Entertainment & Technology

Building Banjos

The banjo has deep roots in American music, and Tim Gardner takes us through the art of making one.

The Banjo as we know it today is one of the great contributions to the American music tradition, and has one of the most interesting and colorful histories of any musical instrument.

It’s beginning were humble — Banjo history begins in West Africa with the akonting  or perhaps one of the other three or four stringed instruments native to to the area.These very simple instruments had the three or four string configurations, one of which was a drone string, (the fifth string found on today’s modern banjos).

The Banjo came to the western hemisphere in the mid seventeenth century, brought by  the first waves of African slaves.  In its simplest form it was a gourd split in half with a long stick passed through it to hold the strings (usually 4) which were made from animal parts. The gourd itself was covered in animal skin, probably goat or sheep.

From there the instrument, played primarily by African people was learned by Anglos  sometime in the early 19th century a fifth string was added, again probably by Joel W. Sweeney.

These early banjos were hand made and quite primitive. However, by the end of the nineteenth century the banjo had become so popular it began to be commercially manufactured. Some of those early builders were in the northeast — not a place you would think of first. Baltimore was a singularly important city for banjo builders.

In the early twentieth century the banjo became a ‘high class’, or ‘salon’ instrument with banjo orchestras, some comprised solely of women. It morphed into a ‘hillbilly’ instrument, a revival instrument, a jazz instrument and today there are folks writing classical scores for the banjo. Famous players like Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Earl Scruggs, Grand Pa Jones, Bella Fleck, Jens Krueger have all pushed the limits of this great instrument…

In the early days everyone wanted a commercially built banjo…quite the opposite of what we want today.  In the late nineteenth century, Sears built some wonderful banjos that are still being played today. They usually cost between four and eight dollars, depending on the ornamentation.

There are several well known and respected builders around the country and Tim Gardner certainly is one of those.  Tim is a second generation builder living in Mills River North Carolina. Although his first instrument is the fiddle (with which he has won many contests) he not only builds beautiful banjos he ‘ain’t too bad at playing one, either’…

Here’s a look and listen to Tim Gardner.

To learn more, go to cedarmtnbanjos.com

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