Gourd banjos are where it all begins. If you like an older style fretless banjo, then this is your choice. The volume is comparable to the minstrel banjo, but the gourd banjos have a deeper, more resonant or mellow tone.
From the 17th century on, reports from the slave routes spanning theWest African coast to the Caribbean islands, we have references to folk instruments resembling the gourd banjo. In 1689 Sir Hans Sloane, a physician who thoroughly documented Jamaica's music, noted that the island's Africans have "strum-strums... several sorts of instruments in imitation of lutes, made of small boards fitted with necks, strung with horse hairs or the peeled stocks of climbing Plants or Withs." These he said, "are sometimes made of hollow'd Timber covered with Parchment or other Skin wetted, having a bow for its neck, the strings ty'd longer or shorter as they would alter their sounds." Such a "strum-strum" was likely the same as what Adrian Dessalles describes in his Histoire Genérales des Antilles (1678), called the "Banza," to which the slaves on Martinique "danced in their own style". (Translated and cited in Dena J. Epstein, "The Folk Banjo").
Small 8 inch gourd Fretless Banjo
Until the mid 1840s, gourd banjos were the norm for both the performing minstrel and amateur alike. In both the North and the South, gourd banjos were made by the slaves. If you wanted a banjo you sought out a slave and had him make you one. As the popularity of this musical instrument grew in the late 1840s, "turners" or carpenters began to advertise themselves as banjo makers, but since no one maker ever made more than just a few instruments, there was wide variation in banjo styles.
Unless you specify otherwise, you will receive a mid-19th century reproduction gourd banjo which will be at home on the plantation, a soldier's camp or the minstrel stage.
The gourds I have vary in size, but average from about 9" to 13" in diameter and the default scale length is approximately 26". Gourds have a season and sometimes certain sizes are just not available. This is one of the reasons the wooden shell banjo gained in popularity in the 1840s. If you prefer a different scale length or a particular size of gourd, just let me know. The scale length is easy to accommodate. Gourd size will depend upon what is available.
I usually put an oval sound hole in the gourds to assist with sound projection. My banjos all come strung with Nylagut strings unless you special order genuine gut. (Genuine gut is not always available, but if you are interested, please ask.)
My usual method of attaching the hide to the head is with brass tacks. If you prefer a laced head, please let me know. There is no additional charge.
I generally use and stock maple for my banjo necks. If you are looking for a different wood, please let me know and I will check on its availability for you.
I provide two bridges. A regular height and one a little higher to accommodate the stretch of the hide when played out doors in the cool or damp. Most of the options available for the wooden shell minstrel banjos can be provided on the gourd banjos. Just note the options you are interested in the comments box on the order form.
(Modern mechanical or planetary tuners vary in price from $50 to $100+. If you would like this option installed on your banjo, please contact me for a quotation. I have been receiving an increasing number of requests for this option. Mechanical tuners do not affect the sound of the banjo, they just make it easier to tune.
While not historically correct for the 18th or 19th Century, it is completely appropriate for the 20th and 21st Century. While I respect the heritage of the gourd banjo, I also respect the tradition of adapting folk instruments to contemporary tastes. If you desire some modern adaptations, please ask.)
Below are MP3 sound samples from gourd banjos with Nylagut strings.
Rose of Alabama
These are 12 inch gourd banjos and are shown with scroll shaped peg heads, but you may select either the rectangular or Stichter "lazy 8" style for no extra charge.
The banjo on the left is a plain straight necked gourd banjo. The one on the right is a left-handed banjo with an ogee carving on one side of the neck.
Right or left-handed banjos are the same price.
Standard Gourd Tack Head Banjo with plain straight sided neck.
(banjo only)............... $289.00
Typical gourd size is approx. 9". I can special order larger 12" gourds (when they are available), but the smaller 8" - 9" gourds are more typical of the 19th Century instruments and that is the size I try to keep in stock.
Optional ogee neck carving is additional .............. $30.00
Carved on both sides ............................................. $70.00