Per request of one of our readers, we are featuring the Banjo Uke, or Banjolele, for today’s Spotlights & Histories of “Unusual” Musical Instruments article. Thanks to our reader for suggesting this instrument – we had never heard of this one before, so it was a learning experience for us as well!
If you couldn’t already tell by the instrument’s name, the banjo uke is a combination between a banjo and a ukelele. It has the body of a banjo, but the frets and neck of a ukelele. Now, you might be asking why someone would want to combine a banjo with a ukelele. The reason is quite simple. In the early 1900s, the Hawaiian ukelele was becoming very popular. People loved it’s sound and style, but there was one problem – it wasn’t loud enough! Combining the body of the banjo with the size and tuning of the ukelele was a great solution to that problem.
There is some discrepancy as to who actually invented the instrument. Many sources agree that Alvin Keech invented it in 1918, however some sources say that it might have been John Bolander in 1916. Whoever it was, it was a great idea! It became a very popular instrument in the 1920s and 1930s, especially on the vaudeville scene. Vaudeville performers needed an instrument that played with the ease of a ukelele but with a louder volume, and the banjo uke fit the bill perfectly!
As for the banjo uke’s construction, it is traditionally made of wood, with a pot size (head diameter) of 6-8 inches, versus a banjo’s 11 inch pot size. The heads were traditionally made from calf-skin, but more modern versions of the instrument use synthetic heads. Some may have open backs, while some have resonators in the back (see pictures below).
Now let’s take a look at some videos! The first video is of British comedian George Formby, who used a banjo uke to accompany himself as he sang his comic songs on screen.
This second video is a great example of the banjo uke sound:
What do you think about the banjo uke? Ever played one or heard it performed before? Do you own one? Send us a picture or video!
Do you have any other requests for “unusual” instruments to be featured? Comment below!