Re-Creating Old Time Banjo Sound

by Barry Hunn

When we receive a call from a customer who is interested in “old time banjo” this raises a few questions. Does "old time banjo” mean pre-Civil War? Does it mean post Civil War? Some people think “old time banjo” means early 20th century music. What about banjo music from the 1930's and 1940's? Does it mean clawhammer style or does it mean early parlor banjo playing of the 1900’s fingerstyle? Frailing? Early fingerpicking from North Carolina that eventually became bluegrass? What do are people actually referring to when they say old time banjo?

The more we understand about the history of the banjo the more difficult this question is to answer. 10 years ago many folks assumed that old time banjo meant playing clawhammer style on an open back banjo. Is this still true today?

Well… Not really. There are many customers who call us who participate in Civil War reenactments with the uniforms, weapons and paraphernalia of the Civil War.  These folks are looking for banjos that are made as similar to banjos made during that time as possible.

There are customers who feel that almost any banjo music that was played before 1900 is “old time banjo”. Funny thing about this is that many people in the 1800s played classical music on banjos. Classical music was popular and so was the banjo.

A lot of folks who are my age, 60 or older, still tend to regard “old time banjo” as clawhammer style played on an open back banjo.

To my personal great joy, I have met many young people, teens, twenty somethings, and older who have researched banjo history and no longer carry these preconceived ideas about what “old time banjo” is.

Don’t get me wrong; clawhammer banjo played on an open back banjo is stunningly beautiful and elegant. But, my feeling has always been that the banjo is greater than any particular style of music.

Ironically, some of the early and extremely popular blues and jazz music played on the banjo was played on six string banjo tuned like guitars. This could absolutely be construed as “old time banjo”. 

Old Time Banjo or Old Time Recording?

Some banjo enthusiasts listen to recordings from the early 1900’s and don’t always distinguish the sound of the recording from the sound of the banjo.

Early recording equipment did not always pick up a very broad spectrum of sound. Most of the recordings were “compressed” which by modern standards sounds much thinner aside from the scratchy sound that comes from the heavy needle dragging through the early records.

It is quite true that banjos in the early 1900’s all had natural skinheads. Plastic heads did not arrive on the scene till later in the 1900’s. This definitely has a mellower and less snappy sharp sound than a modern plastic head.

Despite the head, many banjos made today (Vega #2, Vega Senator, Vega Little Wonder, Vega Old Time Wonder) are styled after, and made very similarly to the Vega banjos of the early 1900’s. There are differences, for sure but the basic design has stayed the same.

I smile sometimes when a customer says a Vega Tubaphone tone ring sounds “too modern” when this tone ring was introduced around 1910.

Players at that time bought many of these banjos and many can be heard on recordings of the 1920’s and 30’s.

Ingredients In the Old Time Banjo

To re-create some of the old banjo sounds for a five string open back banjo, here are a few ingredients that might contribute to the warmer, quicker decaying, pronounced midrange sound.

  1. A fiberskyn head or a natural calf skin head. The fiberskyn is an attempt by modern drum makers to create a durable plastic head with the mellower sound of natural calf skin. It does this quite well though some enthusiasts feel it is still a little sharp sound.
  2. Tune the head to E or F. The tighter the head, the brighter and snappier sound. The less tight the head is, the lower the frequency is at which it vibrates. So, no matter what head you use don’t tighten the head very much.
  3. While light gauge strings are nice and soft on your fingers, and have a beautiful delicate sparkle, medium gauge strings have a stronger pronounced midrange sound. In pre-microphone and amplifier days, banjo professionals needed heavier strings to project the banjo sound into large audiences. The medium gauge string is likely a little more historically accurate choice to create a more old fashioned sound.

You can see that this list is not terribly long and these suggestions are quite simple and not very expensive.

The thing to remember is that professionals throughout history have always procured the best instrument possible within their budget. Some were so poor that instruments were given to them so, “looking that gift banjo in the mouth” was probably not something that happened very often out of gratitude for the gift.

Other Old Time Banjo

Many of the extremely early banjos were strong with cat gut. Today, nylon strings create a very similar tone but with the increased durability of a synthetic material.

Finding nylon string banjo sets is not exactly easy, but nylon monofilament at fishing stores can be used with great success. Wound nylon strings are little more difficult to find. Dealers who specialize in old time instruments like Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Michigan do stock nylon banjo strings.

A nylon strung banjo, with a not too tightly tuned Fiberskyn head, without a resonator, is probably a pretty good reproduction of the early and Civil War era banjos. Something like the basic Goodtime openback or the larger bodied Goodtime Americana should fit the bill beautifully. Since nylon strings don’t exert a lot of downward pressure on the bridge, keeping the head tension lower, possibly around E is probably going to give a very warm and quick decaying sound.

Django Reinhardt was a brilliant jazz guitarist popular in the 1940’s and also played 6 string banjo tuned like a guitar. Johnny St. Cyr, of the Louis Armstrong band, also played 6 string banjo tuned like a guitar.

Some of these early recordings were done with equipment that limited the sound and compressed it to some extent but this was a time where recording equipment was beginning to improve so there are some good recordings that show that the instruments these players played not too dissimilar than today’s 6 string banjos. Some of these early 6 string recordings were probably recorded on banjos with natural skinheads. So a Fiberskyn head that is tuned possibly closer to F should help recreate some of the warm, mellow tone heard on some of these recordings.

Your Own Time Banjo

The history of the banjo, though both colorful and relatively short, is still being made, everyday, by players like you. It’s wonderful to study, learn, and understand what the great historic players did, but always remember, that it’s YOU who is creating modern history with the banjo.

No matter what combination of “ingredients” you use to set up your banjo. No matter what style of banjo you buy. And no matter what technique you use to play your banjo, it’s the music that moves us. Not the instrument.

True, a good banjo is more fun to play the poor one. But the music that YOU play on your banjo is what is creating history now. Let’s make history with our “Own Time Banjo”.

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