A Brief History of the Banjo Ukulele

by Aaron De La Rosa

What instrument is equally welcome at a luau and a hootenanny? A hybrid instrument of sorts, the banjo ukulele (also called banjolele) is a cross between a banjo and a ukulele, hence the given name. Played like a uke but sounding like a banjo, it became a popular instrument during the early 20th century, when vaudeville musicians where seeking a compact but loud enough instrument to perform with. Since the ukulele was very popular at the time, it was a logical solution to merge it with a banjo, which created an instrument that was ideal for performers of the day; it had the tuning, easy playability and size of a ukulele, but the looks, sound, and volume of a banjo.

There is no confirmed evidence on who invented the banjo ukulele, but many credit two individuals: Alvin D. Keech around 1917 or 1918, who trademarked the name “banjolele” and produced a number of them under his name, and also to John A. Bolander, who produced them in California as early as 1916. As the instrument began to gain popularity, which reached its peak during the 1920’s-1930’s, they were produced by most of the major banjo manufacturers as well as toy companies, and ranged from mostly inexpensive models to very elaborate top of the line instruments, as well as being either openback or having a resonator.

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There are several musicians who are most known for popularizing the banjo ukulele: most notable is British actor/singer-songwriter/comedian George Formby, who regularly performed with the instrument and was the most popular entertainer in the UK during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Roy Smeck, also known as “The Wizard of the Strings” for his skills on multiple string instruments, was a virtuoso on the banjo uke and helped popularize the instrument in the US. Other notable banjo ukulele players include Wendell Hall, Clifford Essex, and more recently, Andy Eastwood. Also, more mainstream musicians including Brian May and George Harrison have used it on recordings.

Today the banjo ukulele has gained a wide audience, and though not as popular as it was in its heyday close to a century ago, it still finds its way in the hands of modern musicians and can be heard on countless recordings as well as film and TV scores (check out the theme for Arrested Development). If you want to know what all the fuss is about, Deering offers a concert and tenor scale version of this instrument, so you too can get in on the craze!

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