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Thread: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

  1. #1
    Registered User gweetarpicker's Avatar
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    Default c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    For this week’s weird instrument I decided to post a video playing a c1895 Stewart Cello Banjo. I know it’s not a mandolin family instrument and not even tuned to fifths in this case, but I still thought someone might want to hear this rare instrument. It has a giant 16” wide calfskin head and uses classical guitar strings.


    https://youtu.be/nz_FJzSwWX0


    www.vintagefrettedinstruments.com

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    Registered User G7MOF's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Just my opinion but that sounds awefull.
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by gweetarpicker View Post
    For this week’s weird instrument I decided to post a video playing a c1895 Stewart Cello Banjo. I know it’s not a mandolin family instrument and not even tuned to fifths in this case, but I still thought someone might want to hear this rare instrument. It has a giant 16” wide calfskin head and uses classical guitar strings.


    https://youtu.be/nz_FJzSwWX0


    www.vintagefrettedinstruments.com
    Like it! Thanks for posting.

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    Registered User Tavy's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    It's a cool instrument, but I'm afraid I'm with G7MOF on the sound quality

  5. #5
    Registered User gweetarpicker's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Boy you guys don't guild the lily! I'm thinking that " awful" sound quality is more my playing than the banjo. I think the banjo sounds very nice when it is played fingerstyle like a classical guitar which was how it was intended to be played. I decided to give it a whirl with fingerpicks which was probably a mistake for an instrument strung with classical guitar strings.

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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    I thought the sound interesting, I would lose the fingerpicks. It would be interesting to hear it without them or frailed.
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    Mando-Accumulator Jim Garber's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    I like the growling sound but what do I know? I am lately getting into minstrel banjo: fretless and lower pitched and finger plucked. I would love to hear this cello banjo played without the picks, too.
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    Registered User gweetarpicker's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    I kind of like the growling sound too, and it sounds even more so in person. However, that giant calf skin head and the low tuning limit the instrument somewhat for soloing. The thing I played in the video was something I made up to play fingerstyle with nylgut strings on my Stewart Thoroughbred. It sounds fine on the regular banjo but when I try to play it fingerstyle on the cello banjo, it is crazy muddy. I decided to use the fingerpicks on the cello banjo to give it a little more clarity which helped at least a little for that tune. The tunes I usually play clawhammer style are also impossibly muddy on the cello banjo. At least at my skill level, slow simple fingerstyle plucking is about the only way to get any clarity out of it. I definitely need to spend more time exploring its potential. It does have killer bass response so I can see how it would really shine in a classic banjo orchestra setting.

    I found the video link below by another guy who has one of these instruments. He plays a slower period piece called "skeleton dance" which kind of gives an idea of how one sounds fingerstyle.


    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFJmQbw9yug

    www.vintagefrettedinstruments.com

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    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Actually that's typical sound for a well made cello banjo, however the strings may make a difference... In the post Civil War to the early 1900s (in some areas to the mid 1930s), which some call the "Classic Banjo" period, banjos were voiced from very high to very low, and were frequently combined to form banjo orchestras. The cello banjo was just one of those voices. The SS Stewart name was well known as one of the most prolific banjo builders starting in about 1878, and the name was used as a trade name on into the 1930s. These mostly 5-string instruments were popularly used with performing marches and rags of the day.

    Today, in an effort to follow historical patterns, banjos that are specifically setup for the "Classic Banjo" sound are typically setup with nylon (or if available, gut) strings and a skin head, a very short bridge and no resonator, to produce tone and volume quite the opposite of what we usually associate with bluegrass or folk banjos. It may be an acquired taste, but they can sound very nice (yes, that was me 10 years ago).

    Banjo popularity slowly died down in the early 1900s, often being replaced by mandolins... Then when the Jazz period came around in the late 1910s, banjos were brought in often almost by accident, with steel strings because of their volume. During the Jazz period 8-string, 4-string and 6-string necks were adapted to banjo rims to accommodate mandolin, violin and guitar players who didn't want to learn traditional 5-string banjo tuning or playing style.
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    It doesn’t sound awful, it’s just what you would expect a cello banjo to sound like, growls with very little sustain !

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    Registered User bluegrasser78's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    That is KILLER! Love the weird and obscure.

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    Registered User Tavy's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    To be fare, I suspect an instrument like that wasn't really designed to be played that way - more for playing bass lines in a banjo orchestra maybe?

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    Phil Goodson Philphool's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by G7MOF View Post
    Just my opinion but that sounds awefull.
    Hey, I think that's the best sounding banjo I've heard in a while!

    (I also very much like the painting in the background!!)

    Thanks.
    Phil

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    Registered User gweetarpicker's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Yavy: most definitely made for bass lines and accompaniment in an ensemble setting. I suspect the cello banjo would rarely take a solo back in the day.

    Philphool: Painting in background was created by Jason Noble in Chapel Hill, NC around 1975. With its surreal comic figures, bright contrasting colors and horror vacui (detail throughout with little or no free space, literally "fear of emptiness"), it is classic psychedelic art. The artist did not give the painting a name, but it has received many nicknames over the years. My favorite perhaps is "bar room scene from Star Wars."

    Personally I like the rumbling sound of the cello banjo even with the fingerpicks. Obviously being tuned an octave low with nylon strings, it's not one of the recognized classic banjo sounds like a Gibson Granada playing bluegrass, a Fairbanks Whyte Laydie playing clawhammer or a Weymann tenor playing jazz. It's something different, and I'm trying to experiment a little. I also have an old Gibson GB4 trapdoor guitar banjo with a honeycomb rim and a semi-giant 14" calfskin head. Sometimes I put heavy strings on that puppy and tune it down two whole steps to create this muddy gnarly rhythm making beast. Just having fun trying new things.

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  17. #15
    Lurkist dhergert's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by Tavy View Post
    To be fare, I suspect an instrument like that wasn't really designed to be played that way - more for playing bass lines in a banjo orchestra maybe?
    No, actually it's being played as designed. There were bass-banjos also, which were larger, tuned similar to a standard bass, and designed to play the bass line. It wasn't unusual in a banjo orchestra to also find a guitar or two and a standard double bass.

    Worth mentioning, Gold Tone and a few other builders are selling cello banjos today.
    -- Don

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    Phil Goodson Philphool's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by gweetarpicker View Post
    ...
    Philphool: Painting in background was created by Jason Noble in Chapel Hill, NC around 1975. With its surreal comic figures, bright contrasting colors and horror vacui..... "bar room scene from Star Wars."
    ....
    Thanks for the info. I had spent a few years in Chapel Hill shortly before 1975 but was totally unaware of Mr Noble, although I occasionally perused the Ackland Museum. Is he still in NC or painting? I only find that name as being a late singer.
    Phil

    “Sharps/Flats” ≠ “Accidentals”

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    Registered User gweetarpicker's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Philpool: I don't really know what happened with Jason. I've lost track of several old pals from my dear old college days, but I have a couple folks I can ask. I'll let you know if I can get some scoop. I do miss Chapel Hill...what a great town.


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    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: c1895 SS Stewart Cello Banjo

    Sounds just like a cello banjo should IMHO. Thanks for posting!

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