History of the Banjo

An American Instrument

In 1831, Joel Sweeney created what is recognized as the only original instrument of the United States, the banjo. His prototype was an African instrument he saw played by slaves. The son of a Virginian wheelwright, Sweeney became a traveling musician and the five string banjo became one of the instruments played on the minstrel stage.

Banjos Seen and Heard

Between 1840 and 1860 banjo construction evolved, producing a more dependable instrument. During the time of the Civil War many people heard a banjo for the first time. The publication of banjo tutors by Tom Briggs, Phil Rice and James Buckley allowed individuals to teach themselves to play.

Banjos on the East Coast

By the 1870s an excitement about playing the banjo began to fill the Eastern cities. Banjo teachers advertised their services. As banjo accompaniment for singing became popular, the right hand technique of the stroke or downward strum expanded to also include a guitar or finger picking style.

Banjos All Around

Banjo manufacturers filled the demand for instruments and concert banjoists filled their audiences with stellar arrangements of popular melodies. Frets were added to the fingerboards to facilitate accurate pitch. By the 1880s the major music publishers offered the latest compositions arranged for banjo. Various quarterly publications kept banjoists informed about concerts, performers and the latest instrument models. Everyone was playing the banjo.

The Banjeaurine

In 1885, S. S. Stewart, a banjo manufacturer from Philadelphia, invented a higher pitched, shorter necked instrument he called a banjeaurine. His effective promotional skills soon launched this new banjo variation onto center stage and the brief era of the banjo orchestra began.

Banjos Go to College

In 1889, almost every college had a banjo group on campus. Among these sons of the wealthy, Stewart instruments were preferred. Thomas Armstrong not only wrote music for all the instruments to play, he also informed the clubs what instrumentation should be used in their group. For example, if there were eight players only specific combinations of banjeaurines, guitars, and banjos were acceptable for a musically balanced sound. Stewart published this information as well as sold the required instruments and music.


Madison Banjo and Guitar Club

In 1885 George Main started the Madison Banjo and Guitar Club with his brother Edward and seven others. The members included a local grocer, a second generation German tailor, and sons of the economic pillars of Madison, Wisconsin. Already a banjoist, George probably saw William Huntley performing with Haverly's Minstrels and playing Stewart's newly invented banjeaurine. George lost no time in purchasing his own Stewart banjeaurine and his banjo club was one of the first to be formed in the country.

Photo of University of Wisconsin Banjo Orchestra

Seven of the original members stayed active in the group for six years. The club affiliated itself with the University of Wisconsin, changed its name, began touring with the Glee Club, and, like the other college and university groups across the country, continued to add the necessary instruments to their banjo orchestra.

Photo of University of Wisconsin Banjo Orchestra

Banjo Sounds

On this site you can hear the sound of each instrument of a banjo orchestra while looking at its image. All the banjos are of S.S. Stewart manufacture and the guitars are period instruments as well, producing a historically accurate sound.

There are two musical selections on this site. The arrangement of Invincible Guard March is based on 1st and 2nd banjo parts. There are no banjeaurines on that selection. Let Her Go Galop has a 1st and 2nd banjeaurine part and omits the 2nd banjo part. In an orchestra arrangement, usually the banjeaurines dominate the melody. Most of the published banjo music of the 1880 to 1900 era was arranged for 1st and 2nd banjo.

Saying Goodbye to the Banjo Orchestra

By the late 1890s it was evident that the banjo's reign was in decline. The new, cakewalk influence overtook the old galloping tempo of the banjeaurine days. Though Vess Ossman and Fred Van Epps recorded the newest turn of the century music on the banjo, the more popular instrument of the day was the mandolin. Ensembles of mandolin, mandola, mando-cello and even mando-bass became popular on the college campus. Gone was the banjo orchestra.