What's the best way to tune a banjo? With wire cutters. What do you call twenty banjos at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.
Corny, yes. And universal. The quips above have alternately been used for accordions, bagpipes, and other socially scorned (in the 21st Century) musical instruments. There was a time, though, when banjos were the most popular instruments in America. Before guitarists Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix captivated crowds, it was banjo players like Joel Walker Sweeney and Fred Bacon who filled the music halls. One was more likely to find a banjo in turn-of-the-Century American homes than a piano, organ, guitar, or violin. Before they made guitars and drums, manufacturers like Gibson, Slingerland, and Gretsch produced fine (and expensive) hand-crafted banjos that are the equal of any of today’s finest stringed instruments. Savvy collectors know that the current public perception of banjos keeps estate auction prices for these items low, and that there are fine historic banjos still to be found at modest prices.
Popular culture claims that banjos are an African creation, brought to America on slave ships. That's almost correct, but not quite. Banjos were created in the Caribbean by African slaves in the 17th Century. Perhaps the idea of a banjo was "brought over" from Africa, but there is no mention of such a cargo in historical documents. The first mention of a banjo was in Jamaica in 1687, with similar reports from Martinique, Barbados, Antigua, and other Caribbean towns in the 1700s and early 1800s. The earliest report of a banjo in North America was found in Manhattan in 1736, the instrument still being associated with slaves. By the early 1800s, banjos were found from New England to Louisiana, played primarily by the slave population.
During the Civil War, thousands of Union soldiers encountered the banjo, and many carried them back to their Northern homes. Over the next thirty years, home-made banjos of varying sizes and construction appeared all over America. With the advent of commercial banjo making in the late 1800s banjo sizes, construction, and playing techniques became standardized, especially as to the number of frets and the tuning of the strings.
In the early 20th Century, banjos became hugely popular as a parlor instrument. Cheaper than a piano and not requiring accompaniment, banjos were found in most middle-class homes. Most large cities hosted a community banjo orchestra. In 1900, New York City alone boasted over 10,000 banjo players, roughly 3% of the city's entire population. It's no wonder banjo-making was big business!
As musical tastes changed with the advent of Dixieland Jazz, banjo construction adapted. The new music required a hard-driving rhythm section, heavy on chordal accompaniment. Old-fashioned long-neck banjos were replaced with shorter scale (scale = neck length and fret positions) four-string tenor plectrum banjos that were tuned to make chording easier. Also, resonator backs were added so that banjo solos could be heard over the brass and woodwind sections of a band.
Does one have to play banjo in order to collect them? Not at all. Banjo collectors - like collectors of other antiques - simply know what to look for and can distinguish a fine banjo from a run-of-the-mill banjo. Once one is able to recognize desirable brands, an assessment of condition is fairly easy. Of course, it helps to be able to identify the parts of a banjo. For that refer to the attached diagram.
The "most collectible" tenor banjos are those from what has come to be known as the "Golden Age of the Banjo" (1880-1920). Collectors generally seek out the brands listed below. It's important that the manufacturer's name appear on the instrument; knock-offs were as common 100 years ago as they are today. Provided the banjo is in good condition, it's hard to go wrong with any of the following brands:
- Bacon & Day
- Silver Bell (a Bacon & Day product)
- Slingerland (especially May Bell models)
- Lyon & Healy
Serious collectors might cringe at the brevity of the above list, but these brands provide a safe starting point for beginning collectors.
As with any antique, condition is important and will impact price considerably. Unless you know how to repair a banjo, don't buy one that is in poor condition. The following inspections don't require any technical expertise and are easy to check:
- Hold the banjo at eye level and sight down the neck from all angles. The neck should be straight; if it's not, look for a truss rod nut (#15 on the diagram). A truss rod is the device that enables a warped banjo neck to be straightened.
- Check for severely worn frets (#32 on the diagram). Excessive play can result in indentations in the frets that cause buzzing when a string is depressed. Also confirm that the frets are parallel to each other; home-made banjos sometimes have out-of-alignment frets that make accurate intonation impossible.
- Check the tailpiece (#6) to confirm that it is securely attached to the instrument.
- Look for fretboard inlays that are lifting. Also check for missing parts like strings, j-bolt hooks and nuts, or a bridge.
- Check the head for splits. Calfskin heads are susceptible to changes in humidity; they loosen when it's damp and tighten when it's dry. Banjos that are put away in the fall with tight heads run the risk of heads splitting when the heat is turned on.
- Turn each tuner to confirm that a string will hold its pitch when it is tightened. If it won't new tuners will likely be needed.
Prices for vintage name-brand banjos in Very Good condition may sell for at a few hundred dollars at a live estate auction or eBay and go up to about $30,000 or so for a Silver Bell Ne Plus Ultra 9 model sold at a collector’s auction. Before you pay any amount for a vintage banjo you should check a reliable price guide such as that published by Vintage Guitar magazine (which also contains prices for banjos, mandolins, ukuleles, and other stringed instruments.
Once you have a nice collection of vintage banjos, you can begin collecting bagpipes and accordions. You’ll then be the most popular person on the block.