“What is that instrument?” is a question we’re used to hearing in reference to my six-string banjo, or guitjo, when The Victor Mourning performs. Although it dates to the mid-nineteenth century, the guitjo (sometimes called a banjitar) remains surprisingly unfamiliar to the general public and musicians alike.
The banjo, of course, traces its history to African slaves in the United States, who adapted African stringed instruments into gourd banjos. Until the 1830s, the banjo was an instrument associated exclusively with African American musicians. The five-string banjo was popularized to white audiences in the U.S. by the early minstrel performer, Joel Sweeney, in the 1830s, and introduced to England by the Virginia Minstrels during the following decade. The banjo quickly became a favorite instrument in English music halls.
The six-string banjo was evidently a British innovation, attributed to William Temlett, one of England’s earliest banjo makers, who opened his shop in London in 1846. Although early examples differ in design, the guitjo soon came to consist of a banjo body with a guitar neck, tuned and played like a guitar. Other hybrid banjo forms include the banjolele (a banjo/ukelele combo), the mandobanjo (mandolin/banjo), bass banjo, and cello banjo.
The six-string banjo joined the four-string banjo as a popular instrument in jazz and swing music of the 1920s and 30s. The six-string banjo was the instrument of the early jazz great Johnny St. Cyr (of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven), as well as that of Django Reinhardt, Danny Barker, Papa Charlie Jackson and Clancy Hayes, as well as the blues and gospel singer The Reverend Gary Davis.
Neither banjo nor guitar, the guitjo belongs to both the banjo and guitar families. Its distinctly plunky, percussive sound is being rediscovered by musicians today. Artists including Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen have used it on tour and in the studio, and it is the primary instrument of Old Crow Medicine Show ‘s Kevin Hayes.