Curtis Carlisle Bouterse & Banjers

Fretless Banjos

In the Beginning was the Fretless, and it was Good.

Welcome to my very personal introduction to the wonderful world of fretless banjos, or banjers as they might more properly be called. (The term fretless banjer is probably redundant since banjers are, by origin and nature, without frets.) The word ‘banjer’ may need introduction to the general public. The earliest references to what modern audiences call the ‘banjo’ all approximate to the sound ‘banjer.’ Thomas Jefferson, no literary slouch, spelled it banjar. Modern rural players traditionally call it banjer. If those who developed the instrument, kept it alive for three centuries, and continue to play it even today call it banjer, I feel thoughtful people should agree: banjer it is.
I suspect that ‘banjo’ came about when an early urban observer asked a country player (black or white) what he called the instrument. Upon hearing something like ‘banjer,’ the chronicler overcompensated thusly: “We know these people call potatoes ‘taters,’ tomatoes ‘maters,’ and yellow ‘yaller,’ ipso facto this cannot be a banjer but, rather, a banj-O.” The word banjo, being already in common usage, may be used for speaking generically, or about the modern instrument, but the traditional, fretless, especially handmade, instrument is a banjer.
I’ve never really played a fretted banjo. I picked them up occasionally in the early days when banjos were scarce and I was first beginning to play. But my first instrument was one I made in my friend Charles Thomas Young’s workshop in 1963. We used hand tools only because neither of us trusted ourselves with too much power. Slow and steady won the race. The tortoise has always been my totem. [See the pix of that ancient endeavor at “Miscellaneous Thoughts.”]

I had been inspired by my friendship with Stu Jamieson and listening to him play his home-made fretless banjo. At San Diego State we had a folksong society and a good friend, Warren Stromberg, had just bought a black walnut banjer from Frank Proffitt – the most beautiful instrument I had ever seen. I learned to play on it and picked it every chance I got. After college Warren moved away and I dreamed about that banjer. Forty years later my dream came true when Warren sold it to me. It hangs next to the flame maple Proffitt I bought in 1964.

"Frank Proffitt" banjer, 1963 [We now know that they were actually made by Leonard Glenn. See "The Mountain Banjo" page for details.]

Thoughts, Ramblings, & Expository Notes on the
Relationship Between Instrument & Music

IN THEORY you can play any kind of music on any kind of instrument. Accordion and marimba majors play Bach and Sousa during their recitals. Orchestras of Russian folk instruments play Beatles tunes and Caribbean steel drum bands play everything. But that is largely a modern development. As a 14th century Arabic manuscript states, ‘Instruments were invented primarily to satisfy a need, but also to provide an advantage.’ That is to say each instrument, like every individual, is unique and has capabilities which are not exactly duplicated anywhere else. If this were not so, that instrument would not have been invented: it would have been superfluous, redundant. I believe that it is the responsibility of any player of a traditional instrument to discover its ‘advantage,’ the thing which give it its raison d’être.

Perhaps carried to the extreme but this is what sliding can ultimately do to a traditionally-played fretless (soft) wood neck.

It may seem counter-intuitive but it is fairly clear that the most obvious advantage of the banjer over the modern banjo is THE LACK OF FRETS. First, let’s consider what frets do: they provide an exact location of a predetermined pitch. And that is a Good Thing, IF those are the pitches you want. But what if those are Not the pitches we want? Then the advantage becomes an impediment. It is possible to overcome the limitations of the fixed pitches somewhat, by pulling on the strings and distorting the pitch. But that only works in a limited range and in one direction: upward. The most extreme example of flexible pitches on a fretted instrument I can think of is the sitar. There, specially designed, raised fret arches allow a wide range of pitch change. And particular, difficult techniques allow glissandos even downward. But it is always clear, listening to a sitar, that limitations are being overcome by practice and artistry and that is part of the allure. That is in direct contrast to the sound of its cousin, the sarod, which has a smooth, fretless fingerboard which produces slides and glissandos which are impressive in their effortlessness.

The neck of the banjer was fretless, not because the inventors never thought of them, nor because they couldn’t make frets, nor because it was a more ‘primitive’ instrument, but because they just didn’t need them. In the late 19th century, when frets were beginning to be used on factory made banjo necks, the innovation created great controversy. They were considered permissable for beginners, women, and those with small hands, but ‘real men’ didn’t use them. And this was even though the music they played was Western popular music based on equal temperament and no longer utilized the range of pitches of the older, traditional music.

If we keep in mind the kind of music that was played on the banjer, the lack of frets becomes more understandable. Western classical music didn’t embrace equal temperament until the 18th century and several kinds of musical instruments, notably flutes and horns, weren’t brought into the fold until the 19th century. And it is clear that banjers didn’t play classical music: they played African-American folk music. What, exactly, was that? The short, honest answer is ‘we don’t know.’ But we can get close. First, since it was not European classical music it could not have utilized the equal-tempered scale.

One of the most distinctive aspects of any musical style is the scalar, pitch material it uses. Identifying scale types is difficult business. Until the development of scientific attitudes, notations, and equipment in the past century, the job fell to the human ear. And though the informed musical ear of a member of a particular society is capable of unbelievable discrimination, the uninformed ear of even the most enlightened outside observer is notoriously unreliable. [Ethnological stories abound but here is a typical one. A 19th century explorer heard a striking African melody and, having a scholar friend who he knew would be interested in hearing it back in Berlin, committed it to memory. Being fairly musical he had great pride in perfecting it and practised it daily during the journey. When he finally sang it for his friend some months later it came out sounding like a German popular song.]

In discussing early American music every scholar stresses the distinction between the European tradition and the African. Unfortunately, by European music they all mean European classical music. This would not be a problem if America had been settled exclusively by the English landed gentry who knew and patronized such music or, on the other hand, if all European music were alike. But I must insist that European folk music was nothing like European classical music. We still have access to remnants of what European folk music was like even as late as the 20th century. There are pockets of extremely archaic musical, instrumental, and vocal styles scattered all over Europe. And there is evidence that scale patterns and temperaments even in England were far removed from classical standards.

When Cecil Sharpe was collecting English folk song at the turn of the 20th century he commented on the indeterminate pitches of many of the singers. This was not sloppiness or inability to ‘hit’ the pitch but deliberate and systematic deviation from Western temperament. It is acknowledged that even classically trained singers do not sing in equal temperament but in their own system which more closely approximates older temperaments with more ‘perfect’ intervals. But this English folksong style was something else. Singers especially varied the third, often using a pitch between a major and minor third: what would later be called a neutral third or (and what is more germane to our discussion) the ‘blues’ third. In addition, other pitches were often changed–sometimes consistently, sometimes by context–particularly the sixth and seventh notes of the scale. Thus the exact pitches that are held up as differentiating ‘African’ from ‘European’ melodic material were not different, even in as industrialized country as late 19th century England. And other places in Europe have even stranger pitch materials.

Many scholars have observed that Europe and Africa form a musical community which shares many general principles. It is, of course, inevitable that such a widespread geographical area have many variations within it but the commonalities seem strong, especially in contrast to the musical style of the Middle East. The Eurafrican (or Afro-European) style emphasizes strophic songs in simple duple and triple rhythms in diatonic or pentatonic scales, frequently utilizing harmonies in groups. Voices tend toward a natural or generally tense quality with a range of ornamentation, but mostly moderate. Contrast this with the ‘oriental’ quality of Arabic music which has, of course, influenced both Europe (especially around the Mediterranean) and Africa (especially with the spread of Islam). In Arabic, and Persian, music the emphasis is on modal structures with sophisticated, more chromatic scale systems and improvisation utilizing complex rhythms. Melody is paramount, more soloistic, without harmony, and vocal styles tend toward much greater tension with florid ornamentation.

Thus we see greater similarities between African and European singing than is usually admitted. And, though no one in Colonial times would have confused the two, this accounts for the tremendous interchange between the two musical cultures. In contrast, American Indian music is radically different from either foreign style, which is why there was so little influence on the emerging American music and why, even today, Indian music remains separate.

Thus we see that when the banjer was developed, both African and European folk traditions (and presumably the emerging Afro-European, American, tradition) would not have needed or wanted a fixed-pitch instrument. Perhaps reinforced by the example of the (always fretless) violin it was not considered a defect but an advantage to have a smooth neck. [Obvious question: if frets are so great, why does the most popular and important instrument in the European inventory–the violin–lack them?]

It should be emphasized that just because an instrument has no frets doesn’t mean it is prevented from playing ‘fretted’ music. On the contrary, it can not only do (most) everything a fretted instrument can do but even more. It is the epitome of Freedom: it is free to follow the rules, amend or adapt them, bend or break them, or do away with them completely. It is much more in concert with the ideas of the Founding Fathers than our modern, authoritarian, fretted ways. I have always maintained that the banjer is the quintessential democratic instrument. You can do anything your musical heart desires: you can put your finger anywhere you want, but you have to take responsibilty for your actions. Wherever you decide to put your finger, that’s where the note comes out.

Once the decision was made to leave the neck fretless, other results flowed from it. [Of course it is possible that no decision was made, but ‘no decision’ had the same effect: no frets.] A smooth neck made it possible not only to Position the finger at any intended interval but to Transition the finger from one place to another with ease, thus becoming an idiosyncratic, stylistic feature. If slides had not been part of singing style before they certainly received impetus now. Because a vibrating string loses energy when lengthened, the tendency was to slide the pitch upwards, thus retaining or compensating for the dying vibrations. [Thanks to Stu Jamieson for that insight.] The African and European folk melodic styles already utilized upward approaches, including slides, to important notes and this fitted in perfectly with the capabilities of the banjer. [Ornamental upward graces and slides are documented in European cultivated style as early as the Renaissance.]

We need also to remember that chords, per se, as opposed to harmony, did not exist even in Classical music until the 17th and 18th centuries and that melodic lines were still considered paramount into this period. Folk music traditions were even more conservative and there would have been no incentive among American folk musicians to look for a means to play chords. The fiddle played melodies (along with drones and occasional harmonic accompanying notes) and that would have been the instrumental standard for the developers of the banjer. Other instruments, if they existed, would have been melodic as well: fifes, penny whistles or flageolets, and jew’s harps. The dulcimer (the true, hammered dulcimer) was played melodically with drones, perhaps with occasional arpeggiated pseudo-chords, though those in the early recordings sound very much influenced by urban traditions. The ‘Appalachian dulcimer’ fretted zither is a remotely possible influence, probably arriving with the Pennsylvania Germans and has a constant drone accompanying the diatonic melody. Nothing in this folk instrumentarium suggests a need for playing chords. The banjer, consequently, felt no lack until late in the 19th century when the influence of Victorian parlor music began changes which lead it out of folk tradition.

We do not know the origins of the tuning systems for the banjer but there is reason to believe that multiple options existed from the beginning. There is no standard tuning in the various African instrument traditions. Distinctive tunings were widespread among banjer (and banjo) players in the early 20th century. Numerous guitar tunings were in existence at the same time for an instrument which was introduced into common usage only at the end of the 19th century. But more significantly, there was a long tradition of varied tunings for string instruments in Europe, even in cultivated music, dating from the Middle Ages. The violin was commonly tuned in a number of ways and, though sources used the term ‘scordatatura’ (from the Italian ‘[di]s-cordatura,’ meaning ‘un-tuning,’ implying deviation from the norm) it is not at all clear, especially in the beginning, that they were any less used than the ‘standard’ tuning.

Today, tunings are used to accentuate the melody. Since the melody generally only uses one note (on one string) at a time, the other strings are available either as drones or as punctuation to emphasize individual relationships or the general nature of the tune. Tunings are often idiosyncratic and even known by the name of the tune they represent. [On an old recording the Kentucky banjo player Pete Steele says, ‘Now this is Little Birdie tuning. There’s no other tune in this one except Little Birdie. It’s just Little Birdie.’]

A result of tuning the strings to match important pitches in the melody is that strumming the strings may not produce a chord, in the conventional sense. Since chords were not, and generally are still not, used in the music this is not surprising. But the sound is surprising to many, even those of us who play traditional music. The character of the sounds of various tunings is distinctive, refreshing, and–including as they often do, dissonant pitches–even challenging. But they are another of the elements of banjer music which give it its idiosyncratic quality. Frequently there are only three, or even two, different pitches (with octave doublings) among the five strings, which produce a powerful drone effect parallelling the sounds of fiddle and Appalachian dulcimer. But it may also lead us back to the African origins of the instrument which usually only had two or three strings. Once again the similarities of the two cultures work together to strengthen the transmission of the tradition.

On the Appalachian dulcimer, once the tuning is set for a particular mode the diatonic frets make it impossible to make a (modal) mistake. Almost anything one notes in the course of playing a melody will sound, if not ‘correct,’ at least compatible. In a similar manner, when playing the banjer in a particular tuning many, if not all, of the strings will be reinforcing the main pitches of the melody and, even if you miss the exact note, the chances are it will sound acceptable. Even more importantly, this random element sometimes produces variations which will be retained in future iterations. Though not specific to banjer playing, the whole subject of variation is central to traditional style. If tunings tailored to particular pieces make the variation process easier, all the better.

So we see that the instrument and its music have evolved in a symbiotic relationship. The music suggests possibilities that the instrument can exploit and the instrument offers capabilities the music can explore. It is no accident that the banjer has no frets, neither does the voice. And it was the unaccompanied song which was the primary means of musical expression among the folk in Europe as in Africa.


It is important to remember that the instrument is always the servant of the player. Most of the great old-time fiddle and banjo players learned on homemade instruments that wouldn’t pass muster nowadays. I have always encouraged players to make their own instruments. As the great English composer Gustav Holst famously said, ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.’ Not that he was encouraging mediocrity, but if we never crawl, we will never run. I am delighted by the many websites of people who have built banjos out of coffee cans and baseball bats. Anyone who is a musician and has never tried to build an instrument is missing great pleasure and profound insight into the music-making process. If you are inspired to launch off on your own, congratulations and good luck. I would love to see what you accomplish. I have made a number of banjers over the years, including a copy of the lovely instrument played by the young black man in the famous 1856 painting by William Sydney Mount. [See “Banjers I Have Known & Loved”]

Fretless Banjo Workshops

Homer Ledford banjer, San Diego State Folk Festival, ca. 1973

For most of the twenty years of the San Diego State Folk Festival, and for many in its later incarnations, there was a Fretless Banjo Workshop spreading the gospel of traditional style and encouraging many to try their hand at making their own instruments. I was always there with all my instruments for novices and, as often as we could, we had my mentor and guru, Stu Jamieson, who can be seen in the center of all these pix from our heyday, with the octagonal banjer he made back in the 1940s, after his experiences with Rufus Crisp.

I always thought Someone – not me – should put together a newsletter, or list, of all the people who owned, played, or made fretless banjos. I still think it’s a good idea and, with the internet, a lot easier and more practical. But I’m more of an Idea man; besides what I don’t know about computers scares me and definitely disqualifies me. Still, it would be nice, if you were passing through Boise, or Dubuque, or Macon, to be able to call up someone who wouldn’t think you had forgotten to finish the neck on your strange-looking banjo and would appreciate what you had made out of a pie plate and a railroad tie. We may not be quite the outsiders we once were, but there is strength in numbers and we are Still looking for a few good persons. Come on over to the fretless side: like the song says, “I’m frettin’ now but I won’t be frettin’ long!”

                        [All photos by Virginia Curtiss.]

1978: Raise your banjers high!

I made me a banjer out of gourd,

Strung it up with twine,

The only song that it would play,

Was ‘Trouble on my mind.’