A bad example of social distancing while playing a banjo ukulele . . .
Friends and colleagues have mentioned that, in these trying times of isolation and forced leisure, they have found my meant-to-be-merry musings on ukulele lore diverting if not soothing. It makes this whole blog thing worthwhile! So, with an extra bit of time on my hands as well, I soldier on–while keeping my distance.
This week’s musing on banjo ukuleles (a bit longer and a tad more rambling than usual) is a good example. It focuses on a style of playing that some folks might find a bit off-putting but, nontheless, is part of our ukulele heritage. Many other folks think it’s the only way to go! Go figure.
Oh well, if it’s too much to take in at one time, break it down into chapters or–to be musical–verses! Anyway, stay well, keep your social distance, and enjoy.
But, as a warm up digression, here’s a tune (sorry, no banjo uke here) to get us in the mood of the day. Click or tap on the image. I’ve added chords and lyrics at the end of this musing.
Now, back to work. Moving on to our theme of banjo ukuleles . . .
Most of you gentle readers and fellow strummers know that my go-to instrument for those Tin Pan Alley, old-time, and country tunes we play has long been a banjo ukulele. I have a Gold Tone Deluxe tenor and a vintage Bruno baritone in my arsenal. These are set up with nylon strings and softened with a rubber violin mute when absolutely necessary.
Alas, my vintage soprano-scale Ludwig Professional is out on “fifty-year rental” to our friends the “Ukulele Scramble,” but such is life. Better to have it loved and well played than merely loved!
But, once again, I digress.
So, to begin, how about an overture? Click or tap on the next image to see what can be done with a Ludwig Professional banjo uke. Get your earplugs on if you must because HERE WE GO!
To a lot of folks the bright, percussive tone of a banjo ukulele is thrilling, to others an acquired taste, and to still others . . . well. But this variation of the traditional uke goes way back in musical history. This might be nothing more than a “drum with a stick attached to it,” but this little instrument is taking off and has found more than a few fans over the past hundred or so years.
In 1916, San Francisco resident John A. Bolander patented the first banjo ukulele. In 1922, Hawaiiian-born Californian Alvin Keech, a ukulele player and vaudevillian, found himself in post World War I Paris performing on stage and in cafes. He and his brother, Kelvin also made and sold several variations of banjo ukuleles that would become known as “Keech Banjuleles.” (Note the spelling.) Because of their musical and manufacturing efforts, the instrument became very popular in Europe, specifically France and Britain and later in the US.
Here is one of their simple banjo ukes from the 1920s.
Most “Uke-ologists” credit Keech as the performing perfector and earliest promoter of the banjo uke if not the inventor.
Keech perfected a fast-fingered strumming style that set the stage for banjo uke players of the day and set an example for many today. Despite the fact that this is a “silent movie,” check out his fingering skills in both regular and slow motion. Click or tap on the image.
For some sound, here’s a look at a restored vintage Keech Banjulele in action today. Click or tap on the image to check it out.
Examples of banjo ukes from both sides of the Atlantic show, basically, a four-string soprano ukulele neck mounted on a six- to eight-inch cylindrical pot with a skin head. In fact, banjos and banjo ukes soon became a lucrative sideline of big name drum manufacturers such a Slingerland and Ludwig.
Before the advent of the banjo ukulele, however, short necked eight-string, four-course banjo mandolins or “banjolins” were available—usually with a ten-inch head. So were four-string versions called “melody banjos” and a five string version called a “piccolo” banjo.
These were the “soprano voices” in the banjo bands or orchestras of the 1890s and early 1900s.
While banjo ukes are tuned in the standard re-entrant GCEA (or the once-popular ADF#B), the melodies and banjolins were usually tuned in fifths like a mandolin or violin, GDAE.
The banjo uke became popular, particularly with vaudeville performers, because it was relatively simple to play, like a regular ukulele, and, like a good “stage voice,” LOUD! Tap or click on the following image for an example performed in the “Keech style,” later and especially today called the “Formby style,” about which more later.
And, of course, there were many other vaudeville or stage performers.
Some say that what drove the banjo uke into popularity, however, was that it was easier to build (read less expensive) than the more curvaceous, guitar-like standard ukulele. It was made up of a lot of interchangeable parts and the less expensive models required little fancy wood bending and finishing. You could even use a bit of an old log.
Or little pieces made out of big pieces.
This, coupled with the popularity of Tin Pan Alley ragtime tunes, made the brighter, jazzier tone of the banjo uke THE sound of the 1920s and put a banjo uke into the hands of thousands. It seems that everyone wanted to learn, and many folks made money from songbooks as well as instruments!
As with all musical instruments, there are low- as well as high-end models. A Stromberg Voisenette . . .
A Gibson UB-2 with resonator . . .
A gold-plated Ludwig Professional . . .
Simple styles cost only a few of dollars in their day while fully decked out vintage models–when found– easily can cost a thousand or more in today’s market.
However, there are many affordable, brand new banjo ukes out there today. Test drive one when you next visit your favorite ukulele store!
They are fun to look at, fun to play, fun to hear, and fun to collect.
And, easy to decorate. A blank “canvas” so to speak!
And, popular in the sweet old days as well as now.
Now, we would be remiss if we didn’t include samples of two of the great banjo ukulele players of the past who epitomized the fast-fingered Keech/Formby styles, both British–First, Tessie O’Shea who performed alongside the Beatles when they did their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV Show.
Their joint appearance drew what was then the largest audience in the history of American Television. Imagine that for a banjo uke player! Check out this YouTube if you have a few minutes!
And—for you collectors out there—she played a Gibson UB-3 (sometimes known as a UB-2 Deluxe) with a full resonator for super, stage volume!
And then, on to the King of the fast-finger players and the performer who gave his name to the style as played today, George Formby. Just imagine the service, wit, musicality, and personality of Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Steve Martin, and Jerry Lewis wrapped up in one British music hall and film star. He became known to a worldwide audience through his many films of the 1930s and 1940s and his entertainment of the troops during World War II. On stage, screen, and records he sang light, comical songs and became the UK’s highest-paid entertainer. Some say that he made the banjo ukulele famous and he certainly made his fast style of play the goal of many players.
You might wish for sub-titles with this one, but this is one of his signature tunes. Click or tap to watch and listen.
Playing in his fast-paced signature style is the goal of many of today’s banjo uke players and there are George Formby Society (GFS) clubs all over Britain. Needless to say, the banjo uke is HUGE in the UK!
It’s too bad there isn’t anyone playing a banjo uke in this performance, but here is the quintessential George Formby song by the United Kingdom Ukulele Orchestra. Click or tap for a treat!
Those folks are virtuoso ukulele players but, of course, no one should be without an essential banjo uke. It can certainly play an essential role when necessary, so to speak.
Warning, gentle readers! Don’t try the above pose with this one!
This musing emphasized the vaudeville or music hall style of play. After all that, I haven’t mentioned frailing, bluegrass picking, or chord melody on the banjo uke. Alas. Inspiration!
Anyway, stay warm, well, and appropriately distanced (and modestly dressed while hunkered down at home)–and STAY TUNED!
By the way, here are the words and chords for the “Social Distance” tune. Enjoy while we must . . .