Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Can anyone help me identify this instrument?  It sure looks like a mandolin, but in his book on instrumentation and orchestration, Hector Berlioz mentions that mandolins haven't been played for a long time and that musicians struggle when the mandolin is called for in Don Giovanni.  There is reference to it being played in rural Italy.  So, what exactly is going on in this cover?  Best I can tell is that it's from 1852.   Thanks!          Elaine

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Mando's were around since the 1700's so it could be one. Some variety of Cittern would be my best guess -

they were double coursed in 4's or 5's, and would have been common in England as well as over here until about the 1830's, when Austrian and then Spanish guitars replaced them.

To me the scale seems too short to be a cittern or English guitar. Christopher Stenson would be a good one to get in touch with on this subject.

Looks like a typical bowlback mandolin to me... I don't think they were all that uncommon at that time, especially in Europe/Spain/Italy etc..

I just took a photo of my cittern.  This one has 9 strings but they vary quite a bit in that respect and in design.

Your picture looks a great deal like the one on the cover, Al.  I don't know much at all about the cittern.  (Nor, to be honest, about the mandolin).  I did find this from Berlioz in 1858, so that gives us some idea about Europe.  A search of period literature only turns up references to the mandolin in Gothic romances, primarily set in Italy.  Due to my inability to find mentions of the mandolin, I have assumed it was not played much in America until the next decades (70s? 80s?)         

Some interesting and amusing tidbits about mandolins and banjos of the 1880s here especially on pages 46-48.

Yes 1852 seems to be the only date find-able online for this sheet music example.

This publisher was located in London, and as such there would have been many more mandolins in England/Europe than in America back in 1852.  Doubtless there were far more Italian mandolins knocking about London at that time than there were banjos- maybe the English artist paid to come up with the cover illustration just used a mandolin because it was handy and familiar?  The costumes created by the artist have a vague "wandering minstrel" /Gypsy/Pierrot flavor to them.  I suspect artistic license and convenience had a lot to do with the insertion of an Italian mandolin on the cover of an English publication of an American song with lyrics prominently featuring a BANJO.   (...Oh I come from Verona with a mandolin on my knee!)   ;)  The main feature of the cover art would likely have been to simply depict (happy) black slaves enjoying music.

Prior to the 1890s or so almost all mandolins in America had been imported from Italy.

The little 8 stringed instrument in the sheet music pic is a very typical little Italian bowl-back mandolin (I had an 1880s one once, and I still have a later c1915 flat-backed American-made mandolin).  It's not a cittern.  Mandolins are petite with about 35 cm scales, near that of violins.  Citterns are larger instruments of 50+ cm scale...between an octave mandolin and a mandola. 

I don't really have an opinion on this.  I just sent a photo of my cittern in case you wanted to see what they looked like, but again, they can vary quite a bit.  It's 26".  I don't know what a mandolin is.  I have one or two but I'd have to find where I've stored them.  Citterns/English guitars were around, in fact when a guitar is mentioned in colonial America (and somewhat afterward), I believe they are referring to the cittern or English guitar.  Jefferson had one, but who knows what prompted an illustrator of 160 years ago to produce that graphic?

I agree with Strum.  It looks more like a mando to me, and has eight tuning pegs.......not that that means a whole lot.  Again, the illustrator might not have cared what the heck they put on the front of the sheet music.

By the way.  I purchased my cittern from this guy......


I got the impression that, though there may be a standard way of tuning, there are also quite a few options.

I ended up tuning mine as a banjo, (relative, that is).  I found that it works very well for some of the slower Foster songs, etc. and is a lot of fun to play in that manner.....except that it's not always easy to keep in tune and requires a piano-style (probably an autoharp) tuning wrench.

And here's a member of this website, I hope Rob doesn't mind my sharing.


My bet is on a Neapolitan Mandolin.  That is based on the London publication.

People in the US would have saw that and though "some weird lute."  It would have been very unlikely that an average person in the US would have known what a mandolin was in the 1850s.

Mandolins, like the infamous bodhran, seem to be a sore subject with living historians (esp. of the American Civil War variety).  It is now common knowledge that the mandolin only came into being in the US after the famous short tour of the "Spanish Students."  Either because they really like playing the mandolin, or they are uncomfortable with the fact that it's popularity is the result of a 1880s popular music fad-- the documented history is largely denied (don't get me started on Richter harmonics of the 1870s!).

Sorry to diverge, -- Neapolitan Mando, ballot cast from me.

Thanks for those references!  It's great to have more people searching along with you!  And I got the same feeling from the costuming - very Neopolitan - and she looks like the Cuban dancers from the 1950s.  
And, Joel, you're right - the mandolin debate is frequent.  This cover started getting me nervous - where mandolins around more than I thought?  You guys are great

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