Happy Banjo Friday, folks! We’re running a bit behind schedule, but we’ve got an interesting instrument to talk about & listen to, so climb on board!
Lately I’ve been writing about various banjo hybrids: the banjo-ukulele, the banjo-guitar & the banjo-mandolin. It’s a testimony to the banjo’s unique sound that its “banjoness” has been incorporated into so many other instruments—& in fact there are even more that I’m not going to discuss like the Dojo (a 5-string banjo neck on a resonator guitar body) & the banjola (a 5-string banjo neck on a mandola body.) But before moving on to other banjo topics, I did want to write about a fascinating hybrid: the bass banjo!
As I understand it, S.S. Stewart first introduced an instrument that was referred to as both a cello banjo & a bass banjo in 1889; this was a 5-string instrument & would be more comparable to the current cello banjos manufactured by Gold Tone than to an actual bass instrument. Cello banjos were also manufactured in both four & five string forms by A.C. Fairbanks & Gibson in the early 20th century.
However, the first true bass banjo made its way onto the scene in 1930 as an instrument manufactured by Gibson. It was tuned EADG, the same as an upright bass or a bass guitar, & was played upright on a stand that substituted for the spike found on an upright bass. The Gibson bass banjo was discontinued in 1933.
These days the bass banjo is again available, & as is the case with so many banjo hybrids (not to mention some fine conventional banjos), the Gold Tone Company is one of the leading manufacturers of such instruments. But I want to introduce you today to a very special form of the bass banjo: the Heftone!
I’ve been a fan of the musical duo of Brian Hefferen & Lynn Hershberger, that is, the Fabulous Heftones, for some time. The Fabulous Heftones bring an ebullient musicality to their repertoire of early 20th century Tin Pan Alley tunes, & the joy & good spirit they project in their music is positively infectious! Both Brian Hefferen & Lynn Hershberger sing, & sing well, with lovely harmonies—& Brian’s rambunctious scatting! Brian Hefferen plays a mean ukulele, while Lynn Hershberger plays the wonderful bass banjo called a Heftone. This was designed by Lawrence Hefferen, who has made the instruments in both fretless & fretted models, & with both a bass viol style neck & a bass guitar style neck. Lynn Hershberger plays the deluxe Heftone—fretless, with the bass viol style neck. One of the amazing features of this instrument is the 22” frame drum body! That’s a lot of banjo, folks!
The Fabulous Heftones have two cds, both of which I recommend highly—these are In the Garden & Moon June Spoon; their cds are available thru Elderly Instruments. In addition, Brian Hefferen has five cds (also all available thru Elderly) that feature his ukulele & banjo playing.
This video clip features them singing an old tune called “Row, Row, Row.” The clip not only showcases their overall sound, but it gives you both a good look at & listen to the Heftone bass. Enjoy—I know you will!