SHLOMO PESTCOE שלמה פּסטקאָ
Please note: This is not a commercial site. I do not sell or appraise musical instruments. Please do not contact me to request that I identify and provide background information on a specific instrument in your possession and/or evaluate its worth. That's a job for an accredited professional appraiser, which I'm not. That said, I'll be glad to answer questions and discuss any subject I present here, so long as that one proviso is respected.
THE ENGLISH ZITHER-BANJO
When minstrelsy, 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 banjo had 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 banjos. 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 concert zither, 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
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Copyright © 2005 Shlomo Pestcoe. All rights reserved.
Last modified: 02/01/09