Cello Banjo History - The American Banjo Fraternity Article


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Cello Banjo History   10/3/08          view all articles/interviews

From an article entitled “Cello Banjo” that appeared in 5Stringer (Number 197, Winter-Spring 2008), published by The American Banjo Fraternity.]   Used by permission
The Cello Banjo: Some Historical Notes

The 5-string cello banjo became an important part of many banjo clubs and orchestras some 120 years ago. S.S. Stewart claimed to have “originated” this instrument, but this is hard to substantiate. There were large banjos before Stewart’s time. In “A Thousand and One Banjos: the Tsumara Collection,” by Akira Tsumara, there are 4 English banjos probably made between 1850 and 1870 as large as cello banjo. One had a 141/2-inch diameter head, the other three have drums about 17” in diameter.

But Stewart may well have been the one to introduce the cello banjo into the banjo orchestra in the late 1880’s. For one thing, Stewart probably helped to create the banjo orchestra. Groups such as the Boston Ideals originally used banjos, guitars, and mandolins; banjo orchestras needed more kinds of banjo. Stewart invented/developed the banjeaurine to play lead in clubs in 1885. And this higher pitched 5-string banjo rapidly became popular as a lead instrument. As a next step, Stewart began making cello banjos and introducing them to Philadelphia organizations around 1888-1889.

As conceived by Stewart, the cello banjo had a 16” diameter drum and a scale length of 29 inches. Other manufacturers also got into the act. Fairbanks seems to have made their cellos in a 14”x28” size. However, these instruments are very rare and most cellos that we have seen are Stewarts.

Stewart also referred to this instrument as a bass banjo. There were some contra bass banjos made. These were huge standup instruments. Tom Cary used one in his banjo act – a Washburn built by Lyon and Healey for the Columbian Exposition in 1893. The head was 24 inches in diameter. It stood 72 inches tall and weighed 41 pounds. A Fairbanks-Vega ad from about 1909 showed a similar instrument. These are extremely rare and may have been used mainly as novelties.

Late in the first decade of the 20th century, as the mandolin orchestra became more popular and plectrum playing came into being, cello banjos were made with 4 strings. In England, Clifford Essex made 4-string bass banjos and 3-string contra bass banjos. These had round wooden sounding boards instead of calfskin. They used floor pins, but were held at an angle rather than vertically like a bowed cello or bass. The wooden heads seem to be about 16 and 24 inches in diameter.

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