What Does A Banjolele Sound Like?

On Aug. 7, 1996, Jim Skrydlak (skrydlak@hdshq.com) posted this article to the Usenet newsgroup alt.fan.wodehouse:

Lorrill Buyens wrote:
While reasonably sure of the appearance of poor Bertie's banjolele (which I invariably picture as looking something like a cross between a ukelele and a banjo), I have absolutely no idea how the thing sounded. What instrument was the b. closest to in tone? Was it ever considered to be a "serious" instrument, or was it like the u., where everybody played it but very few, if any, played it well?

Ah, ha! A subject on which I am a veritable expert (being also a banjo player, and a contributor to alt.banjo, where this very subject has been discussed). During the 1920s, there was rather a craze for hybrid instruments, frequently involving a banjo as part of the hybrid (typically involving a mandolin or a ukulele). Gibson's catalogs from the periods include mandolin-banjos (a mandolin body with a banjo neck), banjo-mandolins (a banjo "pot" with a mandolin neck), ukulele-banjos (a ukulele body with a banjo neck), and banjo-ukuleles (a banjo "pot" with a ukulele neck). Bertie's "banjolele" is this last. It would have been tuned as a ukulele, and played using ukulele technique, but sounded like a banjo, at least to the extent that one can separate the sound from the technique.

The intent was to allow, for example, mandolin players (the mandolin was tremendously popular at the time) to have some of the fun of playing a banjo, and vice versa, and all the other permutations.

Extra! At the 1999 TWS Convention in Chicago, Mike Skupin took the stage with -- yes! -- a banjolele.

Mike Skupin With A Banjolele

The Saga Continues

March 2002


Bruce Conner wrote to tell me that the above is not completely accurate. He writes:

Sad to say, it is not a banjulele that appears in [the above picture], but a close cousin of that venerable instrument, called the banjo-mandolin. One can tell by the eight metal strings (observe the tuners, Jeeves, and note their multiplicity). A banjulele has but four gut or nylon strings but is in other respects much the same, albeit tuned differently. I should be happy to supply you with a genuine picture if you would like. You have but to ask.

I will admit that, to the purist, the banjulele is an instrument invented in 1917 by a fellow named Keech and is a proprietary name for what is otherwise known as a banjo-ukulele. However, the term banjulele has become something of a genereic, so I would suppose my Bacon banjo-uke would qualify. Certainly a closer fit than a banjo-mandolin, which has a quite different sound.

He further advises that people interested in this -- I suppose one must call it an instrument -- might be interested in "the premier banjo-uke site on the web at http://freespace.virgin.net/dennis.taylor/index_3.htm. Or if you would wish to be more specific to the Keech Banjulele then you could look here: http://freespace.virgin.net/dennis.taylor/Page_02_Keech_Banjulele.htm." He goes on to say:

I don't know what tunes Mr. Skupin played upon his instrument (I do hope it was something like "I Lift My Finger and Go Tweet Tweet") but if you want to hear some top drawer banjulele playing, the inimitable George Formby is your man. Here is a live recording of him singing "Cleaning Windows" to the troops in France in 1944, one of his signature tunes. If you can play the solo at the end, you may consider yourself a fine banjulele player!

And last but not least, I include a picture of myself and my banjulele. I'm dressed in WW2 era battledress, as a member of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (reenactment group based in Massachusetts). In addition to assaulting them with the sounds of my singing and banjulele, I also take along a volume of Wodehouse and read to the lads during lulls in the battle. They seem much more willing to face the Germans after that! Indeed, sometimes during my readings.

And here he is, with his trusty banjolele (or banjulele, or banjo-uke), looking as jubilant and carefree as I imagine Bertie looked shortly before Jeeves gave notice:

Bruce Conner With His Banjolele