Mike's adventures in Banjoland -- V : My ex-smooth arm banjo

It's been a while since I last posted here, so I might as well post a few updates. There have been a few developments in the past few weeks which have taken time away from my banjo studies, namely that I got a pretty good job (which means... no, not more money to spend on banjos... must... not... spend on banjos!) and that I seem to have come down with the flu for the past few days so banjo playing isn't as pleasant as usual.


Still, I've been having a closer look at my old, English-made banjo. It would seem it was originally a smooth-arm banjo, as it previously had the pearl markers underneath the frets, but those have been cleverly filled with small round ebony dots which make them practically undistinguishable, and then moved up a bit to fit between the frets. I suspect that the banjo was made around 1880, and was converted to frets around 1920-1940.


Now, due to the problems with the banjo's action, I sometimes get some very nasty fret buzz, especially around the first position. The only solution would be, it would seem, to have the neck straightened and the dowel stick remade...


...OR, I could cunningly return the banjo to its original condition as a smooth-arm. I'm sure Joe Morley would approve.


Since I'm a brave (some would say stupid) fellow, I might consider doing the job myself... pulling out the frets, and then filling the slots with some contrasting wood. That would solve the fret buzz problem, look rather nice, and be loyal to the maker's original intentions.


However, since I'm so busy playing pieces such as Ad Astra or The Egyptian Princess which take me all the way up to the 17th position, I wonder if it would be wise to attempt to play a smooth-arm. Is it possible to play the more complex Morley repertoire on a fretless? Did Morley play those on a smooth-arm, or did he ultimately switch to frets himself?


Maybe I should stop fretting about the frets...


Anyhow, music-wise, I've been making a lot of progress, and I think the next piece I'll be recording will be Mr Punch. Playing The Egyptian Princess and Mr Punch has made me learn a lot about fingering and single-string passages, and they're both very exciting to play once you develop the skills. Can't get enough of them.


Next in line are the Olympian March, London Club Parade, and perhaps some Grimshaw, for a change.


By the way, Ian, I was watching your rendition of Circus Parade, and I couldn't help noticing how lively it sounds compared to mine. There's something which really makes it sound like a circus parade, but I just can't put my finger on it. Care to share some tips on how to play it better? I think arpeggiating some of the chords might help...


I've also switched to Chris Sands heavies and a Renaissance head, and I like heavy nylons better than the medium nylguts. I'm used to playing heavy-gauge strings on the classical guitar and the medium-gauge nylguts feel like overcooked spaghetti.


Anyhow, that's all for today. Thanks for reading,



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Comment by Jody Stecher on April 4, 2011 at 14:36

Morley's fretless career seems to have ended early. Read about it here:


With the possible exception of a few early surviving compositions he seems to have had the fretted banjo in mind for his compositions. All the photos I've seen of Joe Morley picture him with a fretted five string banjo.


Comment by thereallyniceman on April 4, 2011 at 15:22

Hi Mike,

I said before.. you really like to tackle the hard pieces don't you!   Ad Astra?..good luck!


Regarding my playing of Circus Parade. Apart from picking hard and giving lots of "attack" to my playing. The one thing I notice straight away about your version is that some of the time the "Beat" is missing.

SIMPLISTICALLY I stress, very strongly, beat 1 of the bar and beat 4 slightly less (in this 6/8 piece). This stressing of the first beat in the bar gives the foot tapping rhythm. I pretend I am marching up and down to it and these are the foot falls: LEFT/RIGHT/LEFT/RIGHT :-)  1:4:1:4    


In fact I count 6/8 rhythm  1:2|1:2|1:2|

Here simple (childish) way to count the bars in 6/8 from say Bar 1 to Bar 6 of the Circus Parade score to get the foot tapping beat :




This is all very silly and obviously you know about timing, but I run another group of musicians and none musicians. Counting along with the score in this simple way helps them develop a sense of rhythm and beat. Without a BEAT the music seems flat monotonous.


I hope you don't think I am stating the obvious..that is just the way I do it :-)


Good luck with the banjo.  So you now have got  a good job?...don't hesitate, invest your wealth in banjos.  :-)




Comment by Mike Moss on April 4, 2011 at 16:25



that's a very interesting webpage. I wonder what sort of music Joe played before he switched to a fretted banjo.




that's a very good and intuitive explanation, I've been trying the "marching" trick and it works! I'll record an improved version later on once I get it down. Thanks for the help!

Comment by Richard William Ineson on April 24, 2011 at 16:39


Clifford Essex met Joe Morley in 1891, in Sandown in the Isle of Wight, where Joe was performing with a small troupe of musicians. Joe was playing a smooth arm, seven stringed banjo, at the time and CE said, " the way his hand raced up and down that handle (arm) was wonderful, no position playing ".

CE made Joe's acquaintance and CE found that most of the solos which Joe featured, were his own compositions, CE goes on, "I offered to buy some of them from him for publication, pointing out to him that his name would become widely known. Joe at once fell in with the idea, but nothing materialised for three years".

This is  interesting, in that, this would make the year, when Morley delivered the promised solos to CE, 1894, but on the back cover of Morley's 'In the Moonlight' published by Essex and Cammeyer and copyrighted in 1893 are listed the first Morley solos in their lists, so CE's memory might have been at fault here.

The first Morley solos published by E&C and presumably composed whilst Joe was still playing the seven stringed, fretless banjo, were :-

No. 21. Violet Mazurka, No.22. Shanklin Schottische, No.23. In the Moonlight, No. 26. Sandown Schottische, No.27. Favourite Waltz, No.28. Moonbeams Shadow Dance, No. 29. Wimbledon Barn Dance, No.30. New Jersey Breakdown, No.33. Dreamland Gavotte, No.34. Pastime Schottische, No.35.Dora Breakdown, No.36. Cowes Schottische, No. 37. Royal Osborne Gavotte, No. 38. Polka in C

No.40. Sunflower Breakdown, No.41. Scarborough Schottische, No.42. Cannon Jig.


I will post the music for 'In the Moonlight' so that you can get an idea of what Joe was composing and playing on his fretless banjo.


Of these solos, No. 29, No. 37, and No. 41, are bass string to D tuning.



Comment by Mike Moss on April 24, 2011 at 17:05

Hi Richard,


thanks for the information! I've been looking at the music for "In the Moonlight", it's very interesting to see how simple the composition is compared to his later works, hardly any block chords and lots of barres on the 7th position, a lot like minstrel banjo, if I'm not mistaken. It's amazing how his playing evolved through the years!

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