By Nicolas Grizzle
As a sound engineer, I admittedly over-listen to things like timbre and tone shapes, and therefore am quite particular about the instruments I will allow to resonate in my eardrum. I prefer warm, softer tones to sharp, twangy ones. One instrument I am particularly picky about is the banjo. It just rarely sounds good to me. So when a musician friend whom I respect very much eagerly showed off his new banjo-ukulele to me, I did my best to refrain from asking him to kindly throw it into a river.
This was years ago, and I at the time had never even heard of such an instrument. It was like a ukulele, but with a banjo drumhead as its body. It was some kind of weird Island-Southern US mashup, like fried catfish in taro-root batter. Come to find out that it has many names; some call it a banjo-ukulele, while others prefer a portmanteau like bangolele, banjulele, or my personal favorite, banjolele. At first I did not like my buddy’s new fascination. In fact, I despised it. The banjo tone never did it for me in the first place, and now it’s ruining the sweet velvet-coated notes of my beloved ukulele timbre? I humbugged pretty hard.
But then it grew on me. Maybe in the right hands and setting, I thought, it could be beautiful. Or, at the very least, not grating on my ears with every pluck and strum. After all, these things exist for a reason, right?
To understand this instrument more, I looked into its origin. It was introduced around the turn of the century—much earlier than I thought. British comedian George Formby helped popularize it in the 1930s, along with US artists of the time like “Wizard of the Strings” Roy Smeck and Vaudevillian Wendell Hall. It was louder, which is helpful in a world without amplification, and had a recognizable tone to it.
There are many variations of this instrument, which I also didn’t realize initially. Some are bigger like a banjo; some are more soprano uke–sized. Color, headstock, timbre, size, weight (banjoleles tend to be a bit heavier, so it’s often a good idea to play them with a strap), and just about everything else about the instrument is flexible. There’s no set standard, which is one of the things I like about the banjolele. Wait, did I just say I like something about the banjolele? What is happening to me!?
Then I read that The Beatles’ George Harrison was not only a massive uke fan (he reportedly had one in every room of his home), but also appreciated the banjolele. If it was good enough for George, it should be good enough for me, right?
The clincher was when I heard Queen guitarist Brian May use a banjolele on “Bring Back Leroy Brown.” It fits the bouncy, upbeat nature of the tune perfectly, balancing the right amount of use flavor with a bit of banjo bite. Check out the brief solo around the 2:00 mark in the video below.
So I guess you could call me a convert. I’m not going to rush out and get one for myself, but I won’t go all Animal House and smash it on the wall if I hear someone playing it at a party. In fact, I might stick around and listen for a song or two.
Still, I have one request for all you banjolele players out there. Even though it’s probably technically possible on some models, please do me and the world a favor and refrain from playing it like a banjo. This is not a banjo. It is a ukulele made with banjo construction for sonic purposes. So leave the “dueling banjos” riffs for actual banjos, ok? And I’ll be sure to be far away when that happens.