Thoughts on fretted instrument movements from a worldwide perspective

I got the idea for this discussion after it was asked whether or not the balalaika was relevant in the realm of Classic Banjo. This is a thought-provoking observation as, for some reason, I had always intuitively made a connection between the two even though both instruments are wildly different and yet, an analysis from a broader perspective suggests that they are both a part of a broader, worldwide cultural phenomenon. I have therefore decided to write down my thoughts on the matter in the hopes of stirring up some interesting debate here on CB-Ning.

 1. Fretted instruments: The time and place

Approximately a hundred years before the rise of the modern Classic banjo, Johann Gottfried Herder would suggest an idea which would prove to be extremely influential throughout the 19th century – the idea of the Volksgeist, the “people’s spirit”, or, in the philosopher’s own words, something “singular, marvellous, ineffable” – it is expressed through culture, music, arts and custom – in other words, it is what is currently known as “folklore”. The idea would eventually stick and largely influence the consolidation of national identities throughout the world. The idea that “low” culture, the culture of the “folk”, was a valuable and precious thing was something of a new concept – “high” culture, not “low” culture, had previously enjoyed the near-exclusive attention of the intellectual elite. This was about to change during the Romantic period that followed, during which “low” culture was routinely used as a basis for fine art. Frédéric Chopin’s works incorporated Polish folk idioms, highlighting Poland’s centuries-long struggle for independence; Joseph Parry revived Welsh music, and even composed the first Welsh opera; Richard Wagner, that “most German of all beings”, drew extensively from Germanic myth and folklore, and produced a corpus of music which would later become tainted from its use by an extremely unsavoury regime. Even the humble banjo would draw the attention of the romantic pianist, Louis Moreau Gottschalk.


The Banjo Player (1856). William Sidney Mount was a romantic painter who belonged to the Hudson River school.

However, in spite of all these musical currents in the early and mid-19th centuries, the abovementioned opuses all have two things in common:

-          They were all “high” culture, meant to be performed by professional musicians in large venues.

-          They were all composed for the traditional instruments in an orchestra, with a few concessions to add colour.


In my opinion, romanticism alone cannot explain the emergence of fretted instruments throughout the world. Two other currents – Positivism and Darwinism – provide the missing part of the puzzle. The idea of progress was central to Auguste Comte’s philosophy, but this progress was to be guided by science rather than intuitive knowledge. The rhetoric of scientific progress in music, as well as romantic and nationalist motives, are two factors common to all the fretted instrument movements.

Child with a Balalaika (1835), by romantic painter P. E. Zabolotsky. Originally, balalaikas were not necessarily triangular.

 2. The banjo and progress

For the United States of America, cultural independence from the United Kingdom would come much later than political independence. As Noah Webster pointed out in 1780, “America must be independent in literature as she is in politics” – but constructing a consistent notion of what it actually meant to “be an American” would take time. Minstrelsy, as a purely American phenomenon, paved the way for new forms of popular music, but it also brought a new, American instrument to the fore – the banjo. Due to the nature of the minstrel show, however, the banjo was more of a laughing stock than a legitimate instrument in the eyes of the general public – the entire concept of the “cork opera” was to make a mockery of “high” culture with comparatively crude instruments. For the banjo to become a national symbol, this backward, intentionally clumsy instrument needed to embrace the idea of progress and evolution – which it did, in the late 19th century.

The banjo suddenly became the object of hundreds of patents meant to improve the instrument – new designs, accessories and parts were developed, along with an entire family of banjo-derived instruments, from the tiny piccolo banjo to the massive bass banjo. The amount of compositions for the banjo skyrocketed in terms of quality and number, as did the standard of skill for performers, and it was surrounded by a rhetoric which emphasised national pride, science and progress. The banjo was presented as something Americans could be proud of – an originally primitive and crude instrument which, through the application of science and reason, became an instrument on the level of any other. The presence of an entire family of banjo-derived instruments allowed the banjo to stand on its own in a purely banjoistic musical context.

Not only was the banjo improved; it also became a popular movement. The amount of banjos sold to the general public increased, to the point that it became a mass popular phenomenon. The popular nature of the instrument is illustrated by the nature of the bulk of the compositions written for it – light, original tunes composed with the instrument in mind, and within the reach of the average player. Although by no means a simplistic instrument, Classic banjo was designed not to be difficult or discouraging to beginners. It also spawned a large number of periodicals meant to keep amateurs up to date, from Stewart’s Journal to BMG.

These traits – nationalism, progress, and mass appeal – are also present in the other examples we will see later.

3. A newcomer appears – the Spanish case, and the rise of the mandolin

Meanwhile, in Spain, events had developed in a similar fashion. Originally a medieval instrument from the 14th century, the bandurria, a Spanish lute-like instrument, was present in a broad variety of shapes up until the early modern era, until a “scientific”, improved version of the same was developed in the 19th century under the guidance of Maestro Félix de Santos y Sebastián, with six courses of steel strings tuned in fifths and played with a plectrum.

Early illustration of a bandurria. Notice how it only has five courses of strings.

As in the American case, new variants were developed for ensemble playing, such as the laúd (“lute”, but actually a larger bandurria tuned one octave below) or the “Spanish mandolin” (actually a bandurria with single strings). Some such fretted instrument ensembles still survive in Spain to this day. As with the banjo, it also gave birth to periodicals meant to inform amateurs, but their focus would shift, at the beginning of the 20th century, towards another national instrument on the rise – the Spanish guitar.

A Spanish fretted instrument ensemble

It was one such ensemble that visited the United States, causing a sensation overnight: the “Spanish Students”, or Estudiantina Fígaro, founded and directed by Domingo Granados. Their arrival in the 1880s would not only spawn a large number of imitators, it would also lead to the rise in popularity of the “M” in BMG: the mandolin.

Indeed, the presence of a large number of Italian immigrants in the United States made the latter much more available than the rather obscure Bandurria, although it did also make its way into the musical market.

The Mandolin, in turn, also gave birth to an entire family of instruments, and, indeed, it proved to be eminently suited to ensemble playing. Mandolins, mandolas, mandocelli, guitars and mando-basses, and spawned a number of mandolin orchestras, some of which still survive to this day. It is remarkable that these mandolin orchestras also developed their own, specific repertoire.

In Italy, talents such as Carlo Munier developed the instrument’s potential to a new level. Munier himself was a very prolific composer who wrote a number of books on mandolin playing as well as over 350 original compositions.

To illustrate, however, how interlocked these currents were, the banjo and the mandolin also co-existed in some ensembles, especially with the introduction of the banjo-mandolin.

A Mandolin orchestra

4. he latest arrival – the balalaika and the Russian fretted orchestra

The story of the modern balalaika is surprisingly similar to that of the aforementioned instruments. Its origins lie in the meeting between a peasant, or muzhik, named Antip; and a skilled, cosmopolitan musician, named V. V. Andreyev. Andreyev was already skilled with fretted instruments, and he had travelled to Italy to study mandolin playing; he was, however, surprised when he heard the strains of that simple instrument played by a peasant on his estate.

The only known surviving picture of Antip, the peasant. Notice how tiny the "folk" balalaika was compared to the "perfected" instrument.

The balalaika was an instrument with obscure origins and, much like the banjo, a bit of a laughing stock, being considered little more than a peasant’s toy which was sold for a few kopecks in tobacco shops. Andreev, however, soon mastered the simple instrument and set out to create an improved, scientific version; to do so, he worked with a number of luthiers, including the luthier V. Ivanov, from St. Petersburg, Paserbsky, and, finally, S. Nalimov. He himself premiered the use of the new instrument and he so thoroughly impressed his sceptical audience that the instrument became an instant hit. As with the banjo and bandurria/mandolin, Andreev developed and marketed his improved style of balalaika in the 1880s.

Not only did he develop, as in the previous cases, an entire family of balalaika instruments, from the piccolo balalaika to the large bass balalaika; he also resurrected other “lost” national instruments, such as the Domra, which also spawned an entire range of domras of all sizes, to the Gusli (a Russian psaltery of Medieval origin) and a number of woodwind instruments. His orchestra toured the world in 1910 and was an international hit, leading to the creation of balalaika orchestras in the United Kingdom and the United States, some of which also survive to this day.

A balalaika orchestra

To Andreyev’s contemporaries, the re-invention of the balalaika was nothing short of miraculous. To the Soviet state, it was a sign of the intrinsic virtues and potential of the “people”, from a vaguely Lysenkoist perspective. Although, as in most of the other cases, it had little to do with the original, crude devices it developed from, the balalaika would become synonymous with Russian music. Progress and nationalism went hand in hand.

Andreev and his followers also wrote a number of original compositions for the balalaika, which, although “Russian” in flavour, are the same sort of popular light pieces which could also be found for the banjo or mandolin. The Russian orchestras were particularly long-lived and successful due to patronage from the Soviet Union, which looked kindly upon the use of “folk” instruments in a serious setting.


5. The decline

Changing musical tastes, however, led these forms of music to gradually wither and disappear. Their period of decay was, once again, almost synchronous: the end of the BMG era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the BMG movement began to lose steam and one by one, the clubs would shut their gates, and the instruments’ popularity would plummet, unless they managed to re-invent themselves. The banjo found a new niche in country and folk music, as did the mandolin. The bandurria has its niche in student fraternities, or tunas. Perhaps ironically, after having weathered the storm better than the former throughout the 20th century, the balalaika now seems to be in the worst situation of all.

Perhaps the most insightful reflections on the current state of the BMG family can be found in the writings of D. Kalinin, a contemporary professional balalaika player, In his article, “Роль и значение оригинального репертуара в современном исполнительстве на русских народных инструментах” (The role and value of original repertoire in contemporary performing on Russian folk instruments), written in the early 2000s, Kalinin reflects on the increasing irrelevance of the balalaika in modern popular music and how to remedy this situation.

In a reflection which could be applied to Classic Banjo, he states that

К сожалению, безграмотность по отношению к русским народным инструментам растет с каждым поколением и в настоящий момент приобрела чудовищный, массовый характер.

“Unfortunately, ignorance towards Russian national instruments grows with each generation, and it has now gained monstrous, massive proportions.”

He later states that

Не секрет, что в США, Италии, Японии, Китае, Индии, мусульманских странах народные музыкальные инструменты (банджо, мандолина, кото, ситара, домбра и др.) имеют совершенно другой социальный статус: человек, профессионально или на любительском уровне владеющий таким инструментом, пользуется большим уважением и популярностью среди сограждан. Над его именем парит ореол элитарности; может быть, он и не национальный герой, но патриот с большой буквы – однозначно.

“It is no secret that in the United States, in Italy, in Japan, China, India, or the Muslim world, folk instruments (the banjo, mandolin, koto, sitar, dombra, etc.) enjoy a different status in society. Amateurs or professional players are popular and respected. They may not be national heroes, but they are definitely thought of as true patriots.”

Kalinin, unfortunately, over-estimates the popularity of “folk” instruments in other countries. For him, however, the problem is the lack of modern, original compositions. He laments the fact that his contemporaries spend so much time and effort attempting to play classical arrangements on their instruments – like modern-day Farlands:

Вместо того, чтобы без особых усилий, по проторенной дорожке, шагать вперед с лозунгом: «На балалайке можно сыграть все!», тому, кто выберет путь иной, придется пробираться сквозь дебри рутинности, снобизма и  невежества. К сожалению, и я, и композиторы, с которыми я сотрудничаю, нередко встречаемся с «неодобрением» наших коллег по поводу нашей деятельности: меня, в моей исполнительской практике, упрекают в недостаточном внимании к композиторам-классикам

“Rather than mindlessly marching forward, repeating the slogan “The balalaika can play anything!”, those who choose a different path will be faced with a maze of snobbery and ignorance. That is, unfortunately, my case, as it is with composers I work with, who are often looked at with disapproval by our colleagues: I am criticised for not paying enough attention to classical composers…”

He therefore states, ominously:

В этой связи хочется сказать, что пока музыканты-народники в полной мере не осознают ту катастрофическую нехватку оригинального репертуара, какую, на самом деле, мы испытываем; не поймут, что без достаточного объема качественной современной музыки, которая, в дальнейшем, послужит базисом для формирования и оценки новых сочинений, нам не обойтись; пока мы все всерьез не озаботимся тем, что концерты нашего жанра интересуют, как правило, лишь наших друзей, родственников и горстку сочувствующих коллег, – наше дело обречено.

“Thus, I would like to say that, whereas folk instrument musicians are not fully aware of the catastrophic shortage of original repertoire, the lack of quality contemporary music which may, in the future, be used as a basis for creating and evaluating new works; as long as we are not bothered by the fact that the only people interested in our concerts are our friends, family and a handful of sympathizers and colleagues, our genre is doomed.”

Unfortunately, the fates of the fretted instrument movements were linked, as they rose together, thrived together, and together they fell; even the balalaika, kept in a state of artificial survival by Soviet subsidies, eventually declined when it became exposed to the forces of the market.

6. Reflections

What I have intended to show throughout this dissertation is that the fretted instrument movements shared a number of traits, and developed themselves almost synchronously and in a very narrow period of time (from the 1880s to the mid-20th century) and in very diverse regions. They are not only remarkable for emerging so quickly; they were also extremely mobile, as instruments from Spain, Italy and Russia made their way into British and American BMG movements near instantly. The fact that Emile Grimshaw or Richard Tarrant Bailey played both the banjo and balalaika, or that Arthur Sullivan composed for both banjo and mandolin orchestras, speaks volumes about how interconnected the fretted instrument world was. In fact, Clifford Essex marketed a bass domra -- as used in balalaika orchestras -- which could double as a bass banjo due its shape!

In this way, it would not be unreasonable to state, as the Bath Chronicle and Herald did in 1929, that the balalaika was a “a Russian equivalent of the banjo”. Both were originally simple “national” instruments which were perfected, developed, and raised to the status of national symbols. Even today, in the minds of people the world over, the banjo and balalaika are synonymous with both nations – even though the most popular fretted instrument in both countries is, by far, the guitar.

There is not much literature available on the BMG movement. Most books on the subject seem to be written by an American guitarist with little interest, at best, or certain contempt, at worst, towards the banjo, mandolin and other fretted instruments. I believe a global study of the movement as a worldwide phenomenon would be very enlightening.

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Well done, Mike!  The only thing I didn't understand was the last paragraph about books by an american guitarist with contempt for fretted instruments. How's that again? He's a fretless guitarist or what?

Thank you, Jody. I'm afraid I phrased that rather poorly, and reading my essay again I noticed it's got several appalling mistakes in it, which I will correct tomorrow. I basically thought this up while having dinner and wrote it down shortly after! What I meant with "other fretted instruments" was "fretted instruments other than the guitar".

A superbly produced and very interesting document Mike. I never cease to be amazed by your depth of knowledge. I trained as a scientist and researching the history (of all subjects) has always been very low down on my list of interests,  but this is fascinating.

 I am sorry that I cannot contribute other than to thank you.

Thanks Ian, it is fascinating to see how correlated everything is in this small world of ours -- no man is an island, entire of itself, and all that. The same applies to ideas or musical instruments, I believe you can't understand the rise of the banjo as we know it today without taking other factors into account. I might eventually make a more polished version of this article and post it on the BHO as well.

Maybe one question I would like to ask is that you suggest:

"Not only was the banjo improved; it also became a popular movement. The amount of banjos sold to the general public increased, to the point that it became a mass popular phenomenon."


What caused it to suddenly become a popular mass movement both here and the USA? It can't have been radio or TV publicity and I think it unlikely that a limited number travelling minstrel troupes could suddenly have enough coverage to cause it... Was it the invention of cylinder phonograph recordings that made the music available to people in their homes??

I know that in the 1950s/60s, here in the UK, that TV coverage of Bert Weedon, Hank Marvin et al. caused every youngster to demand that Father Christmas turned up with some sort of guitar, electric or acoustic for them!

Interesting thoughts Mike, fortunately for us banjo fans, the banjo, due to its role in bluegrass/country music, and three really important influences, Earl Scruggs, 'The Beverley Hill Billies' and 'Duellin' Banjos', has never been as popular. There is renewed interest in the classic banjo repertoire because many banjo players, initially attracted to the instrument by the above mentioned, have come across the old recordings or happened by chance to come across odd banjo players, like you and me (odd in the nicest possible way), who still play this old music, and they like it and want to play it. The ukulele is also enjoying a revival whilst the mandolin (despite a brief flurry of interest due to Captain Corellli) and the balalaika are still in the shadows (no not as in Cliff Richard and the) they both need to be featured in a wildly successful film/TV advert, and their popularity will be ensured. 

Interesting question, Ian. I think the answer really isn't simple but I think the widespread availability of affordable, quality banjos might have had something to do with it. Apparently, the factory-made banjos previously on sale were not good at all and most professional performers built their own instruments. The phonograph cylinder probably played a role (esp. with the first recordings of ragtime on the banjo) but it came too late to explain the vast increase in popularity in the 1880s. I guess the main selling points were:

- Being a fretted instrument it was relatively easy to play and allowed you to play popular and minstrel tunes -- being able to play one's one music was a big selling point before sound recording became available

- If you joined a club or band, it also allowed you to socialise, make new friends, meet fellow amateurs

- In the American case, it was a "national" instrument and therefore a source of pride; in the UK, it had an exotic appeal, like the "Japanese fiddle" used in Cockney music hall and which was also briefly popular

(Commonwealth troops playing the "Jap fiddle")


I agree. Ironically I think the banjo re-inventing itself has ultimately allowed it to survive and the banjo world is better off this way -- there is a broader choice of banjo music available for different tastes.

That is why, in part, it is interesting to look at the balalaika, and in particular the articles written by Dmitry Kalinin. The balalaika today is "what could have been" if Classic Banjo had been preserved, untouched and in its original form, and the picture looks bleak. The instrument is virtually unknown in its own country and most performers have to give concerts for free. The instrument simply hasn't kept up with the times and is stuck in a time warp -- there is no Russian equivalent of Bluegrass or Old Time music in which the balalaika is used. It has drifted into irrelevance.

great job this , Mike

Actually Ian, I think it was minstrels.  The banjo, as we know it and not any pre-five-string protobanjo was born for the stage.  At first, strange and unusual, but as soon as the first "real" minstrel show happened the banjo (as we know it) became huge.

It was in the hands of professional minstrels that the improvements were made to make a more solid and reliable instrument that would stand the rigors of every-night performance.

The "silver rim" banjo was believed to have been designed in Troy, NY around 1855 and later perfected by Jimmy Clarke (a minstrel banjoist).  These banjos were built for pro minstrel banjoists and in limited production.

The banjo goes from a strange curiosity to factory made about the same time that the Virginia Minstrels take the stage in 1843.  Boucher and Jacobs are selling production models.

The the Civil War happens and with it the minstrel show takes the country.  By the end of the war, we have a rich and very famous Frank Converse.  He had cranked out a couple of books and had a hand in, if he did not write, the others.

This guy paved the way for all that came later.  He put down in writing banjo music, and though laid out weird the stuff in "The Banjoist" is solid from '71.

Jimmy Clarke gets TB, and SSS starts to make banjos in basically the Clarke pattern.

Meanwhile, the J.H. Buckbee factory in NY is turning out thousands of "tub" banjos that look like what the pros are playing.  The that-era's answer to todays Chinese versions of famous guitars. And that continued until he was forced out of business and had his factory and assets seized by the sheriff only to be later bought for a song by Rettberg and Lange.

Now, we've been told that these few mean racist banjoists kept the real banjo players down and stole all of their music.  But it is what it is.  And the mass-market for banjos and banjo music was a direct response to the minstrel show.

To elaborate on this, look at the lack of 5-string banjos produced from 1920 until Bluegrass and folk music created a market.  Then people wanted to play like Earl.

People wanted to play like E.M. Hall

People want to play like Mumford and Sons.

Nice job Mike!

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