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Nov 17, 2019 - 1:27:02 PM
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1709 posts since 6/19/2014

I'm guessing it's the tuning. In the past, the only way was to achieve the high G without breaking the string was to shorten the scale for that one note. Am I right? Or is there another reason altogether?

And now, when string technology will allow us to get to the high G (and beyond) without going over the tension limit of the string, why do we still make a short fifth? We have tunnelled fifths with no problem at all. So why not just have all five strings going to the peghead?

Nov 17, 2019 - 1:50:14 PM
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12305 posts since 6/29/2005

Are you tuning it to the right octave?

Also, not everyone (myself included) likes tunneled 5th strings.

Nov 17, 2019 - 1:52:29 PM
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Lew H

USA

2317 posts since 3/10/2008

It's a continuation from some African skin head instruments that coalesced into the Caribbean gourd instrument, that evolved into the modern 5-string. Several African instruments (for example, the Ekonting) had a shorter, higher pitched string on the upper side of the neck. In Africa, traditionally, the strings were simply tied around the neck rather than being attached to tuning pegs. Also starting in Africa, these were played in a style similar to today's clawhammer where the 5th string is essentially a drone. There are videos of ekonting players on youtube FYI.

The British Zither banjos had a tunneled 5th string a century ago. That is only recently catching on in the US.

Nov 17, 2019 - 1:56:10 PM
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rudy

USA

14629 posts since 3/27/2004

quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty

I'm guessing it's the tuning. In the past, the only way was to achieve the high G without breaking the string was to shorten the scale for that one note. Am I right? Or is there another reason altogether?

And now, when string technology will allow us to get to the high G (and beyond) without going over the tension limit of the string, why do we still make a short fifth? We have tunnelled fifths with no problem at all. So why not just have all five strings going to the peghead?


The high string on the 5 string banjo is the result of a long history of players experimenting with harmonic intervals that best suit the instrument.  The 5 string banjo high G is arranged in what it known as "re-entrant tuning" which basically refers to tunings that place a higher note "out of sequence" with the progression of the other strings.  Ukuleles are also commonly arranged in re-entrant tuning.

The banjo's high g can be directly traced back to much older instruments whose origins are pre-new world, and those instruments solved the problem of string breakage by shortening the neck string, as you have hypothesized.

Since the high G was popularized as the harmonically pleasing re-entrant drone note there has been no particular desire for players to use lower notes other than a few of the less commonly used clawhammer banjo tunings.  Given all that, the high G is easily accommodated by the fifth fret location for the open string drone so there has also not been a desire to lengthen the string, which would produce a fret board with generally unused real estate.  With no need for that additional string length the commonly used neck tuner location is most often seen, and tunneled solutions less frequently used as a way to move the tuner to the peghead location.

The easy answer to your "Why not simply run the string to the peghead?" is there is no need for the extra notes and the narrower neck width of 4 strings is quite comfortable, with no unused string present that would make a wider neck necessary.

Nov 17, 2019 - 3:44:42 PM

Banjo Lefty

Canada

1709 posts since 6/19/2014

quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan

Are you tuning it to the right octave?

Also, not everyone (myself included) likes tunneled 5th strings.


Yes, of course I'm in the right octave.  That's not my question.  What I want to know is why the banjo has a short fifth string in the first place.  Is it because it was hard to tune up an octave above the third string with a full-length fifth?  Or is there another reason?

Nov 17, 2019 - 4:56:21 PM
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7438 posts since 1/7/2005
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It was a good way to make use of old, broken strings. :->

DD

Nov 17, 2019 - 5:20:16 PM
Players Union Member

rudy

USA

14629 posts since 3/27/2004

quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty
quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan

Are you tuning it to the right octave?

Also, not everyone (myself included) likes tunneled 5th strings.


Yes, of course I'm in the right octave.  That's not my question.  What I want to know is why the banjo has a short fifth string in the first place.  Is it because it was hard to tune up an octave above the third string with a full-length fifth?  Or is there another reason?


If you're looking for "why the banjo has a short fifth string in the first place" then you'll find the answer to that in Lew H's first sentence.

Nov 17, 2019 - 5:31:14 PM

Banjo Lefty

Canada

1709 posts since 6/19/2014

That's really not an explanation. Saying "it's tradition" explains nothing. How did the tradition start? And more importantly, why?

Nov 17, 2019 - 5:32:51 PM

1891 posts since 2/7/2008

quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan

Are you tuning it to the right octave?

Also, not everyone (myself included) likes tunneled 5th strings.


Ken,

I'm curious to learn the reason(s) for your dislike of the tunneled 5th

Edited by - Quickstep192 on 11/17/2019 17:33:35

Nov 17, 2019 - 5:33:57 PM
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223 posts since 4/10/2008

I was told the reason that the 5th string was shorter than the rest was because it smoked when it was younger.

Nov 17, 2019 - 5:38:18 PM
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12305 posts since 6/29/2005

I think they decided to do it that way to annoy people.

Nov 17, 2019 - 5:46:01 PM

196 posts since 12/7/2017

You will get the response just trying to tune a string to high G with a full scale length (very easy to test). It's like tuning a tenor A string on a plectrum neck

Nov 17, 2019 - 6:02:59 PM
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52805 posts since 12/14/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty

I'm guessing it's the tuning. In the past, the only way was to achieve the high G without breaking the string was to shorten the scale for that one note. Am I right? Or is there another reason altogether?

And now, when string technology will allow us to get to the high G (and beyond) without going over the tension limit of the string, why do we still make a short fifth? We have tunnelled fifths with no problem at all. So why not just have all five strings going to the peghead?


You're probably right about the origin.

Picture some dude or dudess, waaayyyy back in the days when calendars were clearly marked B.C., making a banjo out of a gourd, a stick, a piece of hide, and some horsehair.

 

MUCH easier to get a high note from a SHORT piece of horsehair, than to tighten a LONG piece tight enough, and PRAY to the local  Gods & Goddesses that the dang thing wouldn't BUST,  halfway through the opening number.

As for today's technology:

Yeah, sure. 12-string guitar has a full-length octave G.

And my main performing banjo has a full length octave G, so, no need for schmancy capos or spikes.

One single GUITAR capo covers all the strings at once.

 

BUT!
A lot of pickers are TRADITIONALISTS, and they want a banjo generally configured like they've BEEN configured for the last couple thousand years.

If that makes 'em happy, LET 'em be happy.


Nov 17, 2019 - 6:11:27 PM
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12305 posts since 6/29/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Quickstep192
quote:
Originally posted by Ken LeVan

Are you tuning it to the right octave?

Also, not everyone (myself included) likes tunneled 5th strings.


Ken,

I'm curious to learn the reason(s) for your dislike of the tunneled 5th


I actually like the way 5-string banjos look and consider the familiar 5th string tuner to be the defining feature that sets 5 string banjos apart from 4 string ones.   I think tunneled necks are contrived and dumb looking and would never make one.

Nov 17, 2019 - 6:28:33 PM
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2728 posts since 10/17/2009

quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty

That's really not an explanation. Saying "it's tradition" explains nothing. How did the tradition start? And more importantly, why?


The original use was probably as a "drone" note, to which many cultures, (and instruments), utilize the idea of a simple melody against unchanging drone. Probably started simple way to weave the melody with sense of harmonic unity, and add a rhythmic element... and simply because they like how it sounds; i.e. it sounds good.

Edited by - banjoak on 11/17/2019 18:34:36

Nov 17, 2019 - 6:53:41 PM
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7438 posts since 1/7/2005
Online Now

quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty

That's really not an explanation. Saying "it's tradition" explains nothing. How did the tradition start? And more importantly, why?


Tradition counts for a lot. Why does a violin have only four strings? Why do east Indians play semi-tonal music? Why don't we all play harp guitars? 

Or course, tradition changes over time. I believe the original African banjos had one string. It wasn't until the slaves brought it to the U.S. that it began adding strings and slowly morphing into the instruments we use today. They have become traditional  in some cases by happy accident. Sometimes it's the result of the virtuosity of an individual who changes the course of the music. In the U.S. the short fifth string is often attributed to a guy named Joel Sweeney--though others feel his addition was actually the fourth string. Some believe the fifth string was adopted as a drone string, influenced by the Scotch/Irish immigrants to this country. I don't know if anyone knows for sure, though there are plenty of theories. 

DD

Nov 17, 2019 - 7:42:24 PM
Players Union Member

rudy

USA

14629 posts since 3/27/2004

quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty

That's really not an explanation. Saying "it's tradition" explains nothing. How did the tradition start? And more importantly, why?


I am unaware of using the word "tradition".  The explanation is rooted in the previous use of the reentrant drone string used on pre-new world instruments.  Sorry if this seems so obtuse.  frown

Nov 18, 2019 - 7:01:28 AM
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Banjo Lefty

Canada

1709 posts since 6/19/2014

quote:
Originally posted by rudy
quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty

That's really not an explanation. Saying "it's tradition" explains nothing. How did the tradition start? And more importantly, why?


I am unaware of using the word "tradition".  The explanation is rooted in the previous use of the reentrant drone string used on pre-new world instruments.  Sorry if this seems so obtuse.  frown


Sorry for paraphrasing.  I don't think it matters whether you use the word "tradition" or "heritage" or simply say "we do it because it's always been done that way," or even "the previous use of the reentrant drone string."  To my mind these are all equivalent.

My question is how and especially why those pre-new world instruments had short strings, reentrant or not, if indeed they had.  If they didn't, then the short string was developed either during or after the transition to North America, so, again, why?  My suggestion was that a short string solved a tuning problem, but I could be wrong.

It's possible, as suggested above, that the right answer is: nobody knows.

Nov 18, 2019 - 7:11:06 AM

138 posts since 4/5/2016

Super easy. If it goes all the way up, it's in the way of playing.

Nov 18, 2019 - 8:28:19 AM
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rudy

USA

14629 posts since 3/27/2004

quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty
quote:
Originally posted by rudy
quote:
Originally posted by Banjo Lefty

That's really not an explanation. Saying "it's tradition" explains nothing. How did the tradition start? And more importantly, why?


I am unaware of using the word "tradition".  The explanation is rooted in the previous use of the reentrant drone string used on pre-new world instruments.  Sorry if this seems so obtuse.  frown


Sorry for paraphrasing.  I don't think it matters whether you use the word "tradition" or "heritage" or simply say "we do it because it's always been done that way," or even "the previous use of the reentrant drone string."  To my mind these are all equivalent.

My question is how and especially why those pre-new world instruments had short strings, reentrant or not, if indeed they had.  If they didn't, then the short string was developed either during or after the transition to North America, so, again, why?  My suggestion was that a short string solved a tuning problem, but I could be wrong.

It's possible, as suggested above, that the right answer is: nobody knows.


If you design or build instruments it's easy to accept that the short fifth string is a direct descendent of those earlier instruments, and by logical extension you can garner that the REASON the re-entrant string is shorter is the result of earlier "designers", no matter what their situation or degree of education was, knew intuitively that to obtain that pleasing higher pitch drone it was necessary to position the stopping point of the string higher up the neck.

Simple knowledge of the nature of producing sound with a tensioned string would have also brought together the logistics of how to tension the string effectively and prevent it from breaking when dealing with the string choice of the time.  That's varied over time from plant fiber, woven hair, animal sinew, early synthetics, and progressing to steel.  All of this is obvious if you observe the earlier descendants of the modern banjo.

As far as WHY you wouldn't want to simply run a string up to the nut, given the availability of .008" or .009" steel strings and modern tuners you have to consider the two mitigating factors.  First, it gets in the way and unnecessarily complicates the simplicity of the banjo that is part of it's appeal.  Second, tuning a smaller diameter steel string up to the necessary pitch results in a thin and lifeless tone.  Grab your 12 string guitar and crank the reentrant high E up to a G note.  (Yes, it's a good analogy; the scale length is similar to the banjo...)  Yuck.

Yes, you can run the standard fifth string to the nut, use a conventional tuner and spike the high string at the fifth fret, but "Why bother?" comes to mind.  Some players that don't often consider the physics behind the banjo think that shifting the tuner position to the peg head and using either a spiked full length string OR a tunneled fifth will change the string tension.  It doesn't, the string tension is exactly the same as long as the stopping point is the fifth fret.  I actually prefer the stopping point higher because it lowers the string tension, but I leave it at the fifth location because it confuses anyone else grabbing your banjo if the stopping point is different than what they are used to.

Keith Richards used 5 string reentrant tuning on his re-strung Telecaster on many of the Rolling Stones hits.  Give a listen to the opening of "Brown Sugar" for a sample.  I've had two reconfigured Teles and the spiked string sounds much better than stringing lighter and raising the full length string to a G.

I don't think I can offer any better explanation that that.  smiley

Edited by - rudy on 11/18/2019 08:36:21

Nov 18, 2019 - 10:19:29 AM
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Lew H

USA

2317 posts since 3/10/2008

Banjo Lefty Sure, just saying "tradition" doesn't explain much, but briefly outlining the evolution of the present day 5-string tells you how that short 5th string got started, which I thought you were asking about. If you don't want a short 5th string, go get a banjitar or a tenor or plectrum banjo, banjo-mando, banjolele, etc. The banjo evolved in the last hundred years or so into many forms other than the 5-string. There are some good histories of the banjo you might be interested in: The Banjo: America's African Instrument, and, The Banjo: Roots and Branches are two of these.

Edited by - Lew H on 11/18/2019 10:20:46

Nov 18, 2019 - 11:32:22 AM

20 posts since 5/17/2019

I play a plectrum. I use Uke tuning, in other words I use the 5th string in place of the 4th string and tune it up to high G........you can strum or clawhammer........I have a Vega Plectrum Tubaphone and a Bacon Peerless, both from the 1920s and both were obtained for a fraction of the cost of the same models in 5 string configuration. Both have matching numbers on the dowel rods and pots. Converting old high quality plectrum banjos like these would be a sin.

Nov 18, 2019 - 11:49:48 AM
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10730 posts since 4/23/2004

Humans are inventive. The Ekonting is probably the closest African predecessor to our modern banjo simply because it does feature a re-entrant, shorter string (amongst other banjo-common features). Because of its neck configuration, the Ekonting (which has three strings) and the fact that the strings are tied to the neck (rather than having a tuner of some sort) with no nut per se, the three strings are forced to be of three different lengths. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to visualize how a much shorter string came about...and that it makes total sense for it to become an unfretted drone that is sounded by the thumb.

Yup, it could have easily become a longer drone string (a bass drone) but when you're working with a stick and problematic string materials, shorter is probably easier. You wouldn't really want the drone on the treble side anyway as it gets in the way of the melody string. A fingerpicking style could ameliorate this issue but it appears that the most common style of Ekonting playing is 'stroke'.

And...AFAIK tunneled 5th strings were first commercially available from the Lion Banjo Company, of Rock Rapids, IA in 1893. I haven't seen an earlier tunneled 5th string but I suspect it wasn't a new idea even then. H. C. Middlebrooke, who designed the Lion banjos, took out patents for their tailpiece and their scalloped fretboards...but ignored the tunnel. Hmmmmm.

Nov 18, 2019 - 12:26:13 PM

5494 posts since 3/6/2006

quote:
Originally posted by trapdoor2

Humans are inventive. The Ekonting is probably the closest African predecessor to our modern banjo simply because it does feature a re-entrant, shorter string (amongst other banjo-common features). Because of its neck configuration, the Ekonting (which has three strings) and the fact that the strings are tied to the neck (rather than having a tuner of some sort) with no nut per se, the three strings are forced to be of three different lengths. It takes no great stretch of the imagination to visualize how a much shorter string came about...and that it makes total sense for it to become an unfretted drone that is sounded by the thumb.

Yup, it could have easily become a longer drone string (a bass drone) but when you're working with a stick and problematic string materials, shorter is probably easier. You wouldn't really want the drone on the treble side anyway as it gets in the way of the melody string. A fingerpicking style could ameliorate this issue but it appears that the most common style of Ekonting playing is 'stroke'.

And...AFAIK tunneled 5th strings were first commercially available from the Lion Banjo Company, of Rock Rapids, IA in 1893. I haven't seen an earlier tunneled 5th string but I suspect it wasn't a new idea even then. H. C. Middlebrooke, who designed the Lion banjos, took out patents for their tailpiece and their scalloped fretboards...but ignored the tunnel. Hmmmmm.


This makes sense. I also assumed that when you consider what the exkonting strings were made of - probably not of different gages - the thumb strings would have trouble taking on the tension of the higher pitch unless shortened.

Nov 18, 2019 - 1:17:27 PM
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Lew H

USA

2317 posts since 3/10/2008

It was in the Caribbean that a fingerboard and tuning pegs were added to the African "roots" instruments. Slaves saw European instruments with fingerboards and pegs and had access to tools of their owners. They adapted fingerboards and pegs to gourd instruments they were familiar with. So those days of European settlement and importation of slaves into the new world were a crucial time in the development of the 5th string peg up the fingerboard rather than on the peghead. But it seems to me to be a "natural" continuation of the much shorter re-entrant 3rd string on the ekonting.

Nov 18, 2019 - 1:43:15 PM
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Banjo Lefty

Canada

1709 posts since 6/19/2014

Guys, I wasn't advocating for a longer fifth string, or a tunnelled fifth or anything of the kind. I was simply curious as to its origins. Rudy's explanation seems to confirm my first idea, which was that the shortness of the string serves to solve a tuning issue.

The reason for inquiring is that the banjo is unique among stringed instruments in having one -- and only one -- string that is shorter than the others. Ukuleles have reentrant tuning, for example, but all four strings on a ukulele are the same length. On a harp or a piano, no two strings are exactly the same length. Other instruments have drone strings, but not necessarily high drones; with a bass drone you don't need a short string.

The other thought is that tuners are a late invention. If you want a high drone string and you don't have a tuner, then you have to tie off that string in a way that produces the desired high note, and this requires making that string shorter.

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