Frequently Asked Questions

Taken from "A Complete Guide to the Instruments of the Banjo Family" compiled by A.P. Sharpe.


THE ZITHER BANJO is really a constructional variation of the banjo and as such has five strings tuned to the same pitch and notes.

This type of instrument started with W. Temlett's patent closed-back banjo of 1869 (Temlett always called himself the "pioneer of the zither banjo"). The American C. E. Dobson patented an "Improved Closed Back" banjo in 1878 but it was Alfred D. Cammeyer (an American who had settled in England) who perfected the zither banjo and introduced it to this country in 1888.

The vellum diameter of the zither banjo varies between 7 inches and 9 inches and it rests on a circular metal casting suspended in a wooden hoop with convex back, approximately 9 inches to 11 inches in diameter, by metal "S"-shaped brackets (varying in number) affixed to the upper edge of the wooden hoop. The top-band (or bezel) is usually of cast metal with a number of lugs round its diameter through which pass screwed bolts which engage in the tapped holes in corresponding lugs on the inside casting. By tightening these screws, pressure is applied to the top-band which then increases tension on the vellum.

Zither banjos have always dispensed with the side fifth peg; the octave string passing through a tube inserted under the fingerboard and emerging at the peghead. It has been usual to fit guitar machine-heads to the zither banjo so that the peghead presents a 'three-a-side" appearance—although only five of the tuning mechanisms are used. (Some manufacturers have in the past produced machine-heads specially for the zither banjo, with two pegs on the bass side and three on the treble side but the balanced machine heads present a better appearance). The machine heads are usually fitted vertically in a cut-out recessed head.

In the beginning the zither banjo was always played by vibrating the strings with the nails of the right hand (these were developed and carefully tended by the true artist for this purpose) and the instrument was particularly suited for the slower type of solo where sostenuto could be employed. When forced, the zither banjo is inclined to produce overtones and true staccato playing is difficult (if not impossible) to perform on it. The instrument has a distinctive tone all its own; with an inclination to ""wiriness."

There is no "standard" stringing for the zither banjo but the following sets of banjo strings are used :-

(1) Plain wire plated 1st, 2nd and 5th. Nylon-filament 3rd. Nylon-covered 4th.

(2) As above but with a silk-covered 4th.

(3) Plain wire plated 1st, 2nd and 5th. Wire-covered 3rd and 4th.

(4) As (3) but with nylon-covered or silk-covered 4th.

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