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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You can boil all this down to simple economics, supply and demand. When the two price points begin to cross (steel strings vs gut), people will switch. Good marketing can cause this switch to happen before the price of product A actually becomes lower than B...but frankly, people prefer cheap. You have to have a significant excess of disposable income to buy something based on esoterica (like tone, feel, marketing, etc.).
So, steel strings are introduced when they are cheap enough to produce and sell at a profit. If they're cheaper than gut, they'll sell...without much marketing at all. Gut strings had a variety of well known problems, probably esp. the cheaper brands, etc. Steel strings were target-marketed to solve those problems.


That they show up in the 1880’s is probably a simple convergence of technology and the realization that there is a market.

The mid 19th C is a crazy boom-time for manufacturing, esp. in steel. A great deal of metallurgical progress passed from 'invention' to 'mass-production'. Drawing steel wire suitable for mass-market musical instruments was perfected only in the 1840's (for pianos, a booming market)...I'm not sure when the first American steel music wire was produced...but probably post CW (Augustus Roebling was making wire for bridges...but it was iron wire, not steel). So, it makes sense to me that wire strings (for banjos) would be introduced later. That it was in the 1880's is probably simply a convergence waiting to happen.


Steel strings for mandolins were available much earlier (mid 18th cent). I suspect one of the limiting issues was manufactured string length. The drawing process requires a very consistent material and getting such stuff prior to the mid 19th cent was probably a hit 'n' miss proposition (for stuff longer than a mandolin required). It is interesting to note that mandolins were previously gut strung and much softer voiced until they became popular on the stage (mid18th C). They needed volume; people started using hard plectrums, gut strings broke...sounds familiar!


Adoption of any new 'replacement' product takes time, esp. when there is entrenchment to deal with. You'll always have early adopters but getting your product into the main stream over the cries of the 'old guard' often requires a signal event or sea change. In the case of steel strings for the banjo, it was the sea change in popular music (19-teens).

I've seen a reference of 1850 for the first wire string in the U.S., but can't remember for which instrument. Most likely the piano that's been mentioned.

I think we can agree there is no evidence that steel strings were considered normal or desirable for banjos in the 19th century. But inelegant practice can still exist, and the wire banjo strings sold in bulk were landing somewhere. So, that is why I call them "authentic" to the era.

I think the John Farris "banjay" implies that steel strings were not normal. The "banjay" is just a banjo with some interesting hardware. But Farris promoted it as an altogether new and better instrument, apparently mostly because of the steel strings.

Regarding wire strings sold by the dozen - probably not to consumers with a tight budget, but maybe to dealers.

Agreed!

The reason I am bull headed on the subject is that often times modern musicians playing "period music" (as cited before) will use wire for the wrong reasons-- to appeal to the modern ear, often propagating he same old soft string myths, i.e. too quiet etc.  But it has gotten much better!

Well, nylon is not period correct either, so I'll happily call myself a hypocrite-- I really like nylon strings.

Folks can play their banjo anyway they want, but sometimes (and unbeknownst to them) they are educators and that comes with a obligation to historical accuracy.  As long as the musician feels good about having to use a  qualifier when someone asks then more power to them.

Of course, if that musician was in a reenacting setting (this AFAIK was not the subject here not) I feel differently.  We know enough that we don't have to qualify what we do.

As a post script, Albert Baur (a banjoist that is known to actually play banjo as a soldier during the ACW) wrote about the trouble in getting strings -- one they would not have with wire -- if wire were available seems seems strange that they would have rather done without and wait for gut.

As far as cost, it is was likely not worth the time and effort for Peck & Snyder to risk selling one string for $.04 mail order.

Here's an item from the Slave Narratives on making strings using horsehair and bee's wax.

http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mesn&fileName=022/m...

Wes thanks for providing that, I found it very interesting, hardly seems they would be strong enough only using 1 horse hair with bee's wax.

Curtis-- The strings were made of waxed twisted horse hairs.  It is thought that scale lengths on early banjos were long because the string diameters were necessarily bigger for the horse hair strings to be strong enough.  So very early banjos were probably in C/F tuning or lower.

The Jouhikko/tagelharpa is traditionally strung with twisted horsehair strings, and bowed.  I make the strings myself for my jouhikko, using black stallion tail hair, which is considered strongest.  Depending on the scale and the note desired, one can count out a certain number of hairs (learning by trial and error... 23, 32 hairs, or 46 hairs etc.) and then twist while installing them (not beforehand).  Twist too little, or too tightly, and the string will not be strong and smooth.  Obviously one doesn't wax such strings if they are meant to be bowed.  Nylon weedwacker line is the modern substitute.  

Incidentally, I can't imagine trying to make banjo strings from one to five hairs only, like in that old description linked by Wes- I'd think they would break right away!  Sounds ludicrous to me.  maybe wooley mammoth hair.... lol.

yes that was my point, I was thinking that using one to five hairs only would break right away.



Strumelia said:

The Jouhikko/tagelharpa is traditionally strung with twisted horsehair strings, and bowed.  I make the strings myself for my jouhikko, using black stallion tail hair, which is considered strongest.  Depending on the scale and the note desired, one can count out a certain number of hairs (learning by trial and error... 23, 32 hairs, or 46 hairs etc.) and then twist while installing them (not beforehand).  Twist too little, or too tightly, and the string will not be strong and smooth.  Obviously one doesn't wax such strings if they are meant to be bowed.  Nylon weedwacker line is the modern substitute.  

Incidentally, I can't imagine trying to make banjo strings from one to five hairs only, like in that old description linked by Wes- I'd think they would break right away!  Sounds ludicrous to me.  maybe wooley mammoth hair.... lol.

They just don't make horse hair like they used to... :-)

Wes, maybe it's they just don't make horses like they used to... :-)

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