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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.

June 21, 2011 — 10:45 pm
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