Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

what year were steal strings introduced on the banjo?

I am somewhat confused about when the steal string banjo came out since groups like the 2nd South Carolina String Band can be heard playing songs in which it sounds like they are using a steal string banjo.   One example that comes to mind is their playing of The Battle Cry Of Freedom.  any information would be welcome.  thanks.

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Rob, from what I remember, my friend's L&H literaly reminded me of the same construction as my Morgan Monroe open back, though it had a wooden dowel. And it had a pretty good-sized tone ring in it, too. I'll see if I can find a pic of one similar to it. I didn't really think that truss rods would have been around that early (1890's). I imagine that that banjo is pre-1900.

Noah--It would be interesting to see a 19th century truss rod.  The earliest adjustable truss rods I know about (and I'm sure not an expert on this) were on Gibson guitars and banjos, always concealed under a little bell shaped cover.

thanks everyone for your replies, I believe that I have had my question answered definitively.     

If you can find wire strings listed in catalogs in the late 19th century, and if you can find S.S. Stewart condemning them, then you can be confident that more than a few people were using wire strings. Especially folks with modest means, since wire strings were a fraction of the cost of gut. The average non-farm laborer made less than $1.50/day in 1890, and skilled workers might double that. It is hard to imagine these guys shelling out (say) $0.50 for a set of gut strings when something cheaper was at hand.

The John Farris "Banjay" was a high-end 5-stringer made near the end of the 19th century. It was made with steel strings and advertised as such. It had geared tuners, not violin tuners. But, Farris promoted this as a new and different instrument than the regular old "banjo" that he also made and sold.

An 1895 ad for the Farris banjay, with steel strings. Note the odd bridge that spans the head, an adaptation to the pressure of steel strings.

OK-4--This advertisement is very interesting.  It claims the heads are waterproof.  I wonder what they were made of.  Also these instruments stayed in tune like a piano.  Huh?

And not common, otherwise they would be as plentiful as Buckbee trade banjos.

Also he does not call them banjos but rather "Banjolin and Banjay" that are "tuned like the banjo."


Yes, cheap trade goods for the masses who are not likely to do much with them.  How many people do you know that ride centuries on those dangerous bicycle shaped objects that are sold at Walmart?  There will be someone who does, but all the rest that are sold are taken home and stored safely in the garage,

Cheap goods always sell.  Buyers don't want to miss a sell because of price point.  Just about all lines have a low priced (and constantly low quality) versions.

The exceptions don't make it common.  Let's see some endorsements of wire strings by top players pre WW1.  The same players that people took up the banjo because of.

If we bring the "folk" mountain theory into this, I'll back down as I cannot argue speculation.

OK-4 said:

If you can find wire strings listed in catalogs in the late 19th century, and if you can find S.S. Stewart condemning them, then you can be confident that more than a few people were using wire strings. Especially folks with modest means, since wire strings were a fraction of the cost of gut. The average non-farm laborer made less than $1.50/day in 1890, and skilled workers might double that. It is hard to imagine these guys shelling out (say) $0.50 for a set of gut strings when something cheaper was at hand.

The John Farris "Banjay" was a high-end 5-stringer made near the end of the 19th century. It was made with steel strings and advertised as such. It had geared tuners, not violin tuners. But, Farris promoted this as a new and different instrument than the regular old "banjo" that he also made and sold.

The only part of this topic that I do see as significant is that if one has a 19th century banjo and one  fits it with steel strings, over time the neck is likely to warp.  Many, if not most, people new to playing these instruments don't know this.  It is important information.

Joel Hooks comments: "The exceptions don't make it common.  Let's see some endorsements of wire strings by top players pre WW1.  The same players that people took up the banjo because of."

But best practice does not exclude the existence of inferior practice. On Joel Hooks' website there is an 1880s ad for wire banjo strings priced BY THE DOZEN. Obviously, they were sold and put on banjos, probably by folks looking to save some money. So, wire strings are "authentic" to the era, whether the pros used them or not.

Wire probably isn't good for vintage banjos and I keep mine clear of them. However, we should not presume that modern steel strings are the cause of every bowed neck. Some of the best banjos were already bowing back in the nineteenth century. I recall that S.S. Stewart described how Horace Weston's banjo started to bow after years of playing, due to stress from the strings.

 

How about just one instruction book?  

Weston's was "out of round," the rim that is.  One of SSS's first banjos as well as a "large" and shallow rim.

Agreed though, any banjo neck can warp or bow.  Yet wire is ruinous to frets, fingerboards, violin turners and tailpieces.

Wire has been the standard for going on 100 years.  I can see how it is hard to believe that at one time it was gut.  Also the modern ear really likes wire for some reason… the market has chosen.

OK-4 said:

Joel Hooks comments: "The exceptions don't make it common.  Let's see some endorsements of wire strings by top players pre WW1.  The same players that people took up the banjo because of."

But best practice does not exclude the existence of inferior practice. On Joel Hooks' website there is an 1880s ad for wire banjo strings priced BY THE DOZEN. Obviously, they were sold and put on banjos, probably by folks looking to save some money. So, wire strings are "authentic" to the era, whether the pros used them or not.

Wire probably isn't good for vintage banjos and I keep mine clear of them. However, we should not presume that modern steel strings are the cause of every bowed neck. Some of the best banjos were already bowing back in the nineteenth century. I recall that S.S. Stewart described how Horace Weston's banjo started to bow after years of playing, due to stress from the strings.

 

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