Happy Banjo Friday everybody! I’ve been absent for a few days in part because I was busy trying to get my guitar teaching practice off the ground—lots of bus riding & hoofing it looking for places to put up posters (& yes: I am on Craigslist too)—& partly because I wanted to give folks plenty of chance to absorb Barbie Angell’s latest poem (a really good one) & her art. By the way, I’m happy to announce that Barbie Angell took a third place award in the “Best Poet in western North Carolina” poll on Asheville’s Mountain Express. Well deserved, & we are all lucky to have Barbie Angell as a regular contributor here!
But on to the banjo! Last week we talked about one of my favorite hybrid instruments, the banjo-ukulele. This week we’re looking at one that I consider even more obscure (but then, I have run some in uke circles over the years), namely the banjo-guitar, AKA banjitar, AKA guitjo, AKA ganjo, AKA 6-string banjo (tho one should note that there are banjos with six strings that aren’t guitar banjos.)
The guitar-banjo is more or less what you’d expect from the name: a banjo head with a guitar neck, the instrument is typically tuned EADGBE just like a guitar—of course, you could substitute other common guitar tunings as well, & on YouTube I have seen folks playing bottleneck blues on banjo-guitars in open tunings. But “traditionally” the instruments have been tuned like a guitar, since there chief purpose has been to allow for a guitar player to double on banjo. In fact, some of the best known hot jazz banjo players—Johnny St Cyr, who played with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five is a great example—played this instrument.
But the instrument was also used outside of “jazz proper,” especially by musicians who played music that draws somewhat equally from blues, ragtime & jazz sources. These would include not only the Reverend Gary Davis & Sylvester Weaver, but also by today’s featured artist, Papa Charlie Jackson (see pic).
Papa Charlie Jackson’s recording career began in 1924, & thus he was one of the first self-accompanied male blues singers to be recorded. While the male country blues players are perhaps most valorized today, it’s important to remember that in the 1920s the women blues singers were the big stars. But Papa Charlie Jackson over 60 solo sides between 1924 & 1934, & in addition backed up star singers such as Ma Rainey, Ida Cox & Lottie Beaman on their recordings. & speaking of the confluence between early hot jazz & blues, Jackson also recorded with Freddie Keppard & his Jazz Cardinals.
“Butter & Egg Man Blues” dates from a 1926 Paramount session; it was the B side to “Let's Get Along.” I love Jackson’s work on the banjo-guitar on this song—he really had a feel for what the instrument could do! It’s interesting to me that in surfing banjo-guitar videos on YouTube I don’t find very many folks who seem to have a feel for the instrument. A lot of people seem to try to make it sound like a 5-string banjo—in my opinion, why not just play a 5-string then? I do think that the 1920s guitar-banjo players were onto an interesting sound, but these days their work seems to be covered mostly using either a guitar or a 4-string plectrum or tenor banjo.
I’ve yet to hold a banjo-guitar in my hands, so I’ve also yet to figure out how easy it is to coax this type of sound out of one—but hey, I’d be happy to give it a shot!
In the meantime: please enjoy the song.