there I go again!) that the early 20s was when demand for the four-string became high enough to warrant their dedicated mass manufacture (always follow the money!), thereby “making it official.” Only one thing about this can be argued to be fact: In the formal Classic world at least, the plectrum banjo evolved from the five-string banjo, well before the Jazz Age!

The tenor banjo’s origin story is even more hazy (apparently, the tenor and plectrum did not evolve as a pair). Again, in the formal Classic world, it was meant to attract trained mandolin and violin players; for them, it would be an easy transition to an entirely new sound. There is also speculation (someone else’s, not mine!) that: #1, it was meant to be used for Tango music (the so-called “tango banjo”—“tango” then being changed to “tenor” when it didn’t catch on with the tango crowd), and/or #2, that it evolved from the banjeaurine, basically a short-necked five-string banjo. This at least would mate up well with the plectrum banjo’s evolution, but. . .who really knows?

While it is a source of frustration, “not knowing” is a great motivator to keep searching—and for floating half-baked theories out into the banjo community, just to see what comes back. It is simply a part of the fascination of the banjo, and of the hold it has on my heart and soul!   

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