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The Banjo and Guitar in Transition
Part 1: The Banjo and Industrial-age Anxiety

Remarkable banjoist and "eartube entrepreneur",
Fred Van Eps (courtesy Classic Banjo)

My aim in this essay is to explain the process by which the banjo largely disappeared from the musical mainstream (i.e. jazz and dance bands) in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Why was the banjo relegated thereafter to Dixieland and bluegrass, two of the most conservative musical styles ever to arise? Specifically, what were the cultural forces underlying this change of fashion?

In the last eighty or so years, the guitar has gone on to dominate the popular music scenes of both the West and the many global instantiations of "pop" and especially "rock" music. Within the world of jazz, arguably the most prestigious music of today, supplanting classical music as the music of choice, the guitar is preeminent and guitarists like Pat Metheny, George Benson, John Scofield and Bill Frisell are some of the biggest jazz stars of today. The banjo, on the other hand, has an image problem these days.

How did this happen? The transition from banjo to guitar was not overnight or even dramatic. Many dance band banjoists doubled on guitar in the twenties and thirties and chose their instrument to suit the desired sound. A good example is Duke Ellington’s longtime banjoist Freddie Guy, who started playing banjo with the group in 1924, but began to incorporate guitar on recordings in 1931. But slowly, surely, the tide began to turn. After 1933, Freddie Guy never played the banjo on record again. When Django Reinhardt began to record his historic Hot Club of France sides in the early 1930s and Charlie Christian brought his electric guitar to a 1939 audition for Benny Goodman, the banjo all but disappeared from commercial dance bands and was a rare sight in the great big bands of Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman and their ilk.

Versions of banjos appear in musical cultures all over the world. At its essence, the banjo is a cut calabash gourd or ring with an animal skin stretched over it, fitted with a neck and possessing at least one tightened string, with the skin serving as a sympathetically vibrating medium and the gourd or body providing resonance. Because of their physical properties, banjo-type instruments create musical sounds that have a characteristic percussive attack and short decay, acting partly as a rhythm instrument. Among native Africans, the instrument was known as the banza or banjar. It survived in American slave culture largely because it escaped the ban on drums that had cut away the instrument stock of West African musical culture in the New World.

Detail of an American folk art painting attributed to John Rose, "The Old Plantation" (late 18th century)

This instrument, whose name was standardized to "banjo" by the early 19th century, was most often a rawhide-covered gourd with a simple fretless neck and a short drone string accompanied by one or more longer melody strings. Four strings (three melody and one drone string) were standard until 1830 or so, and then five thereafter. This five-string banjo was primarily played by black musicians until the 1830s, when the craze for blackface minstrel shows in urban centres brought the banjo to the leisure activities of the growing white middle class. Along with the bones, the banjo was the iconic musical instrument of the blackface minstrel show. Each touring show left a trail of enthusiastic amateurs who longed to master the familiar, yet somehow exotic instrument. The music they played was largely simple accompaniment patterns using the thumb and index fingernail of the strumming hand, in a style roughly equivalent to the "clawhammer" or "frailing" old-time banjo style known today.

Around the middle of the 19th century, banjos began to be professionally manufactured. At first these makers were individual artisans and later companies like A.C. Fairbanks and S.S. Stewart entered the field, the latter making banjos for Sears Roebuck. The banjo was a most adaptable instrument for general use. It was loud, percussive for dancing, relatively easy to play and portable. By the time banjo tournaments were reported in the mid-1800s, the banjo was a genuine amateur musical phenomenon. The popularity of the minstrel show was a cultural moment not unlike the Beatles appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show; in both cases, a generation looked on and said "I can do that."

By the 1870s the banjo had acquired frets, like a guitar. This made the banjo even easier to play. The instrument was fitted with gut strings throughout the 19th century, with steel strings coming into vogue around the turn of the 20th century. Manufacturers like S.S. Stewart in Philadelphia looked with envy at the guitar companies, which were benefitting from a "parlour guitar" craze among middle-class white ladies. The shareholders in the fortunes of the banjo industry wanted to associate the banjo with upscale domestic life, not with the minstrel stage or the saloon. The most efficient way to make that connection with the public was by associating the banjo with classical music, the music of the cultural elite.

The association of the banjo with classical repertoire and the resulting fashion for banjo playing among upwardly-mobile ladies of genteel manners would drive up the demand for high-end banjos with sumptuous decorations, like the Majestic banjo shown here.

A German Majestic banjo, early 20th century
(Photograph by Guenter Amendt)

The five Dobson brothers, banjoists all, popularized the banjo among New York society women in the 1860s, and by the 1880s classical banjo was a popular culture phenomenon. Touring virtuosi gave concerts and salon performances, a formal banjo technique based on classical fingerstyle guitar was developed and expounded in tutor books like Frank Converse’s "A New And Complete Method For Banjo Without a Master" (1865). Banjo clubs joined mandolin and guitar clubs as a preferred social activity among polite society.

Even as the banjo was gaining respectability, much to the delight of the banjo manufacturing and music publishing industry, the instrument was still associated with a kind of anti-modernism. This nostalgic aspect resonated with the doubts that many people had about the overall good of progress. The late 19th and early 20th century was a time of mechanization, factories, steam power and railroads. Little farming towns were turning into industrial cities, sometimes virtually overnight. Formerly agrarian people were leaving the southern plantations in droves for northern factory work and dreams of prosperity. A longing for home, sweet home began to be felt in songs and stories of the era. Pastoral visions of pre-modern life - simple, uncomplicated and stable, soothed fears of progress and change. The banjo, with its acknowledged black origins, served as a useful symbol of musical primitivism and a vehicle for nostalgia. Even the stuffiest classical concert banjoist knew to encore with "Massa’s In de Cold, Cold Ground".

Around the turn of the century, the banjo went in two directions, along with American music at large. Classical music continued to be played on the instrument, though the amateur enthusiasm for banjo had waned. Otherwise, the banjo was employed in the service of "characteristic" music, a euphemism for "black" musical forms - cakewalks, minstrel music, ragtime and coon songs.

Two banjoists best represented the "characteristic" banjo repertoire on early recordings: Vess L. Ossman and Fred Van Eps. Vess L. Ossman was born Sylvester Louis Ossman in Hudson, New York in 1868. He played five-string banjo in classical (guitar) style, using gut strings, and made his first recordings for the Edison Company on brown wax cylinders in 1893. Ossman was not the first banjoist to record. According to A. Theo E. Wangemann’s "The First Book of Phonograph Records" (cited in Gracyk, p. 263), Will Lyle made 50 banjo records on invitation on Sept. 4, 1889. These cylinders are not known to have survived.

Vess Ossman as a young session musician

Ossman was one of the most recorded musicians of his day until about 1910, when Fred Van Eps began to supersede him in sales and number of sides recorded. Ossman recorded cylinders for the North American Phonograph Company, nearly 70 discs for Berliner, cylinders for Bettini in 1898 and 1900, and 12 7-inch Zonophone discs at the turn of the century. He began his long association with Victor on July 19, 1900. On that day he recorded several songs for Eldridge Johnson’s Consolidated Talking Machine Company. He was internationally famous by the early 1900s, undertaking concert tours of England in 1900 and 1903. In later years, he moved beyond solo and accompaniment work to include duets, trios and banjo orchestra. One of his most-recorded aggregations was the Ossman-Dudley Trio, featuring Audley Dudley on mandolin and a harp-guitar player. Ossman died in 1923.

Fred Van Eps was born in Somerville, New Jersey in 1878. He taught himself to play by listening repeatedly to Vess Ossman on brown wax cylinders and, as such, was among the first generation of musicians to learn from recordings rather than in-person from other players. As a teenager, he bought an Edison Type M cylinder phonograph for $100 but paid it off the next week by attaching 14 ear tubes and charging 5 cents a song to friends. Van Eps also recorded his own cylinders on his Edison machine and used them as demos to get hired by Edison in 1897.

Van Eps’ early recordings in the 1890s were often remakes of Ossman arrangements, but he enjoyed strong sales, eventually touring with the "Eight Victor Record Makers" from 1917 to 1922. Capitalizing on his fame, he formed a company with studio singer Henry Burr to market the banjos that Van Eps designed. His son, George Van Eps, became a well-known jazz guitarist who played with Benny Goodman, Ray Noble, Red Norvo and others. Fred Van Eps died in 1960.

Around the turn of the century, as technical improvements in banjo- making allowed for the use of steel strings, the sound of the banjo became even louder and brighter than before. Steel strings also allowed use of a plectrum, or pick, which further increased the volume. The four-string plectrum banjo was similar to a five-string with the short drone string removed, while the tenor banjo, also with four melody strings, had a shorter neck, a higher overall pitch, and the tuning scheme of a mandolin or violin. This last made it easy for mandolin players, of which there were many, to double on banjo. The tenor banjo, sometimes called "the tango banjo" because of its use in the momentarily popular tango bands, also began to be used in the increasingly "hot" and ragtime-influenced dance bands of the 1910s and 20s.

With its high acoustic volume and cutting power, the banjo became the standard chord/rhythm instrument of jazz bands, which in their early days were oriented towards dance music of a wilder sort. The banjo found good use in the hands of Bud Scott with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Clarence Holiday with Fletcher Henderson and Mike Pingatore with Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra. The banjo had found a place in the mainstream of popular music by the early 1920s.


  • Gracyk, Tim with Frank Hoffmann. "Popular American Recording Pioneers 1895-1925."
    The Haworth Press: New York, 2000.
  • Gura, Philip F. and James F. Bollman. "America’s Instrument: The Banjo In The Nineteenth Century."
    University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC, 1999.
  • Linn, Karen. "That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture."
    University of Illinois Press: Champaign, IL, 1994.