With this post we´ll start a series of posts with historical information on banjos; main performers, instruments details…
The banjo was first introduced in the USA by African slave communities. It was initially a black folk instrument. Africans have played this type of instruments for ages, basically a drum attached to a neck with strings. This family of instruments is very old and their roots can be traced thoughout the Far East, Middle East or Africa. Banjo-like instruments have existed since the ancient Egypt. In fact, many of this instruments still found on those cultures have banjo related names such as banza, bangoe, banshaw…
This type of instrument is soon adopted in the early 19th century, and will live a constant evolution during the century.
African-american slaves made these banjo predecessors mostly with 4 or 3 strings. They used unfretted necks and used heads made with goat (or cat) skin.
Joel Walker Sweeney is considered the inventor of the modern banjo almost as we know it today. He added a fretted neck used on other instruments such as guitars or mandolins as well as tuners. This first banjo had 4 strings and, here comes the big step, a shorter scale fifth string attached to a tuner (tuning peg) fitted on top in the middle of the neck. This modification altered completely the way the banjo was played and also explains why the banjo is considered the first or main of America´s folk instrument.
Even though Sweeney is considered by many the inventor of the fifth string banjo, there are actually evidences of an earlier birth in the same southern plantations.
No matter who the inventor of the banjo was, the fact is that Sweeney contributed to its expansion over the United States.
What really brought the banjo to big attention of public were the Virginia Minstrels performances in New York in 1843, where banjos became main instruments in the show, not only for accompaniments. Banjo soon became indispensable on minstrel music, which influenced many other musical trends. Black faced banjo performers were common characters on these shows. As a result of this huge success of the Virginia Minstrel shows, hundreds of minstrel groups started to tour all over the United States, taking the banjo through the North, South and out to the Western frontier.
The five string banjo was very popular in the late XIX century and beginning of the XX. Yes, it was even more popular than the guitar amongst musicians. By that time of old time and classic banjo styles, used gut strings instead of steel strings. Heads were made with tight skin attached to the resonator instead of todays plastic heads.
Making banjos became a craft in cities like Baltimore (a drum head manufacturer started production when Sweeney contacted him), New York City (David Jacobs) or San Francisco (Charles Morrell).