Instruments & Gear: Fine Lutherie

Jim Hartel Minstrel Banjos

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Bill Evans demonstrates two reproductions of 19th-century banjos.

by Teja Gerken
February 01, 2019

Although there is no shortage of different brands and models, today’s banjos are fairly well-defined instruments: bluegrass players tend to use resonator instruments, and old-time clawhammer players get their tone from open-back banjos. But what were banjos like before their designs were optimized in the 1920s, creating the blueprint that is more or less followed by most contemporary banjo makers? Typically, these instruments were a bridge between contemporary designs and the much earlier versions that had origins in Africa. While they had recognizable features such as a drum-style body with a head made from animal skin, and in many cases five strings, they were also fretless, had gut strings, and predated such modern features as tone rings and geared tuners. Fortunately, not only have some of these earlier banjos been preserved, but a few contemporary luthiers specialize in building replicas of these instruments, among them Jim Hartel of Franklin, New York. Peghead Nation banjo instructor Bill Evans uses some of Jim’s instruments in his “The Banjo in America” show, and in this video, he demonstrates two minstrel banjos, both fretless and strung with Aquila Nylgut strings, one based on an 1845 Joel Walker Sweeney banjo and the other based on one built by James Ashborn around 1852.


Category: Instruments & Gear

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