View Full Version : banjo-mandolin vs. mandolin-banjo

John Kasley
Dec-19-2009, 11:31pm
I am reading Scott Hambly's PhD dissertation "Mandolins in the United States since 1880: An Industrial and Sociological History of Form", University of Pennsylvania, 1977. He has an entire chapter devoted to these hybrid instruments, but I'm still unclear as to what is the distinction between the two.
Before I re-read the chapter, I'm wondering if there are any Cafe members who can succinctly describe the difference between these two hybrids.

Michael Lewis
Dec-20-2009, 1:11am
No matter how you assemble the parts you get a mandolin neck with a banjo pot. They are one in the same. Mandolin body with a banjo neck is a tenor lute.

Dec-20-2009, 6:00am
There were also a number of 5 string necks grafted onto large mandolin style bodies. August pohlman was one maker of these. Doesn't Gold Star make one now?

Dec-20-2009, 6:46am
As someone who has a banjo-mandolin, but wishes he could refer to it as a "manjo," I actually did look into the distinction a bit. I think I understand it thusly:

The second (or root) name refers to what it actually is: i.e. a mandolin has 8 strings and is tuned in fifths, a banjo has 5 strings and is tuned ... uh ... or not(!). Then the first name is an adjective or modifier of the second. So a banjo mandolin is a mandolin which is constructed like a banjo. A mandolin-banjo is a banjo, but made like a mandolin. It's a big wooden 5 string thing. I've seen pictures but never heard one - and not sure I care to!

That's my opinion. Free, and worth every penny.

p.s. I'm re-reading Michael Lewis' post, and he probably has it figured out a bit better than me.

Oh well, sorry for the distraction

Red Henry
Dec-20-2009, 11:17am
A mandolin-banjo is a banjo, but made like a mandolin. It's a big wooden 5 string thing. I've seen pictures but never heard one - and not sure I care to!

Nomenclature is a curious thing. For all my time in the bluegrass field (40+ years now), I've heard the terms "mandolin-banjo" and "banjo-mandolin" used interchangeably for instruments such as the Gibson MB's, but I expect that usage may be different in various parts of the country.

Gibson and other companies made instruments such as you describe long ago, with large mandolin bodies and full-sized 5-string necks. I have heard them called banjo-lutes, and I've seen a couple. Louisiana luthier Luke Thompson had one for sale at a SPBGMA convention several years back. Rumor has it that Gibson made those hybrids in the 1920's to use up the mandola bodies they still had on hand after the mandolin craze crashed in about 1922-4.


Dec-20-2009, 12:12pm
If you're a banjo player, it's a banjo-mandolin. If you're a mandolin player, it's a mandolin-banjo.

Dec-20-2009, 12:44pm
To me the terminology seems pretty arbitrary. I have almost always heard the more common instrument, which is a small banjo with a shorter, eight-string "mandolin neck," called a banjo-mandolin. However, Gibson marked its instruments of that type "MB" for mandolin-banjo. I think in some ways that's more accurate, since there are several types of banjo -- five-string banjo, tenor banjo, plectrum banjo, cello banjo e.g. -- and the mandolin-banjo is one of them. Gibson also marked its banjo-ukuleles "UB" for ukulele-banjo, but I've almost never heard that instrument called anything but "banjo-ukulele."

With regard to the "big wooden five-string thing," a mandolin body with a banjo neck, the premier exponent of that was August Pollman, who sold instruments in NY City around the turn of the 20th century. He featured what he called "mandoline banjos," not only with five-string necks, but four-string and six-string. He labeled them "Polimeni," which I guess was an attempt to make them sound Italian -- useful in marketing mandolins, perhaps. Here's (http://www.billsbanjos.com/pollman_mandoline.htm) a link to a five-string mandoline banjo, quite similar to the one I own. According to this website, Swedish-born Pehr Anderberg was Pollman's luthier. Pollmans are not that uncommon, and not too expensive, if you check out vintage instrument dealers.

I should also mention that Gold Tone makes and imports an instrument they call the Banjola, which is the same design as the Pollman (and somewhat better, I might add, with geared pegs, a truss rod, and other "modern" features). Here's (http://www.goldtone.com/products/details/w/instrument/80/testimony/testimony/Banjola) the Gold Tone web page. I bought one of these as well, and it gets a lot more everyday use than my Pollman, which I usually save for historical music programs.

So from my limited "street" experience, banjo-mandolin and mandolin-banjo are used almost interchangeably.

Now, let's get really confused: there's also a banjolin, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banjolin) which is a four-stringed small banjo tuned GDAE. And the term "banjolin" also refers to a whole family of four-string and five-string instruments built by Geo. Farris in the late 19th century, in various sizes up to "bass." Had enough? What about the banjoline, an electric guitar tuned like a plectrum banjo, with single and double string courses, developed by Eddie Peabody in the '30's?

It's a wonderful world of instruments out there...!

Later: Here's (http://www.rickbeat.com/modelslibrary/6006banjoline/6006.htm) a Rickenbacker 6006 banjoline. Note the octave stringing in the 4th course, possibly in the 3rd (hard to tell), and the single 1st and 2nd courses. Plectrum banjo tuning is normally CGBD, so the higher-octave 4th string would be the equivalent of the 2nd string at the 1st fret, I guess.

Dec-20-2009, 12:45pm
I have a melody banjo, which to the best of my knowledge is a 4 string banjo with a mandolin scale. It has a banjo neck.

Dec-20-2009, 12:46pm
Yea, read that Banjolin referred to a 4 string mandolin scale tensioned skin head, aka melody banjo.

Banjo Mandolin, 8 string , .. then there are the wooden headed round bodied things,

and the long 5 string necks on a teardrop shaped body..:confused:

Maybe a Latin Naming scheme needs to be taken up , Genus and Species.;)


Bob DeVellis
Dec-20-2009, 9:46pm
I think in the day, most makers called them mandolin banjos. They're banjos configured in the style of mandolins. Fairbanks-Vega made them very much in the style of their banjos and used similar nomenclature (like "Whyte Laydie" and "Tu-ba-phone") and similar construction. They were just smaller and with mandolin-style necks. Other than the cutout in the headstock and the tuner covers, you'd be pretty hard pressed to find too many similarities to their mandolins. Bacon, Gibson, Weymann, and probably others also built them as miniature banjos with 8 strings, intended to allow mandolinists to transition to the louder banjo-style instruments without changing scale length as a tenor would require.

I've always called them mandolin banjos. I've had three and, while they looked cool, found them to be pretty limited as music making devices. The two names seem to get used with no particular consistency these days. I think it was less variable when they were first introduced, but I could be wrong.

Jim Garber
Dec-20-2009, 10:18pm
Gibson and other companies made instruments such as you describe long ago, with large mandolin bodies and full-sized 5-string necks.

I am not aware of any Gibson-made 5 string mandolins. There was the Tenor lute which was a 4 string neck on a mandola body. Do you have any pictures of the 5 string version?


Pete Martin
Dec-21-2009, 12:03am
Banjo-mandolin vs. mandolin-banjo.

This sounds like it should have been on the old MTV show "Celebrity Death Match"


Dave Hanson
Dec-21-2009, 2:19am
Banjo/mandolin, mandolin/banjo, it doesn't matter they all sound awful.

Dave H

Red Henry
Dec-21-2009, 6:45am
Banjo/mandolin, mandolin/banjo, it doesn't matter they all sound awful.

Dave H

They pretty much do, giving rise to the old saying that an MB "combines the worst features of a mandolin with the worst features of a banjo." And yet there's a way to tame the beast. After some experiments I found that MB's can be "toned down" with a mahogany bridge, which will make them sound nice and plunky, much more fun to play.

There's an image near the bottom of one of my bridge pages, at http://www.murphymethod.com/maplebridge.html . Scroll almost all the way down.

This design works great. Make one. It's cheap and easy.


Dec-21-2009, 12:46pm
Banjo/mandolin, mandolin/banjo, it doesn't matter they all sound awful.

Listen to this (http://www.allenhopkins.org/music/jigmedley.mp3) and then tell me honestly if it "sounds awful." It's my band Innisfree doing a medley of jigs with Mark Deprez (http://www.mdstocks.com/) playing lead on a banjo-mandolin (or mandolin-banjo) he built himself. It's an arch-top resonator instrument, with a really nice tone (even with a maple bridge), and Mark plays it with a good touch. Other band members are Barb Jablonski on hammered dulcimer, Kathleen Cappon on 12-string guitar, and myself on a Sobell mandola.

I think saying that all these instruments "sound awful" is an unwarranted generalization, IMHO. I've worked with Mark for about 17 years in Innisfree,, and surely wouldn't be doing it if I'd endured 17 years of "awfulness."

Dec-21-2009, 9:17pm
Banjo/mandolin, mandolin/banjo, it doesn't matter they all sound awful.

Dave H

Not true, not all sound awful. It depends on if the "Banjo pot" was a flat pot style or archtop, has a resinator or not and how good the neck fits against the pot. With one that was a QUALITY made instrument way back when, it can and usually does sounds like a Quality mandolin with a bit of banjo twang, and some of us LIKE that. Basically if I wanted a status quo instrument I would have a guitar like the other 27 kazillion million fools out there. Banjo players LIKE to sound and be different. And we HATE the tinny top end of some mandolins and other cheap instruments. But quality instruments have good all around sound from low to high, so thankfully we don't run into too many cheap mandolins out there playing gigs.:whistling: (Okay shes running for cover now):popcorn:

Dave Hanson
Dec-22-2009, 1:30am
Got to admit Allen it sounded pretty good, in fact I don't think I've heard one sound better.
I've got two, one a family heirloom, they both sound horrible.

Dave H

Dec-22-2009, 11:51am
Thanx, Dave. I think one reason that Mark's instrument sounds good, is that it has a much larger shell, and thus a larger head, than the standard mandolin-banjo. And it has a resonator. For that reason, it's not as shrill and raucous. I think Mark took an old tenor banjo shell and made a mandolin neck and a resonator for it. He's a fine woodworker -- if you click on his link, you'll find he makes custom gunstocks for a living -- as well as a nice, solid picker. He also plays an A-style carved-top mandolin that he built himself.

Dec-22-2009, 3:57pm
Dave H's British family heirloons, I guess, are small head[6"] top tensioned things ,

since that's what Ive seen as examples, shown on this site, from over there.

here , mine are 10-10.75". heads, dampened to a short plunk.

Dec-22-2009, 8:51pm
I have found that if you put banjo strings instead of mandolin strings on they sound a whole lot better.

Jan-01-2010, 12:34pm
Yea, read that Banjolin referred to a 4 string mandolin scale tensioned skin head, aka melody banjo.

I have an old 4-string banjo, but I was always told that it was a 'tenor banjo'. Is this essentially the same as the banjos tuned like mandolins? I might actually get some use outta that thing if so! :))

Bill Snyder
Jan-01-2010, 12:39pm
The instruments being discussed here have 8 strings and a mandolin scale. Your banjo would be tuned like a mandola - cgda. The chord shapes would all work, but what you play as a g chord on the mandolin would now be a c chord.

Jan-01-2010, 2:35pm
You got tenor, 2 lengths,and plectrum banjos longer yet, both 4 string , different scale length .

I talked to a Plectrum banjo player back when there was a Trad Jazz festival up the coast .
Player used a different tuning more suitable to his guitar trained braincells so presumably a set of DGBE like intervals .

They dropped the Trad Jazz music as the fans whom came and danced were all too few and old,
now it's another BG weekend .
knocked a few years off the age group attending , so better venue income.

Schlazz could have one of 2 tenor banjo versions , typically the longer one is called 19 fret , shorter 17 fret, and Tenor tuning is Viola like CGDA, but a heavier string set tuned lower
is also used, called commonly Irish tenor Banjo, Its GDAE. to be fiddle like fingering .

So for clarity get the specifics .. Scale length [double the 0-12th fret distance] in inches.

Jan-17-2010, 10:27am
I only have experience with them going back 10 or so years but I have always heard them refered to as "banjolins."

And for the record mine sounds pretty bad but I think it is the 10% instrument and 90% the player! LOL!

I have always like the banjolin in Jug Band music I think it is perfect for it.

Allen that sounded great I loved it! :mandosmiley:

Jan-18-2010, 9:28pm
Allen that sounded great I loved it!

Thanx, Jim -- we're gearing up for St. Pat's, but I'll be joining Mark and a couple other musicians to play some Celtic, at a benefit church supper on Jan. 30th. Raises money to help out those who can't afford their heating costs.

Jan-18-2010, 10:34pm
I've got three banjos. A five string, a six string and an eight string. I am slightly insulted ( O.K,, not really ) of saying that ALL mandolin banjos sound awful. Mine is from about 1920, built like a tank, with a clear plastic head, Thomastick Infeld stark strings and a flatop mandolin bridge I made from a piece of ebony. If Red says mahogany works, I would certainly think he knows best, but my little instrument puts a smile on my face.

Jan-27-2010, 2:42am
I agree with ya, it IS all in the setup of a banjo mandolin. But then again, there are some here on this forum that look down on other instrument players and banjo anything players in particular.

If the setup is good and the instrument is a decent one to start with it will have decent sound to it. There is a guy on youtube that is shown playing a banjo mandolin and playing darn good BLUES on it. It sounds great. It's tonal qualities could not be had from a standard A or F mandie. And there are others who are playing bluegrass/old time stuff on it and again it sounds great with the plunky sounds that they are getting from the smaller heads on those instruments.

Heres to banjo mandolins-may they make a comeback-and yes I know Gold Tone is making a current one.