What began as a simple folk instrument used to create a background rhythm for story telling and relaxation in the evenings after a backbreaking day of labor for the "masters", the banjo became an increasingly precise and sophisticated musical instrument used to accompany professional performers. From simple tacked on heads the minstrel performers began using wooden shells in lieu of gourds and began to use adjustable tension rods to tighten the banjo heads.
The 1850s represented the heyday of minstrelsy, the minstrel show and the banjo. By the end of the Civil War, the banjo was generally shunned by the blacks, largely because of its association with slavery and the demeaning themes of minstrel shows. The popularity of the American Minstrel Show then helped elevate the banjo into a stylish parlor instrument of Victorian white society.
Though frets began to appear in the 1850s, they remained rare until after the "late unpleasantness". By the end of the Victorian era, the banjo even did a stint in the orchestra pit performing classical symphonic music.
With very few exceptions however, the banjo never made a comeback among the African Americans and to this day, what began as a creation of the black culture is still predominantly an instrument of the white Caucasian culture.
The fretless banjo is a uniquely American instrument born in slavery, finding a voice on the Minstrel Stage, playing successively classical music, jazz, folk and bluegrass, across the ages the banjo stands as an important part of our cultural heritage.
Called Fretless Banjos, Gourd Banjos, Frailing Banjos, Civil war, Gut String, Minstrel or Tack Head Banjos, these instruments were common in the American 19th Century cities, villages and frontier.
Fretless Gourd banjos have their beginnings in the mid to the late 18th Century. Before that, there existed gourd and bladder instruments far into African antiquity. The Akonting, Buchundu, Busunde, Koliko, Kokoli, Temba, Kaburu, Gurmi,Komo and Wase are all ancestral string instruments that survive in Africa to this day. From the 16th century Caribbean sugar plantations to the cotton fields of antebellum America, these gourd instruments developed into what we now call the banjo.
From the beginning, the common form of the instrument consisted of a rawhide covered gourd, a simple fretless neck and a short drone string accompanied by one or more, longer melody strings. Until the 1830’s four string banjos also existed (3 melody strings + the short treble drone), but after the 1840s the 5 string configuration became the de facto standard. At this time many professional musicians and those with the financial means, started to play on the adjustable tensioned head banjos of makers like Sweeney, but for the common folk and many of the minstrels, the tack head wooden shell banjo predominates until well after the civil war.