Creek Don't Rise

What is a Zither Banjo?
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Author:  paulrace [ Tue Nov 25, 2014 1:27 pm ]
Post subject:  What is a Zither Banjo?

This is a question I asked myself after a reader in the UK wrote me about one he owned. Turns out that in the 1800s, after the banjo made it across the pond to England and got established through minstrel shows, etc., someone tried a different playing style that required a resonator to boost the volume. (At that time, almost all banjos were "backless.") The instrument caught on, but it was built and played differently than banjos in North America. A few found their way back to North America. When I've heard about individual specimens folks found in their grandpa's closet or whatever, I assumed they were "one-offs" or custom jobs. But as it turns out - duh - England had a whole industry and a number of popular musicians as a result of this instrument.

At first glance, Zither banjos look like six-string banjos with resonators and slotted heads. I'm wondering now how many of the old "six-string banjo" photos I came across when I was rehearsing six-string banjos are really Zither banjos. (I know Johnny St. Cyr played a REAL six-string banjo, so I still believe in the thing as a Jazz instrument, though.)

The English banjo manufacturers used the design of a slotted guitar head and attached six tuners, three on each side. The first four string are more-or-less the same as the first four strings of any four, five, or six string banjo, different tunings aside. But the fifth string went down into a tunnel at the nut and came out at the fifth fret. THAT's why you never see the fifth-string peg sticking out on these banjos. That said, you can tune most zither banjos like a traditional North American 5-string and play them with traditional North American picking styles if you want to.

What about the sixth tuning peg, the one I haven't accounted for yet? It was almost never used. In fact, some English banjo manufacturers tried just using two pegs on that side of the banjo head, but would-be buyers thought those banjos looked funny, so the "dummy" peg was restored.

A few manufacturers experimented with putting six strings on the thing. The first five were roughly similar to the first five strings on a guitar (barring tuning differences, of course). Then the SIXTH string would come down through the tunnel and pop out at the fifth fret.

When I wrote my first article about 6-string banjos, a couple folks reported that they had this configuration. Now I know that they may have come from Britain or have been based on a British design.

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

The other thing that distinguishes them IS the picking style, which seems most often to use the thumb and first two or three fingers (depending on the artist), but never uses picks. There also seems to be more of a focus on melodic playing, almost like, say, a European mandolin (sans pick). Sorry to be vague, but some of the nineteenth-century descriptions are a little, shall we say, ambiguous.

A nice English fellow named Derek pointed me to this concise account:

A more complete resource is:

Buried in its pages are several very old recordings of the thing being played by "serious" zither banjo players. Plus at least one explanation for how the things got their name.

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 banjo's "English cousin," with its own - relatively respectable - history.

- Paul

Author:  paulrace [ Tue Sep 15, 2015 11:03 am ]
Post subject:  Re: What is a Zither Banjo?

Just came across a cloister of "Classic banjo" players. According to some, the "Classic banjo" was played somewhat like a classical guitar, on banjos strung with gut strings. Surviving sheet music is very similar to surviving sheet music for the Zither banjo, which tended to have a smaller "pot" and was usually strung with at east two steel strings. Unlike classical guitar, "Classic banjo" pieces weren't based on classical music, per se. But they tended to be written by people who were classically trained.

Apparently, "Classic banjo" in North America filled a similar role as that filled by "Zither banjo" in Europe.

Again, according to some, one appeal of "Classic banjo" was that the sheet music and the techniques used to play it emphasized class distinctions between rich white banjo enthusiasts and everybody else. But manufacturers like S.S. Stewart and many composers seemed to think that the banjo should join the violin in the "serious musical instrument" category, and they build "serious instruments," and wrote "serious banjo music." If nothing else, they believed that banjo players should learn to read music - in fact they couldn't play the sheet music otherwise.

Thanks bunches to Hal Alert and the site for giving us a peek into this world and saving so many great resources.

Author:  paulrace [ Tue Jan 23, 2018 9:46 am ]
Post subject:  Re: What is a Zither Banjo?

A reader in Calgary, Alberta, CA writes:

I have a old zither banjo, I think it's a "Cammeyer Special". If it's not, I would like some help identifying the maker hopefully. I would like to send some pictures, but not sure how. I don't play, so maybe an approx value too.


Thanks for getting in touch. If you reply to this e-mail and add photos as an attachment, I'd love to see them. That said, there's no set value for Zither banjos - in England where they were the most popular, they went out of style and are still NOT in much demand. They don't tend to be loud enough for Bluegrass, which keeps them from having much appeal to many modern banjo players. They made a VERY brief reappearance during the Skiffle movement. (Mungo Jerry "in the SummerTime" as a late example), but did not have a huge resurgence. Sadly, Folksingers in the UK tended to consider them a non-starter, even as they bought and played more mainstream instruments.

But your banjo is a long way from home - you might find a buyer out there that would like one just for their own interest and experimentation.

Personally I'd love to have one, but I am not in the market for another banjo at this time - I have too many as it is.

Hope this helps,

Paul Race

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