1900s Alfred Cammeyer Banjola (5-String Wood-Topped Banjo)

There are lots of names to call a 5-string banjo with a wood-topped body. A modern one is "banjola" and is used by Gold Tone and Victor Banjolas. I like it so I use it myself, too. Back in the '20s something like this would have been called a "banjo-lute" or "banjo-harp." For example... a tenor banjo equivalent might be called a "tenor harp" or "tenor lute" (despite those being entirely different things) in fretted catalogs of the time. In the 1880s and 1890s Pollman built instruments almost the same as modern banjolas and called them "banjo-mandolines" due to the oval or pear-shaped bodies and construction.

Anyhow, by any name they're excellent ideas. This particular one is made even more fascinating in that it has very different construction from most of them. Instead of a mandolin-style body, it features a thick-walled back and sides (much like a zither banjo's "rim") with a screwed-down and removable spruce top. Interestingly, the single "brace" for the top is actually not glued to the top but rests independent of it. String pressure holds the top down against it. I have a picture later down the post that shows the inside when I first took the top off.

Suffice to say, this construction gives a somewhat different tone than any of the other banjola-style instruments I've come across. It's got a bit more pluck and cluck in the mids than usual and it's a little drier. I actually like it a lot because it's not just a repurposed tenor guitar or mandolin sound. It's more banjo-like but sweet and rich.

It was made by Cammeyer in the UK and bears the Alfred Cammeyer signature on the side of the heel which dates it to 1900-onwards. It can't be much later than 1900, though, considering the construction and features. It's all-original save the bridge -- which is a parts-bin compensated one.

Another oddity is its size. This only has a 22" scale length which makes it roughly "tenor banjo" or "pony banjo" in sizing. It came in with nylon strings on it but the build clearly looks like it was intended for steel to me and so after repairs I set it up with 10s and tuned it up to A-tuning (aEAC#E low to high vs gDGBD) to make use of that shorter scale length. It sounds passable in normal G-tuning but much better in A and the instrument responds a lot faster in A as well.

The tuners have bone buttons and are friction units. They're not the best but they are original and do hold pitch once you've got them set.

It's clearly well-made throughout and the neck has gorgeous figure in it. The carve to the back of the neck runs from a harder V to a full C right after the 5th fret and the heel itself looks great. Everything is well-fit and accurate.

Repairs included: partial fretboard reglue, hidden bolt reinforcement for the neck joint, fret level/dress, new compensated bridge, mild cleaning, and setup.

Top wood: solid spruce

Back & sides wood: solid mahogany (black stain)

Bracing type: ladder

Bridge: mystery hardwoods

Fretboard: ebony

Neck wood: mahogany with a lot of curly figure (very pretty)

Action height at 12th fret: 1/16" overall (fast -- can fit a taller bridge for clawhammer if needed)
String gauges: 10, 22w, 17, 13, 10 low to high

Neck shape: medium-deep V into full C

Board radius: flat

Neck relief: straight

Fret style: medium-small

Scale length: 22"

Nut width: 1 5/16"

Body width: 9 1/4"

Body depth: 2 3/8"

Weight: 2 lbs 5 oz

Condition notes: it's clean for its age and the finish looks glorious. There's minor usewear throughout but nothing is obvious at a glance. There's a tiny piece of missing wood binding on the back near the tailpiece. The top shows some playwear to the side of the soundhole. The original bridge is long gone and it has a replacement. I will admit here that I don't like the friction tuners. They're original and look killer, but if you're playing this more than a couple times a week or taking it traveling it would be nice to swap the tuners out to some sort of geared peg despite the groans history-buffs will certainly heave in your direction for it.

It comes with: its original hard case in good shape and with a replacement wonky handle. It works!


Unknown said…
Very cool! For sale?
McComber said…
That is very beautifu, Jake, and well played. I'm guessing it be sold already.