SOME OTHER BANJERS
I made my copy of the William Sidney Mount banjer in 1983, just missing getting it into Bob Webb’s MIT exhibit. The neck is from a piece of birch with a sap wood color change running down the 5th string side. The rim was made from some beautiful cherry and I cried the whole time I was japanning the exterior so I decided to make another banjer to show off the wood.(see right) The hardware was made from sheet brass and brass bolts with the heads filed off and hammered into hooks. [You can hear this banjer on my CD, track 9.]
After I finished the Mount banjer I determined to make an instrument which would really show off some glorious cherry I had been given. Many of the early descriptions of the banjer describe it as “a cheesebox with a neck.” [Not to be confused with a cheesebox on a raft.] I made a complete Shaker-style, round, lapped box with a small, heart-shaped soundhole and screwed on a simple neck. I made cherry pegs, the blades of which are tapered and tapered the plain, rectangular peg head. The fifth peg uses a box design I saw on a Gold Rush era banjer from San Francisco. Some say the result looks like Banjer Meets Scandinavian Design. The cherry bridge has a thin strip of bone on top to match the bone nut. I use real gut strings, tuned quite low, which produce a hauntingly subtle sound, nothing at all like a Mastertone. [You can hear this banjer on my CD, track 13.]
In 1963, I made my first traditional instruments: a Kentucky dulcimer and a fretless banjer neck. I wanted the banjer to fit inside a wooden fiddle case so I mounted it on a little bird’s eye maple banjo mandolin rim. I played it for a decade but it was not quite what I had hoped so in 1976, for the Bicentennial, I refurbished the neck and made an octagonal box of flame maple. The direct antecedent was Stu Jamieson’s octagonal box banjer of more conventional dimensions (see above). His had been inspired by one he had seen while collecting and studying with Rufus Crisp in eastern Kentucky in the 1940s. (In the 1980s, at a workshop with Jean Richie in Hindman, I saw a photo of an old woman, sitting on a porch, playing an octagonal banjer. Sure enough, it was Aunt Liz Hill, of Martin.) Stu’s instrument had a small, circular skin tacked over the center of the wood face and violin-type “ff” holes in the back. I was curious what an all-wood face would sound like, I figured if I didn’t like it, I could reverse the box, cut the hole and tack the skin later. But I like it. The front has the “ff” holes and the back has sound holes in my stylized initials.
[Not to intellectualize it too much, but the crescent “c” could allude to my studies of the Middle East and the “b” is reminiscent of an early C-clef, blah, blah, blah.]
[This banjer is on my CD, track 5.]
I had been collecting old wooden fiddle cases for years, with the intent of making more banjers, or mountain dulcimers, to fit inside them. Bob Webb had always admired my little box banjer, so I finally got around to making this one for him when he made one of his infrequent visits back out to his old stomping grounds in 1984. The neck is walnut and rather larger and more flamboyant than mine. But then, so is Bob. The box is a great piece of bird’s eye maple. I left the finishing off of the case to him.