Five String Banjo Story


Cree Vicar Dave ~ SASS Life Regulator #49907

The history of the five string banjo of today stretches back across some 150 plus years in America making it a “uniquely American” instrument.  Lutes, harps, lyres, etc. have been used to play music for thousands of years around the world.  The drum has also been around a very long time.  So it is obvious that at some point in the past a very industrious student of music connected strings to a drum to establish the predecessor of the banjo.  This banjo forerunner is traced back to the early 1600’s to regions of Mali, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.  They were constructed by placing an animal skin over a large turtle shell or gourd with the top cut off.  Then some type of wooden stick was affixed and animal hair, hemp or some type of twine was used as strings.  These instruments were called a bonza, banjar, banjer, bonjer, bongoe, banshaw, etc. depending on what part of the world it was played.  There are written accounts of these instruments in West Africa as early as 1620 and in the Caribbean in the 1680’s.

This stringed instrument that made its way to the American Colonies is mentioned as a bonjer in a Maryland newspaper in 1754.  The slavers were not allowed to play drums so the banjer became very popular in the South.  There was a significant change though in the black American’s style banjer.  Instead of having a stick for a neck there was a guitar type fret board neck.  Two or three strings (made of horse hair; hemp, gut, etc.) were installed over the animal skin head.  Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying about it:  “The instrument proper to them (the slaves) is a Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.”

Psalms 150:4b NIV says to praise the LORD  “….with the strings and flute.” 

The old Southern Gospel music and hymns are still very popular today.

By the early 1800’s the fiddle, bones, tambourine and “banjo” were used almost exclusively by the Black community in the South.  In the early 1830’s Joel Sweeney learned to play and build banjos from the slaves that lived near him.  Sweeney copied the southern Black style of music.  He formed a musical group not unlike those in the South.  It was called Old Joes Minstrels.  Until this time it seems only blacks played this type of music.  Sweeney’s band toured Virginia becoming very successful.  They went on the road across America and to other countries.  Many of these musical troupes that went on tour incorporated a fiddle, one or more banjos, bones and a tambourine.  Mark Twain is quoted referring to minstrel music, “In our village of Hannibal we had not heard of it before, and it burst upon us as a glad and stunning surprise.” 

Sweeney and his homemade banjos became very popular.  He is credited with adding a 5th string to the banjo but as far as can be seen it was what is now the 4th (Lowest Pitched) string, as the top drone string that goes some half way up the neck was put in place long before by the Black banjo players.  After I read and digested several articles on the history of the banjo it brought to mind what Joseph said to his brothers in Egypt many years after they had sold him into slavery.  They were afraid that Joseph would retaliate for what they had done to him.  But Joseph simply said, “But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.”  (Genesis 50:20a KJV).  In other words, God can bring forth something good out of even the worst circumstances that we may find ourselves to be in.  So one good thing that came out of slavery was the BANJO; an instrument invented and improved upon by the Black musicians in the South. 

By the mid 1800’s banjos were so popular that there were Banjo competitions going on in major cities.  Music Companies started building banjos and banjo teachers were in demand.  Steel strings became available that were cheaper and longer lasting than the horse hair ones.  Frets were added to the banjo neck around 1878.  By the late 1800’s as many as 10,000 banjos were being played in Boston alone. 

The banjo accompanied the migration west.  Banjo makers and instructors set up shop across America.  Musical troupes (sporting banjos, fiddles, etc.) entertained the masses playing their tunes in city theaters, saloons and mining towns.  These musical groups were sometimes hired by cattle companies to sing on cattle drives, but probably not as you might think.  It was thought that the cattle would be less likely to stampede if they were serenaded at night.  I can almost hear them singing “Oh Susanna”, Home On The Range” and the like from dusk to dawn to a herd of jittery longhorns.  There is record of a minstrel troupe joining a cattle drive in 1882.  It seems that a Kansas City cattle company hired on such a group for a drive that started in eastern Oregon.  Today the banjo can be found in almost every type of musical genre from Blue Grass, to Country, to Gospel, to Jazz, to Classical, etc.

Around a year ago the piano player at our Church, Norma Foor, mentioned that she was going to learn how to play the 5 string banjo.  I thought to myself, “If she can learn how to play the banjo, so can I.”  Remembering that I had a banjo up in the attic at home that was purchased some 35 years ago, more or less.  I had strummed it a little then put it away for 3 plus decades.  Well I got it down, blew the dust off the case and took a look at it along with the “how to play instructions”.  This time I read the book instead of just looking at the pictures.  When The Vicar’s Wife and I went south for the cold season last year the banjo was packed along with the Cowboy guns.  I practiced one to two hours most days in between loading shells, shooting and attending Church on the weekends.  I am just now getting comfortable in rolling with a little pickin’mixed in.  Rick Allen, at Mid Michigan Music Store in Midland, Michigan, has been a big help.  He invited me to play in a little Blue Grass band that meets once a week in a coffee shop nearby.  It really helps to improve your playing ability when you join a band and are forced to keep in time.  I’m now starting to look to upgrade with a mid range banjo.  It’s kind of like Cowboy Action, there is always a model that works a little better and looks a little nicer. 

Rick Allen (holding an antique banjo) and Cree Vicar Dave. Rick is an established banjo & Dobro player. He is the proprietor of Mid Michigan Music in Midland, Michigan Cree Vicar Dave and Norma Foor getten' ready ta start pickin' at church. Norma inspired me to dust off my old banjo and start playin' it again.

L to R; Bob Rostollan on Guitar, Lonnie Sible on Bass, Rusty Beyer on Mandolin, Rick Allen on Banjo, Cree Vicar Dave on Banjo, Ron Gross on Guitar, Kelly Sible on Fiddle, and Bill Jacobs on Guitar.


    There are five to ten that turn out to play and sing on any given Monday night (7:00PM to 9:00PM) at the "Journeys" coffee shop in Midland, Michigan. Everything from Blue Grass to Southern Gospel to Country to old Cowboy songs are played. If you are in the area, stop in and enjoy the music at 201 East Main Street, Midland, MI 48640

A body has to have some amount of talent to play an instrument, but the most positive results are recognized by following the same three disciplines that are used in Cowboy Action Shooting™, and they are:  PRACTICE, PRACTICE AND PRACTICE.   Usually the only thing that holds us back is our lack of confidence.  My Mom, bless her soul, always encouraged me as a boy by saying, “David, if someone else can learn to do something so can you.”   My thanks to Mom and Norma for inspiring me to play the banjo. 

My next challenge is learning how to play the Dobro.  I just picked up a Dobro Hound Dog Square Neck Deluxe from Rick for a starter instrument.  I’ll be playing it in no time, LORD willing.

Hope ta see ya on the trail.

God bless,




Photos by: The Vicar’s Wife.