Cello Banjo: Everything You Need to Know

Here at Musician Vault we love our banjo’s. With all the articles I have done, I couldn’t leave out the cello banjo, the lesser-known sibling of the banjo. The cello banjo has a rich, deep tone, and in recent times has gained popularity among musicians.

This article will dive into everything cello banjo, from the history, features, and playing techniques, as well as answer some common questions. Let’s dive in!

everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-cello-banjo-article

History of the Cello Banjo

Origins in the Early 20th Century

The cello banjo emerged in the early 20th century, as banjo orchestras gained popularity in the United States and Europe. These ensembles sought to emulate the rich, full sound of traditional orchestras. Perfectly fitting, since the cello banjo was developed to fill the low-end register, similar to the role of the cello in a string orchestra.

Next came the jazz era, which was both good and bad for the cello banjo.

role of the cello banjo in jazz and modern music

Role in Jazz and Modern Resurgence

As jazz and ragtime music began to flourish, the cello banjo found a place in jazz bands and ragtime ensembles. Its unique tone and timbre made it an ideal instrument for accompanying other musicians, but it wasn’t enough to create a big enough interest.

As the 20th century progressed and musical styles evolved, the cello banjo gradually fell out of favor and became a much more rare and obscure instrument. Until recent times…

In recent years, the cello banjo has experienced a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the efforts of musicians like Marcy Marxer (more on Marcy later!) and Bela Fleck. These artists have reintroduced the cello banjo to a new generation of musicians, showcasing its versatility and captivating sound in various musical settings.

The cello banjo’s unique sound started sparking the imagination of musicians all over again. As they say, history just repeats itself!

Features of the Banjo Cello

Features of the Cello Banjo

Body and Construction

The banjo cello traditionally has 4 strings, features a large, round body. The pot is similar in size to that of a traditional 5 string banjo measuring around 14 inches in diameter. On some models the cello banjo’s neck is longer than that of a standard banjo, which allows for a greater range of notes to be played.

There is also a 5 string banjo cello. The neck on this variation will be slightly larger, due to the extra “drone” string. The pot of the 5 string cello banjo is the same as on the 4 string. The choice really depends on which string variation you prefer.

Materials

When it comes to materials, cello banjos are typically constructed from high-quality woods like maple, mahogany, or walnut. The fingerboard may be made from rosewood or ebony, while the head is usually a synthetic material like Mylar.

Given that not many luthiers make these instruments, those who do put a lot of workmanship and detail into their work.

Cello Banjo Strings

As i mentioned cello banjos typically have four strings, similar to tenor and plectrum banjos. The 5 string variation has the extra drone string, more of a traditional resonator setup. Overall the strings on a cello banjo are much thicker than the ones on typical 4 string or 5 string banjos.

String thickness along with the larger body, contribute to the deeper tones produced by the cello banjo. Another huge contributor to the tone of the cello banjo is the lower tuning, lets look in more detail below.

Cello Banjo Tuning

The cello banjo is tuned one octave lower than a standard tenor banjo. Common tunings for the cello banjo include CGDA or GDAE, with the strings tuned in fifths. These tunings offer a wide pitch range, enabling the banjo cello to cover both low and high registers.

Existing tenor banjo players will have an easy time transitioning musically to the cello banjo. The fact that it is simply tuned an octave lower will allow players to translate a lot of what they already know. The lower registers will be appealing and interesting to experiment with!

Now, I want to talk about my pick for the best cello banjo.

Why Gold Tone Cello Banjo

I like Gold Tone instruments, I have played a Gold Tone 5 string banjo along with my Deering for years, and love their build and quality. They specialize in making all types of banjos including the cello banjo.

Gold Tone was founded in 1993 by Wayne and Robyn Rogers. They set out to create high quality instruments at good prices, and I think they have definitely achieved this goal. The company is dedicated to their customers and have tons of online resources.

Above all, they really do love their banjos! Now, lets take a closer look at their cello banjo in more detail because I do think it is the best one on the market.

Gold Tone CEB-4 Marcy Marxer Cello Banjo

There are not many cello banjos out there on the market, and I would not recommend buying a low cost replica of these unique instruments. When it comes to reliable manufacturers and a quality instrument I recommend the Gold Tone CEB-4 Marcy Marxer Signature-Series cello banjo.

This instrument is a modern take on the classic cello banjo, designed in collaboration with Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist Marcy Marxer. As I mentioned earlier Marcy played an integral role in the resurgence of the banjo cello so her input is integral. Let’s get into the specific details.

Gold Tone CEB-4 Marcy Marxer Signature-Series Cello Banjo
Gold Tone CEB-4 Cello Banjo

Features and Specifications

  • Price: $1200
  • Vintage Brown Finish
  • Ebony Fingerboard with Signature Inlays
  • Maple Bridge with Ebony Cap
  • GT Master Planets Tuners
  • Two-Way Adjustable Truss Rod
  • Rolled Brass Tone Ring
  • 32 Brackets
  • 4-String Straightline Tailpiece
  • 1-9/16″ Bone Nut Width
  • 24-3/4″ Scale Length
  • 8 lbs. Weight
  • CGDA Tuning
  • .040 .030w .042w .054w Strings
  • Included Hard Case
Why I like the CEB-4 Cello Banjo

Why I Like The CEB-4 Banjo

Marcy Marxer’s extensive experience and passion for the cello banjo played a significant role in the design and development of the Gold Tone CEB-4, and it really shows! Her input helped to create an instrument that is both historically accurate and suited to the needs of modern musicians.

I love the quality construction on this banjo, the ebony fingerboard and the beautiful finish make it a pleasure to hold and look at. If you ever have a chance to see one of these in person you will see what I mean.

The shorter scale for such a robust instrument is both surprising and welcome. Even though it is also available in the 5 string variation, I prefer the 4 string for its authenticity and tonality (it’s the same one Marcy plays).

Gold Tone really did an amazing job bringing back a much under-appreciated instrument!

Check out this beautiful performance of Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink. The video beautifully showcases this 4 string callo banjo and its comparison to a typical resonator. Both of their playing is undeniably beautiful and the Gold Tone cello banjo really stands out!

Is the Cello Banjo Easy to Play

For the Musician

If you are already a banjo player who is somewhat proficient, learning the cello banjo might not be as difficult as for a beginner. The tuning is simply lower and allows for similar fingerings to those of the 4 string banjo – tenor or plectrum. Additionally, you might already be used to holding and playing a banjo in general, which may seem trivial, but plays a big part when switching to a different version of the same instrument.

Given the instruments tuning, cellists and mandolin players will also have an easy time starting in comparison to a complete beginner. If starting with the 5 string variation of the cello banjo, the existing banjo player will again have an easy time transitioning. The lower tuning will provide for tonal differences but not much for a technical hurdle. How about if you are a beginner?

For the Beginner

Learning the cello banjo for a beginner is musically similar to learning a typical banjo or even a mandolin. The cello banjo scale and string separation makes it easier to start off plucking notes and play along with a friend. However, those same larger strings might prove to be a challenge to some, especially in the beginning.

Just like with every instrument the cello banjo comes with its own unique benefits and challenges. In general, learning the banjo can be easier to start with, compared to the guitar, for example. Lastly, lets look at the best way to learn to play!

best way to learn the cello banjo

Best Way to Learn Banjo Cello

If you are a novice, I recommend investing time in a free YouTube teacher through their videos, if available. Alternatively you can pursue private lessons – wether in person or online – to fully grasp the intricacies of the banjo, and especially the cello banjo.

Check Yelp or local listings to find something that fits. Expert advice is invaluable when it comes to studying unique or rare instruments.

Lastly, its important to immerse yourself with music that includes cello banjos. You have to hear for yourself how artists use the instrument and build on what you can pick up by ear or tabs (if available). It goes without saying that learning the cello banjo will take time and dedication, as with learning any musical instrument.

The more you practice, the better you get. It’s as simple as that!

The Verdict: The Cello Banjo is a Hidden Gem

The cello banjo is a captivating and versatile instrument with a rich history and a unique place in the world of music. Its deep, resonant tone sets it apart from other members of the banjo family, and its recent resurgence in popularity is a testament to its enduring appeal.

We can thank innovative and dedicated artists for helping remind listeners and musicians alike about often under-appreciated instruments. One of whom is Marcy Marxer, with her signature Gold Tone CEB-4 cello banjo. Wether you are a beginner or an experienced banjo player, I highly recommend you add the cello banjo to your list of instruments. I hope this guide was helpful, feel free to drop a comment, and thank you for reading. Happy picking!

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