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Mar 8, 2021 - 2:11:18 AM
17 posts since 3/27/2020

Hi all,

I am a fan of old-timey banjo no matter what the setup. That being said, it seems to me that all the field recordings I have heard from the first half of the 20th century are of banjos with steel strings. Does anyone know of an example of a recording with gut or some other non-steel strings?

Thanks a lot!

Mar 8, 2021 - 7:03:30 AM
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186 posts since 4/8/2019

I'm not sure there are field recordings of banjos playing old-time music with gut strings, but there are plenty of commercial recordings with players like Fred Van Eps playing gut-strung banjos, if your goal is to hear historical recorded sound. I can't verify but suspect that Charlie Poole's earlier recordings were made with gut strings on his Orpheum banjo. Poole's playing was closer to the style of Van Eps than to other country music popular in the 1920s. There is an episode of Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest TV show that features what is now called classic-style banjo with a player using nylon fishing line strings. I'm sorry I can't identify the specific episode but it's worth the trouble to find it if you have better youtube research skills than I do. This historic film of Uncle John Scruggs singing Little Log Cabin in the Lane was probably made with a banjo strung with gut strings.

youtube.com/watch?v=QkjOxT-q5BI

Mar 8, 2021 - 7:26:33 AM
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1677 posts since 7/4/2009

The classic banjo player featured on Pete Seeger's show was Paul Cadwell, who appeared with Hedy West and Mississippi John Hurt. Here he is doing a medley of Golden Slippers, Flop-Eared Mule, and Little Brown Jug. And here he is playing Tyro Mazurka and Ragtime Episode (my favorite classic banjo piece, though he struggles through it a bit).

There may be some field recordings of banjo players using gut or nylon strings, but none spring to mind. My instinct is that the folklorists making these field recordings would've been largely uninterested in musicians using them, as they were probably playing popular, not folk, music. Alan Lomax was not looking for a down-home Fred Van Eps. The popularity of the music then has in some ways contributed to its current obscurity.

Edited by - UncleClawhammer on 03/08/2021 07:28:08

Mar 8, 2021 - 8:30:35 AM

6078 posts since 9/21/2007

Mar 8, 2021 - 8:38:01 AM

6078 posts since 9/21/2007

Steel wire strings were an economic compromise. Gut became difficult to get during and after WW1 and were always expensive (before the war shortage they cost 12 times more than wire).

I am ignorant of most field recordings and cannot speak with any authority. But I do know that they were "produced" in that the recorders/collectors were looking for a specific thing/sound.

Mar 8, 2021 - 8:40:01 AM

1677 posts since 7/4/2009

Frank who? Proffitt?

I could read most of it, but can't make out what it says toward the bottom of the page.

Mar 8, 2021 - 8:46:37 AM

6078 posts since 9/21/2007

quote:
Originally posted by UncleClawhammer

Frank who? Proffitt?

I could read most of it, but can't make out what it says toward the bottom of the page.


I'm not sure but I presume it was Proffitt.  Anyway, gut strings, or the lack of availability, was the subject.

 There is a news reel of Bascom Lamar Lunsford playing fiddle with two banjoists and a guitarist.  Not too long ago a website posted the various takes and B footage from that shoot and the closeups of the banjoists show that they are using gut strings. 

I would not be surprised to find out that many recordings assumed to be wire strung were actually played on Gut.

Mar 9, 2021 - 1:47:45 PM

1437 posts since 2/9/2007

A couple of players I have long suspected of (at least sometimes) using gut back in the day are Gus Cannon and Charlie Poole.

Mar 10, 2021 - 4:23:40 AM

17 posts since 3/27/2020

Hey people, thanks for all your replies.

Listening to that John Scruggs recording again, it sounds like it could be gut strings. The quality of the recordings makes it hard to tell in the first place.

Reallly interesting letter, Joel. I assumed that the choice of steel over gut strings initially had to do with their availability and cost rather than being a purely stylistic one. Maybe it became that later after people's ears had adjusted and become accostomed to the sound of steel strings.

Have to go back and listen to Gus Cannon and Charlie Poole again.

Mar 10, 2021 - 5:13:53 AM
Players Union Member

DC5

USA

18061 posts since 6/30/2015

I don't understand why gut strings would be hard to come by, there is certainly no shortage of stray cats.

Mar 10, 2021 - 5:30:21 AM

6078 posts since 9/21/2007

digital.tcl.sc.edu/digital/col...53/rec/68

On some of the close-ups you can clearly see the way the strings react to the picking hand show they are gut.

Mar 11, 2021 - 6:35:56 AM
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186 posts since 4/8/2019

quote:
Originally posted by DC5

I don't understand why gut strings would be hard to come by, there is certainly no shortage of stray cats.


While cats may possibly have  given up their intestines for other reasons deserved or not, they were not and are not the source of gut strings.  Gut strings have always been sourced mainly from sheep intestines, and they have always been very expensive.  The "cat" prefix has to do with an old description of a type of string called a "catline."  I've read speculative ideas that the "cat" may have described sources of "cattle" of which sheep can be cat-egorized, and my old friend, silk string advocate Alex Raykov, argues that the "cat" may even be derived from caterpillar, the obvious source of silk.  Nevertheless, they are and always have been costly, and synthetic strings may be the only modern technological development that I can accept as OK.

Mar 11, 2021 - 12:14:35 PM

1437 posts since 2/9/2007

quote:
Originally posted by EulalieBlue
quote:
Originally posted by DC5

I don't understand why gut strings would be hard to come by, there is certainly no shortage of stray cats.


While cats may possibly have  given up their intestines for other reasons deserved or not, they were not and are not the source of gut strings.  Gut strings have always been sourced mainly from sheep intestines, and they have always been very expensive.  The "cat" prefix has to do with an old description of a type of string called a "catline."  I've read speculative ideas that the "cat" may have described sources of "cattle" of which sheep can be cat-egorized, and my old friend, silk string advocate Alex Raykov, argues that the "cat" may even be derived from caterpillar, the obvious source of silk.  Nevertheless, they are and always have been costly, and synthetic strings may be the only modern technological development that I can accept as OK.


And the problem isn't the availability of the raw material, it's the highly-skilled and labor-intensive process of making it into gut strings.

Mar 11, 2021 - 12:37:31 PM

186 posts since 4/8/2019

quote:
Originally posted by Dan Gellert
 

And the problem isn't the availability of the raw material, it's the highly-skilled and labor-intensive process of making it into gut strings.


Yes, gut stringmaking is very labor-intensive and I don't begrudge those makers who have invested the time and labor to refine their process.  They deserve to be paid for their work, but even today's best gut stringmakers will agree that it's a lost art.  Possibly with the exception of Damian Dlugolecki, all makers use a modern extruder that actually cuts the fibers in the quest to create a uniform diameter.  Nevertheless, Dan Larson makes excellent gut strings, as does Mimmo Peruffo (Aquila), but the best I've used were Kathedral plain gut strings made by Nicholas Baldock from Germany.   These strings seem more hand-made, and the thicker diameters last forever.  Alex Raykov's silk strings are worth a try.  He made a set for me with loaded basses that were wonderful.

Mar 12, 2021 - 3:49:12 PM
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Hunter Robertson

Switzerland

903 posts since 5/19/2006

Mar 13, 2021 - 12:57:41 PM
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17 posts since 3/27/2020

Thanks, Hunter. That is just the sound I had in my mind's ear. Hobart Smith was such a versatile musician. I'll have to listen to more from that session.

Mar 13, 2021 - 1:02:41 PM

17 posts since 3/27/2020

quote:
Originally posted by EulalieBlue
Nevertheless , they are and always have been costly, and synthetic strings may be the only modern technological development that I can accept as OK.
 

I can really relate to this sentiment. A band mate has Nicholas Baldock strings on his bass. They are amazing!

Mar 13, 2021 - 2:20:24 PM

Hunter Robertson

Switzerland

903 posts since 5/19/2006

Not a field recording, nor "old-time", but relevant: https://www.archeophone.com/catalogue/charles-asbury-4-banjo-songs/

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