BANJO OR ZITHER-BANJO?

By Robert White BMG August 1951

For those who contemplate taking up a finger-style vellum instrument often find it is difficult to decide whether to purchase a banjo or a zither-banjo. I hope the following remarks will be of some assistance to those faced with this problem.

A writer in "B.M.G." once said he settled the question by the toss of a coin; many others will probably have found an old instrument lying about and will have commenced to tinker with it, without knowing whether it was a banjo or zither-banjo, Such people will not even have been aware that the dilemma existed!

Although governed by personal taste, it seems to me the solution of this problem involves the consideration of two questions: the kind of music the purchaser wishes to play and the species of tone colour, which gives him the greater satisfaction.

Many fine players have concentrated entirely on one of the two sister instruments and have used it to perform almost every type of banjo and zither-banjo composition. In my opinion, however, neither instrument can be used in this manner with complete success.

The ‘all-purpose’ banjo, with resonator attached, is generally conceded to be unsuitable for finger-style playing and, although undoubtedly useful, it is by its very nature a crossbreed and cannot be considered as being quite on the same plane as the two sharply differentiated instruments under discussion.

Compositions for the banjo and zither-banjo cover a wide range of musical feeling. On one hand we have brilliant and highly technical solos, such as "El Contrabandista", "Mazeppa", and "Valse Parisienne", and on the other, dainty and graceful pieces like "An April Blossom" and Morley’s "Minuet".

Generally, it may be said that exhilarating numbers in rapid tempo are more suited to the banjo than the zither-banjo and that the latter is employed to the greatest advantage in graceful and lyrical measures where full use may be made of the delicate nuances of light and shade of which it is capable.

The tone of the traditional open-back banjo (strung with gut, silk or nylon, and with the vellum at the correct tension) is bright, sharply defined and cheerful. The range of tone colour is somewhat limited (although I think it is wider than is generally believed) and it is impossible, even by the use of the vibrato, to prolong the duration of note or chord for more than a very short time.

However, in its own sphere the banjo cannot be rivalled by any other instrument and possesses a unique appeal. The tonal range can be considerably enlarged by the use of the various types of mute now available.

A DIFFERENT INSTRUMENT

The zither-banjo is very different. When well played it produces a crystal-clear legato tone on the treble strings and the bass string can be made to sound almost indistinguishable from the ‘cello.

The third string has a character all its own and has aptly been described as the ‘heart’ of the instrument.

Chord progressions on the first, third and fourth - or second, third and fourth strings are particularly effective as each note, being played on a string of different composition, can be clearly distinguished.

Such devices as the slur, slide and vibrato may be produced with ease and great effect.

The instrument is intimate in character and is not heard to the best advantage in a large hall. It does not make an immediate appeal as the banjo to the man in the street, but those who learn to appreciate its subtle charm and apply themselves to the fascinating task of investigating its still untapped resources will find it an ideal companion.

The greatest satisfaction will be obtained if both the banjo and zither-banjo are played.

The banjo should be played first (as it is in many ways easier to play) but in the later stages the student will find the two instruments may conveniently be learned concurrently and that this method of study has definite advantages.

The zither-banjo sounds deplorable if carelessly handled and the great attention to detail and the accuracy and delicacy of touch which are absolutely essential to its satisfactory manipulation will stand the player of the banjo in good stead; helping him to rise above average proficiency.

This suggestion need not involve crippling capital outlay as quite inexpensive open-back banjos by reputable makers will give satisfactory results if correctly adjusted and fitted with a good vellum, strings and bridge.

Those who aspire to true zither-banjo tone must be prepared to spend a somewhat larger sum on this instrument, but excellent second-hand bargains may be obtained from dealers who specialise in fretted instruments.

In my opinion, the amateur with a fairly catholic taste will derive more pleasure from two moderately-priced instruments than from one top-grade banjo or zither-banjo. The advantage of having a spare instrument is also obvious.

If you decide to follow my suggestion you should try to select two instruments with the same scale length: i.e., the same distance from bridge to nut.

In conclusion, I must reiterate that the choice between banjo and zither-banjo is purely a matter of personal preference, but I hope my foregoing remarks set out impartially the advantages and chief characteristics of both instruments - and that they will help those to whom they are addressed.