A happy, if slightly belated, Banjo Friday, friends! We’re going to look at yet another hybrid banjo instrument this week, the banjo-mandolin.
These instruments probably date to around the turn of the 20th century &, like the tenor banjo, were probably developed as the late 19th century mandolin orchestra craze morphed into a similar craze for the banjo orchestra. Simply put, just as the tenor banjo enabled mandola players to get the banjo sound without having to re-learn chord shapes & scale positions, so did the banjo-mandolin & the related banjolin allow mandolin players a convenient entrance into the banjo world.
If you’re familiar with the mandolin—even with how one looks—you know that the instrument has 8 strings, which are paired—in other words, essentially four pairs of two strings each. Each pair is tuned in unison (i.e., to the exact same note), & the mandolin’s tuning is the same as the violin’s. The strings, from lowest tone to highest are GGDDAAEE (of course, the violin only has four strings: GDAE.) All of the instruments in the mandolin family are tuned “in fifths,” which means that the note of each string is five tones higher than the previous one—in other words, moving from the string closest to your nose toward the string closest to your toes, each string would be in a relation of do to sol (in the do-re-mi scheme) to the next one.
I assume your eyes aren’t crossed at this point after that last paragraph! If they are, maybe you should start the video playing now to give yourself a chance to recover from the music-speak!
As I understand, the instruments called banjolins typically only had four strings, not eight, but they still were tuned GDAE. I believe this may have been done to decrease the tension on the instrument’s neck & drum—mandolins have extremely high string tension. However, there are vintage banjo-mandolins that were built for the eight string set-up (check out this 1911 Fairbanks or this 1880s Cole on the Elderly Instruments site!), & mando-banjos that are currently manufactured typically are designed for eight strings [for instance, this very nice mando-banjo from Gold Tone, again on display at Elderly Instruments.)
The banjo-mandolin has been a relatively obscure instrument—unlike the banjo ukulele or the banjo-guitar, there haven’t been any particularly well-known proponents of the instrument. One very gifted banjo-mandolin player was Vol Stevens, who recorded both in duet settings with a back-up guitarist & also as part of the Memphis Jug Band (the link gives a nice write-up of this seminal group, but as you can see from the photo & the video here, they have the description of the banjo-mandolin backwards.) Today’s video features The Bluesicianers, namely Dirk (guitar) & Rene (banjo-mandolin) playing a cover of Vol Stevens’ song with the intriguing, if somewhat disturbing title, “Baby Got the Rickets.” Stevens recorded the original in 1927 for Victor Records, with Will Weldon (AKA Casey Bill Weldon) on guitar.
I like the Bluesicianers’ style—enjoy!