A happy Banjo Friday to you all! I’m here to stir up perhaps a bit of controversy or debate today, since some folks may think this isn’t “Banjo” Friday at all, but “Ukulele Friday”—horrors! But hey, I say be open-minded, because I know you’re going to love the music.
Last week’s Banjo Friday featured a duet between a plectrum banjo & a tenor banjo. This week’s song only features one instrument, but also one that's a bit uncommon: the banjo ukulele, AKA banjo uke AKA banjolele. So is it a uke or is it a banjo?
Well, for starters, banjo ukes are very good things. I was the proud owner of one myself (see pic!), tho I have since passed it on to Eberle who absolutely loves the instrument & does great things with it. They were first designed in 1917 by one Alvin D. Keech who sold them as "banjulele-banjo." A bit of a redundancy & a bit of a mouthful, but otherwise we can be very grateful to Mr Keech. Wikipedia gives a pithy definition of the instrument saying that it “combines the small scale, tuning, and playing style of a ukulele with the construction and distinctive tone of a banjo, hence the name.”
The taxonomy of instruments fascinates me, it really does. Generally speaking, if you’re looking for a banjo uke in a catalog or on a website or in a music store, you’ll find them with the ukuleles. But as a point of comparison: there’s also the banjo-guitar AKA banjitar, which has 6-strings & is typically tuned the same way as a guitar (in fact, these instruments were extremely popular in the old hot jazz bands, & were played by such notable musicians as Johnny St Cyr—more on them in an upcoming post); the banjo-guitars are almost always found with the banjos. But why is the banjo-guitar “more” of a banjo than the banjo ukulele is? Why do we consider an instrument to be more one thing than the other?
As we saw in the previous paragraph, it can’t be a question of tuning—& besides, a number of stringed instruments are played in different tunings. If we re-tune an acoustic guitar to open G, which is done pretty commonly, it’s still an acoustic guitar. Same thing with the tenor banjo that’s tuned like an octave mandolin in a Celtic music ensemble—it’s still considered a tenor banjo. & in fact, 5-string banjos are retuned a lot, especially in old-time music.
If the classification is based more on the way they actually produce sound, then both the banjo uke & the banjo-guitar are more “banjo” than anything else, since both have the drumhead & a banjo type bridge. Ukuleles, by contrast, produce sound in the same way as a guitar, which would mean….
See what I mean? Hey, I say let’s just enjoy Marcy Marxer tearing it up on “12th Street Rag!”