Sunday, October 17, 2010


There are banjos and there are ukuleles. And then there are banjoleles, a combination of the two, originally created a century ago to give the ukulele more volume when performing. One of the most famous practitioners of the banjolele would be English humorist/musician George Formby, a very popular performer in the mid-20th century.

Those instruments were, for the most part, based on short soprano-scale ukulele necks with banjo bodies. They, as with ukuleles, have had a recent resurgence of popularity. I have a soprano uke myself, as well as a little Nechville banjo, their 'Banjovie' (no longer manufactured) which has a scale about the same as a tenor ukulele. I have switched it to nylon strings, making it, in essence, a 5 string banjolele. A definite improvement in its sound over metal strings, by the way.

For a while, I had my eye on Gold Tone's banjo-ukes, especially when they came out recently with a full set of instruments with the various ukulele scales -- soprano, concert, tenor, baritone. A couple months ago I pulled the trigger on the BUB, the baritone ukulele banjo.

Buying an instrument is always a bit of a gamble, particularly by mail order. Not this time -- I love this BUB (which I have named 'Bubbles'). It is surprisingly well made and set up, comes with a nice case, and plays well. A note -- the BUB comes with a 'plate' resonator attached to the back. It sounds way better (and is only slightly quieter) without it. Mine is permanently removed.

At a baritone ukulele scale of 19 inches it is only a tad shorter than an Irish Tenor 4-string banjo, so I've come to think of it as a true banjo, rather than a banjolele. One little surprise was that it comes with a high fourth string (the D), which I'm not used to seeing on baritone ukes (which are commonly tuned like the four highest strings on a guitar). However, I've come to like the sound of the higher string; it does give it something of a 5-string banjo vibe. The strings are, of course, nylon.

The sound is pretty good. It's not a complex sound, naturally, not like a guitar or even a decent banjo. Finger-picked, it can sound rather kalimba-like. I consider that a good thing. I could also see using it for latin sounds, not unlike the small guitar-related instruments of traditional Mexican music. It does cut through rather nicely -- shoot, I could even see using it as replacement for a mandolin.

Strummed, it can provide a useful rhythmic accompaniment, whether by itself or with a lower-pitched instrument for support. It does the traditional banjo bumpity thing pretty well, if one isn't too concerned about having traditional banjo volume (not that it's quiet, just not capable of anything like full-sized steel-string banjo loudness). It probably sounds more like a 19th Century banjo than most of the new banjos on the market. Camptown Races, anyone? I like the fact that I can hear myself sing! The BUB also is fine for anything one might do with an ukulele, though I don't suppose it would quite cut it for traditional Hawaiian music.

Naturally, it somewhat excels for that music hall sound that Formby and others created, though perhaps not quite as well suited as a higher pitched instrument.

Anyway, it is fun to play. And easy. One thing is for certain -- it is going to show up on recordings here eventually. It will also be very likely to travel with me when I once again can travel. A definite festival choice!

SB 2010

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