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Oh, I say! Plinky plinky plink

So I mentioned a while back that I had seen something interesting in an auction house window. It was this, the weirdest damn banjo I’d ever seen. (Actually, it was a model like the one on the right, a Wilmshurst. The one above is a Cammeyer, photo gleefully nicked from Save The Banjos).

Google revealed unto me, this is a zither banjo, a uniquely British(!) instrument. The Brits went mad for banjo at the end of the 19th Century.

Huh. Who knew?

Characteristics of the zither banjo: smaller head which fits inside a solid back, strung with some or all gut (now nylon) strings. Open peg-head, like a classical guitar. In fact, it was played and sounds rather like a classical guitar.

BUT it’s a bog-standard 5-string tuning, including the fifth drone string, so if you feel like letting rip a little Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Cripple Creek, go right on ahead.

Makers didn’t like asymmetry, so they often have six tuning pegs for the five strings. To be honest, I suspect it was because they could get three-on-a-side guitar pegs for cheaper than customized pegs.

But here’s the coolest bit. A bluegrass banjo has a fifth string that starts at the fifth fret, with a peg stuck out the side, right? Well, a zither banjo has a fifth drone string at the fifth fret, too, but it’s attached up at the peghead, feeds into a little brass tube under the fret board and pops out — poink! — just before the fifth fret. No awkward friction peg to stub your thumb on.

Huh? Huh?

Eh, I guess you have to be a banjo player.

For reasons I do not understand, they are not well liked by many banjo players. Which is good, I guess, because you can get them on the cheap (though zither banjos were such a popular instrument that they churned out a lot of crap ones). But it’s sad, as the best are beautiful instruments. The most I’ve seen one go for is around $500 (you can pay thousands for a bluegrass banjo).

Anyhoo, go have a gander at this lovely instrument, and listen to Rob McKillop tear off a few classic banjo tunes from Alfred Cammeyer, the American dude who may or may not have invented the zither banjo.


Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: June 22, 2011, 12:09 am

Huh. Who knew?

Sigh. Well, those of us who read Stalky & Co. might have guessed. . .


You couldn’t pack a Broadwood half a mile —
You mustn’t leave a fiddle in the damp —
You couldn’t raft an organ up the Nile,
And play it in an Equatorial swamp.
~I~ travel with the cooking-pots and pails —
~I’m~ sandwiched ‘tween the coffee and the pork —
And when the dusty column checks and tails,
You should hear me spur the rear-guard to a walk!
With my “~Pilly-willy-winky-winky popp!~”
[Oh, it’s any tune that comes into my head!]
So I keep ’em moving forward till they drop;
So I play ’em up to water and to bed.

In the silence of the camp before the fight,
When it’s good to make your will and say your prayer,
You can hear my ~strumpty-tumpty~ overnight
Explaining ten to one was always fair.
I’m the Prophet of the Utterly Absurd,
Of the Patently Impossible and Vain —
And when the Thing that Couldn’t has occurred,
Give me time to change my leg and go again.
With my “~Tumpa-tumpa-tumpa-tum-pa tump!~”
In the desert where the dung-fed camp-smoke curled
There was never voice before us till I led our lonely chorus,
I — the war-drum of the White Man round the world!

By the bitter road the Younger Son must tread,
Ere he win to hearth and saddle of his own, —
‘Mid the riot of the shearers at the shed,
In the silence of the herder’s hut alone —
In the twilight, on a bucket upside down,
Hear me babble what the weakest won’t confess —
I am Memory and Torment — I am Town!
I am all that ever went with evening dress!
With my “~Tunk-a tunka-tunka-tunka-tunk!~”
[So the lights — the London Lights — grow near and plain!]
So I rowel ’em afresh towards the Devil and the Flesh,
Till I bring my broken rankers home again.

In desire of many marvels over sea,
Where the new-raised tropic city sweats and roars,
I have sailed with Young Ulysses from the quay
Till the anchor rumbled down on stranger shores.
He is blooded to the open and the sky,
He is taken in a snare that shall not fail,
He shall hear me singing strongly, till he die,
Like the shouting of a backstay in a gale.
With my “~Hya! Heeya! Heeya! Hullah! Haul!~”
[O the green that thunders aft along the deck!]
Are you sick o’ towns and men? You must sign and sail again,
For it’s “Johnny Bowlegs, pack your kit and trek!”

Through the gorge that gives the stars at noon-day clear —
Up the pass that packs the scud beneath our wheel —
Round the bluff that sinks her thousand fathom sheer —
Down the valley with our guttering brakes asqueal:
Where the trestle groans and quivers in the snow,
Where the many-shedded levels loop and twine,
So I lead my reckless children from below
Till we sing the Song of Roland to the pine.
With my “~Tinka-tinka-tinka-tinka-tink!~”
[And the axe has cleared the mountain, croup and crest!]
So we ride the iron stallions down to drink,
Through the ca]~nons to the waters of the West!

And the tunes that mean so much to you alone —
Common tunes that make you choke and blow your nose,
Vulgar tunes that bring the laugh that brings the groan —
I can rip your very heartstrings out with those;
With the feasting, and the folly, and the fun —
And the lying, and the lusting, and the drink,
And the merry play that drops you, when you’re done,
To the thoughts that burn like irons if you think.
With my “~Plunka-lunka-lunka-lunka-lunk!~”
Here’s a trifle on account of pleasure past,
Ere the wit that made you win gives you eyes to see your sin
And the heavier repentance at the last!

Let the organ moan her sorrow to the roof —
I have told the naked stars the Grief of Man!
Let the trumpets snare the foeman to the proof —
I have known Defeat, and mocked it as we ran!
My bray ye may not alter nor mistake
When I stand to jeer the fatted Soul of Things,
But the Song of Lost Endeavour that I make,
Is it hidden in the twanging of the strings?
With my “~Ta-ra-rara-rara-ra-ra-rrrp!~”
[Is it naught to you that hear and pass me by?]
But the word — the word is mine, when the order moves the line
And the lean, locked ranks go roaring down to die.

Of the driven dust of speech I make a flame
And a scourge of broken withes that men let fall:
For the words that had no honour till I came —
Lo! I raise them into honour over all!
By the wisdom of the centuries I speak —
To the tune of yestermorn I set the truth —
I, the joy of life unquestioned — I, the Greek —
I, the everlasting Wonder Song of Youth!
With my “~Tinka-tinka-tinka-tinka-tink!~”
[What d’ye lack, my noble masters? What d’ye lack?]
So I draw the world together link by link:
Yea, from Delos up to Limerick and back!

He was. . .astonishing. . .in his range. And it all came down to “God of our fathers,” “If” and “East is East and West is West.” Shame, that.

Comment from Armybrat
Time: June 22, 2011, 12:27 am

Mike C. will surely find his way to this thread and then y’all can have some fun! My folks were very happy when decided to give up the violin. I sawed my way thru 6 years, never got any better. What can I say! I love music, I just suck at playing it.

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: June 22, 2011, 12:47 am

Have you ever visited his house, Can’t Hark?

It’s a hauntingly sad place.

And yes, I agree. as does Her Stoatliness (who has departed for the evening, in search, no doubt, of more dreams of olde banjoes).

Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: June 22, 2011, 12:47 am

Concert hall: 1 violinist. . .how many audience-members? The world NEEDS us, Armybrat!

Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: June 22, 2011, 1:04 am

Uncle B, sorry, we appear to have posted simultaneously. No. . .I’ve never been to England, so haven’t visited any Kipling shrines on his native soil. I believe there is one at Naulakha (?), his American home. . .but to tell the truth, I’m not much of a physical tourist, having had my bellyful of museums and other cultural attractions as a young child. I probably should shake off my lethargy and my angst, and just do it. Maybe this summer. . .lord knows, Vermont is not that far away!

May her stoatliness dream of uber-banjos that can bring us to a new reality. . .or summat. I fear that, hanging out with folkies as I do, I have learned ALL the banjo jokes. But I ceased to take them seriously when I heard all the ukulele jokes. . .and all the hammered dulcimer jokes. . .and. . .and. . .and. An excellent exercise for those who need to learn how to do a “global search and replace” in any word processing program!

Comment from Uncle Badger
Time: June 22, 2011, 1:09 am

.. and the grandfather of all of ’em: the drummer joke!

Right, that’s me off for the night too. Enjoy, fellow minions! 🙂

Comment from Hari Swollensak
Time: June 22, 2011, 2:14 am

Comment from Armybrat
Time: June 22, 2011, 12:27 am

Pick it up again in 10 yrs.
You may surprise yourself. 🙂

Comment from SCOTTtheBADGER
Time: June 22, 2011, 3:02 am

Berie Wooster could play the banjolele, whatever a banjolele is.

American Badgers play the Sousaphone. HONK!

Comment from David Bain
Time: June 22, 2011, 5:51 am

Lovers of good banjo playing should make a point of avoiding early Billy Connolly recordings.

Isn’t a banjolele what George Formby played?

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 22, 2011, 9:50 am

Well done, David Bain. I swear, I think I’ve seen three banjoleles signed by George Formby in the last two weeks (I’ve been haunting the auction houses looking for banjos).

Comment from Armybrat
Time: June 22, 2011, 12:32 pm

Hari-first- my playing was so awful I can assure you that NOBODY wants to hear me play. My parents, who regularly lectured us about not quting what we started, were thankful when I did quit.
Second-LOVE the nic! It made me laugh!

Comment from Mike C.
Time: June 22, 2011, 1:51 pm

I’ve seen six string banjos a number of times (as well as 3, 4, 5 and 8), but never a 5 designed to look like a 6.

Comment from Sven in Colorado
Time: June 22, 2011, 1:57 pm


Local artisan who creates incredible instruments.

Comment from Oldcat
Time: June 22, 2011, 2:45 pm

My older brother used to play instruments, and even made a few banjos, inlays and everything. I remember nearly losing a little toe kicking a block of wood that was ‘curing’ on the floor in our hallway – it was the warmest spot in the house.

I’ll give them this, practice or indifferent string instrument playing sounds way way better than wind instruments.

Comment from Banjo Jim
Time: June 22, 2011, 4:08 pm

How much are Cammeyer’s these days? Genuine ones? I saw some on eBay going for less than $100 bucks but I don’t know if they’re genuine instruments or not.


Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: June 22, 2011, 6:15 pm

I always thought banjos sounded more like “blonka blonka blonka”

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 22, 2011, 6:26 pm

I’m not sure, Jim. I’ve mostly been looking at auction houses, where the descriptions are written up by people who clearly have NO clue what they’re talking about. For example, they’ll tell you how many strings are left. And I’ve lost count of the number of “Remo” banjos I’ve seen for sale (no doubt the only legible word on the banjo).

The most I’ve seen any zither banjo going for in a shop was £275, but I’m sure the real jewels go for more.

Comment from Uncle Al
Time: June 22, 2011, 8:23 pm

Ooh! I do love the sound of “Plinky plinky plink.” It’s even better if you start with plonk!

Comment from Mike C.
Time: June 23, 2011, 7:43 am

If you’ve got the coin (they ain’t cheap), we’ve got a top-notch banjo maker in good old Virginie…


Possibly the best 5-string made today…

Comment from Mike C.
Time: June 23, 2011, 7:51 am

Addendum – But I’m partial to open-backs and frailing/clawhammer stuff myself, so my bucket list includes one of these…


I’m not a big fan of gold plating or engraving, but I am a big fan of a clear finish over maple. Your results may vary…

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: June 23, 2011, 11:23 am

Stellings are lovely, Mike C. Learning proper frailing technique is on my to-do list. The zither banjo should make a fine frailing instrument.

Comment from Mark Matis
Time: June 23, 2011, 11:25 am

For SWeas:
Or at very least properly protect the chicklets from Mr. Fox when you bash it over his friggin’ head as he attempts to abscond with them…

Comment from Mark Matis
Time: June 23, 2011, 4:09 pm

For SWeas:
Er, never mind. I see you said “frailing”, not “flailing”…

Comment from Oh Hell
Time: June 24, 2011, 3:22 am

When my Father was in the Navy, his XO would make EVERYONE fall in and listen to him play his banjo. Father hated banjo’s with a passion forever after…..

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