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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Banjos made during the nineteenth century were engineered for gut strings. That's why you find so many beautiful banjos from the 1880's and 1890's with warped necks.  People later strung them with steel.  Fairbanks beefed up their construction at around the turn of the century.  The thin shells became laminated and much thicker and the necks were also laminated.

I've seen a banjo that a friend of mine brought to a jam to show me, a Lyon and Healy Washburn. He was able to date it to 1896/1897 via the serial #. It had a truss rod cover, so I assumed it had a truss rod, and would have been likely strung with steel. He had it strung with steel and had a Remo head in it.

I just remembered about seeing on pg. 127 of the Gura and Bollman book, an advertisement for the Dime Music Co., ca. 1880. At the bottom is another small ad that, even though the bottom left-hand corner of the paper is torn with part of what appears to have been "Steel," lists "Steel Strings, Good Tone and Never Break $1 a set."

So, possibly there were steel strings being used during the 1880's.

Btw, I know what you mean with the 2nd SC String Band. I have one of their first cd's, and Joe Ewers is playing the banjo fingerstyle. The later ones, he's playing a minstrel and evidently a regular open back stroke style, but at times sounds more like clawhammer on their newer cd's.

While the minstrel banjo is "authentic" for the time period they are representing, the steel string open back is not, though they are still playing the original music from the time. 

 

Hi Noah, Wire strings were sold as an item for the banjo as early as the 1880s.

To date, no pro banjoists on this side of the pond were known to use them until after WW1.

Just like wire is the standard today and the sound that people want and expect for the banjo, prior to the plectra/tenor that sound was gut.

Gut had its problems.  Uneven thickness caused false sounding string with raised frets (the real reason why banjo manufactures were apprehensive about raised frets).  They snapped fairly easily.  They would go out of tune, etc.  Yet that is what was used on the five string banjos.

The shortages of gut strings due to WW1 is well documented by violin historians.

With the outbreak of WW1, the countries that made gut strings became preoccupied with killing one another and thus stopped making them.

Despite the many attempts to justify the possibility of wire banjo strings being commonly used in the 19th century, there is no historical documentation showing any self-respecting banjoist that used them (in the US, I am not including the zither banjo).

In fact, there is a huge amount of documentation supporting that fact that all pro banjoists used gut (later silk) strings.  Amateur players (wanting to play banjo because it was popular) used gut to be like the pros.

Frank Converse used gut strings

E. M. Hall used gut strings

Horace Weston used gut strings

James and Swain Buckley used gut strings.

Tom Briggs, Eph Horn, all the Dobsons, James Clarke, and on and on.

So to answer your question directly-- post WW1 for the five string banjo.  Early experiments with the plectra leading to tenor banjos may have influenced wire string use.  By the time the war was over, the five string banjo was out of style.

I am attaching an article from 1922 where they are still discussing using wire strings on the five string.  It is of interest as the subject is A. J. Weidt one of my favorite ragtime composers for the banjo.

Also interesting is that it reinforces the fact that gut was still commonly used on five string banjos in the 1920s-- and that wire was not.

As to the L&H, I'd love to see a photo as the "truss rod" was not patented in until 1921 (apparently to make use of lower grades of wood) by Gibson.  As far as I know Gibson five strings always used wire, but they were rare as they did not make many.

L&H did use a steel bar to reinforce their necks, but that is not a true "truss rod."

Attachments:

Who would have been using those wire strings that were being sold in the 1880s?

If gut was the sound that people - professionals and amateurs - wanted and expected from a banjo at the time, what prompted the introduction of steel strings in that era?  Was it simply an attempt to solve the problems with gut strings that you mention?  Were any banjo manufacturers making banjos in the 1880s and 1890s that were specifically designed to be robust enough to handle steels strings? Was that the purpose of of the L&H steel bar neck reinforcement?

Just curious - all I know about such subjects is what I read on this site.

In the second decade of the twentieth century, tenor banjos, banjo mandolins, and plectrum banjos started to push out the "regular" or five string banjo.  The reason steel strings were used was to be able to be heard in tango bands, jazz bands, and orchestras.  They were louder.

Joel, the more I've thought about it, I think maybe that the L&H I mentioned is perhaps later (1920's), as it looked more from that time structurely as opposed to the late 1890's. I don't know a whole lot about that banjo, only that I've looked at it once. 

I do remember now that the zither banjos were strung with steel, since you mentioned it.

I just find it ironic that gut strings were the norm, yet there were ads for wire strings at that time.

 

Noah--I wondered about that, because I have an 1895 Washburn and it definitely doesn't have a truss rod, and I had to give it a heat press because it was warped.

My 1890's Washburn didn't have a metal truss rod either.  When I received the banjo, the fingerboard was partially attached.  Under the unglued section, I could see a slot with some type of wood glued in.  I remove the fingerboard, which was easy, since the hide glue was old.  The slot wood was of poor quality and starting to crumble, so I removed with a flathead screwdriver, leaving a nice slot.  Found a metal bar at Home Depot I cut to length for a truss rod, glued the fingerboard back on, and she's good to go, even for steel strings.  However, I've used nylguts so long, I would never go back to steel.

 

Not ironic, cheap.

Anytime a marketable item is popular a cheap version is introduced to the trade that may (or more likely) may not be used, but will sell.

Recently, $35 ukes come to mind.  I see these in music stores, department stores, comic book stores and hobby shops.  How many people serious about the uke use these.  And how many people who buy them and actually learn to play keep playing them.

Worthless guitars and banjos are sold in music shops as well as Target and Walmart.  They sell, but do they actually get used?

I draw the direct comparison to bicycles.  Walmart and target sell "bicycles."  They look like bicycles and even have known (and previously held in high esteem) brand names.  But they are dangerous and pretty much only good for storing in garages.  Sadly, riding them can and has resulted in death.

But they sell.  And people buy them that are not really going to ride them more than once around the block.

Noah Cline said:

Joel, the more I've thought about it, I think maybe that the L&H I mentioned is perhaps later (1920's), as it looked more from that time structurely as opposed to the late 1890's. I don't know a whole lot about that banjo, only that I've looked at it once. 

I do remember now that the zither banjos were strung with steel, since you mentioned it.

I just find it ironic that gut strings were the norm, yet there were ads for wire strings at that time.

 

On resonator banjos struck with plectrums perhaps.

A properly set up five string with nylon (or gut) can have just as much volume and carrying power as a wire strung five string.

Van eps played with tango and jazz bands just fine.  It was very common for banjoists to play with orchestras.


Rob Morrison said:

In the second decade of the twentieth century, tenor banjos, banjo mandolins, and plectrum banjos started to push out the "regular" or five string banjo.  The reason steel strings were used was to be able to be heard in tango bands, jazz bands, and orchestras.  They were louder.

Joel--I play a lot in string bands as well as in more historic settings and, believe me, my circa 1880 banjo strung with steel strings can be heard in a string band, while a banjo with gut strings can't.  Also I've got an early banjo mandolin with a set of original steel strings  that were still in the case.  Same for a Gibson Trapdoor tenor.  Dave Kirchner does build huge, wonderful banjos that, with gut strings, sound as loud as any banjo anywhere,  but I personally don't have any that loud.

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