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BMG December 1949

The Story of the Zither-Banjo

BY ALFRED D. CAMMEYER

WHEN I was a lad in the early ‘seventies, I was struck with the fever to possess a banjo and started looking round the music shops of New York. Finally, I saw the banjo I wanted – and if the present-day player could see what I bought he would instantly stamp me as a crank. No top band nor brackets, the vellum was tacked on to the hoop. In damp weather the bridge sunk so low that the strings literally lay along the fingerboard. In such weather I had to hold the banjo in front of a fire to restore tension to the vellum. The fingerboard of this instrument was devoid of frets, without position dots or markings of any kind, and I doubt whether banjoists of those days ever explored far beyond the fifth position.

One morning I had a brain wave. Most other stringed instruments had a back; why not a banjo?

I make no claim to be the first to think of this idea. Possibly other banjoists in the vast land of the United States had thought likewise but whether any carried their idea further I have no means of knowing.

I was acquainted with an ingenious engineer and I explained my idea to him:

Have a round box, with a back, and metal work inside. The fingerboard of the instrument to be fretted and machine heads (similar to those used on the guitar) fitted to the peghead to take three wire strings (the 1st, 2nd and 5th) with gut 3rd and silk-covered 4th.

After giving the matter careful consideration he told me he thought it was possible to carry out my ideas, saying, "Bring along your ‘box of tricks’ and I’ll have a shot."

I dismantled the wooden seat of a broken-down chair (knowing it would make a sound-producing back, being so well seasoned) and took it along to my engineer friend, with my banjo.

It was some time before the job was completed but when the ‘new’ instrument was finally in my hands, I can tell you I was an excited kid. I bought two spools of wire (‘00’ for the 1st and 5th and ‘0’ for the 2nd) and a gut 3rd and silk-covered 4th completed the stringing. At last I could produce the sustained tones I desired. The snappy tone produced on all-gut strings (picked near the bridge) never appealed to me.

I BECOME A SOLDIER

At the age of eighteen I enlisted in the 23rd of Brooklyn, one of New York State’s crack Militia regiments, similar to the Hon. Artillery Co. of London.

Concerts were held in our Ward Room and a Hungarian player of the zither, who frequently appeared at these concerts, used to play a little melody with such artistry that it completely fascinated me. I eventually asked him its title and he told me it was part of a score in which a solo for the zither was included; the instrument being accompanied by the muted strings of the orchestra. He told me the title and I purchased a copy and arranged the solo for my new instrument.

Close friends of mine at that time were an eminent doctor and his wife and I frequently spent an evening with them. Naturally, I took along my new instrument and they took a great fancy to my arrangement of the zither melody and often asked me to play it.

The following summer they went to Long Branch, New Jersey (a fashionable summer resort on the Atlantic coast). Before a week had gone by they sent me an urgent letter saying, "Come at once. Have good news. Bring your banjo."

The doctor met me at the station and we drove to his hotel. At luncheon he told me that, during a conversation with the conductor at the Concert Hall he had told him all about my arrangement of the zither solo. The conductor had replied that he had the score in question, adding, "Get your friend to come down and we will try it out at a morning rehearsal. If he ‘delivers the goods’ I’ll book him for two nights."

The next day the doctor introduced me to the conductor and a rehearsal was arranged for the following morning.

My playing seemed to please him and I was booked for two nights the following week. The first night reception was most favourable but on the second night I was half-way through my solo when, without warning, "Bang!" - and the vellum of my instrument had burst.

The conductor tapped his music stand and stopped the orchestra. He looked down at me with a wry smile and with a wave of his hand indicated me to leave the stage. I moved to the front and quietly crept away, exposing my damaged instrument to the audience which created a wave of laughter which drowned any applause. As I reached the exit I muttered to myself, "...and that’s the zither banjo!"

I clung to the name of ‘zither-banjo’ and used it from that day.

 

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