A Little History

Some sources credit a Hawaiian by the name of Alvin D. Keech, who later moved to England, with the invention of the banjo ukulele, in 1917 or 1918. And, it is certainly true that he popularized the instrument. He trademarked the name "Banjulele," and made a large number of them under the Keech name. However, I have not found any proof that Keech invented the instrument. And, banjo ukes exist which were made by John A. Bolander in California, with a patent date of 1916 (to see one of Bolander's banjo ukes, see his page in the "Manufacturers" section).

An 88 page book by N. B. Bailey titled A Practical Method for Self Instruction of the Ukulele and Banjo Ukulele and published by Sherman Clay & Co. of San Francisco, California bears a copyright date of 1914. About it Tom Walsh, of The Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum, comments "Yes, 1914 is the date on the book...although that was the original copyright date, later editions were printed long after 1914. These later editions still used only the original 1914 copyright date, even though they were probably printed well into the 1920s. The 'Banjo Ukulele' part was added to the title in the later editions, but I would guess not before 1917 or 1918. The contents of the method were unchanged. I have a copy that is the 27th edition, and I have seen editions at least as high as the 43rd edition." So, the book is not of use in determining when banjo ukes were first made.

The reason for the banjo uke, banjo ukulele, banjolele (or whatever it was called) was simple. The ukulele had become very popular, but some people wanted an instrument which would produce more volume. The idea of an instrument about the size of a uke and tuned the same, and with a body like a banjo (but smaller) was a natural. Most banjo ukes have a pot size (head diameter) of between six and eight inches (most modern banjos have eleven inch pots).

During the 1920s and 1930s banjo ukes were produced by most of the banjo makers. They were manufactuered by the thousands, and the majority of them were inexpensive instruments, often retailing for $2.00 or possibly even less. Some were openback, while others had some sort of resonator (back).

A great variety of banjo ukes exist, and I find the study of them fascinating. Certainly they are a part of the twentieth century American culture. For the collector, the instrument offers great diversity, not only in the "standard" models produced by the major builders, but in the custom, one-of-a-kind banjo ukes which were made by special order by some companies.

Collectors should be aware of the fact that, over the years, many banjo ukes have been "modified." Resonators were often added to openback models, and parts such as tuning pegs and tailpieces were changed. So, the warning "buyer beware" applies, as it does in all areas of collectibles.

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