History of Stringed Instruments

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Austin Harris
Archaeology ANT 240-01
23 April 2011
Construction of Stringed Instruments

The construction and design of stringed instruments like the banjo and guitar has changed and evolved over time due to: cultural movements, technological advancements, innovation, diffusion and migration. Certain stringed instrument designs and styles evolved independently in different cultures as inventions.  These instrument designs were a byproduct of the musical traditions of each society.  They evolved with the changes in that society and also due to diffusion and migration.  The banjo traces its origins to several ancient instruments from the Far East, the Middle East (like the 3 string Rebec) and from Africa: all consisted of a skin stretched over a gourd or hollow body with gut strings stretched from this drum to the attached stick neck. These strings could be strummed like a banjo, plucked like a harp or even bowed.

[pic]
The musician on the left is playing a spike lute of the Jola in Senegal called an ekonting which has 3 strings and a gourd body.

These early gourd instruments from Africa were most likely a result of innovation from individual instrument makers. Their designs remained a secret within their perspective communities until the slave trade caused diffusion and migration within Africa and over to Europe and America. The banjos remained in their rough shape mainly because of technological limitations of construction. They did not have table saws or band saws to form a flat fingerboard or tuning pegs. They certainly had no ability to form metal frets. The “banjar”, “banza” or “banshaw” began to spread with African slaves in the 1700’s who brought it to Europe and America.

[pic]

Manjak tradition-bearer Francis Mendy playing his people's folk lute, the gourd-bodied 3-string bunchundo, in Banjul, Gambia, 2004.

[pic]The Gurmi from Nigeria

The stringed instruments from the Far East and the Middle East experienced migration through the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans and the Arab conquest of Spain. Several gourd and skin instruments also experienced diffusion through the slave trade within Africa.

[pic] Banza. Haiti, c. 1840-1841
[pic]Gourd Banjo late 1700’s

European lute-family instruments (like the Spanish viuela, the Portugeuse cavaco, and the Spanish tiple) had flat fingerboards, wooden tuning pegs, frets and a string nut which were all elements that were added to the African bunchundo, gurmi and ekonting to produce the Afro-American Banza, Banshaw, or gourd banjo of the late 1700’s (a close and recent ancestor of our banjo). Here we see the effects of migration on the construction of the banjo. Common country folk of the southern Appalachians incorporated banjo playing into their folk music brought over from Western Europe. By the early 1800’s traveling minstrels, like The Sweeney Minstrels, were a very popular live act to see for the lower and middle classes. These rough and rowdy white men, dressed in black face, played the banjo more as a slap-stick comedic prop than elegant musicianship. But, the upper class and the religious minded people of the day looked down on banjo and fiddle playing as vulgar and uncouth, associated with immoral moon-shiners. Sweeney played a banjo that replaced the gourd body with a more modern drum and it had 4 full-length strings with a short 5th string on top, although it was still fretless. We don’t know who innovated ARC TERM these changes and it seems that it was more a product of gradual technological innovations. [pic][pic]

Here are black-face minstrel with an 1800’s fretless banjo with short 5th string and drum-like body. On the right are open-back banjos (before back resonators were attached) with drum-like body that had replaced the gourd body. After the short 5th string or drone string was added, the “clawhammer” or “frailin” style began to emerge,...
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