Posted by: Paul Roberts | April 12, 2017

Mike Keyes – Discovering the Cello Banjo Interview by Paul Roberts

Mike Keyes interviewed by PaulRoberts 9/9/08

Mike Keyes has adopted a Gold Tone four-string cello banjo and he’s excited about it. I spoke with Mike after listening to his rendition of an O’Carolan tune and watching his several-part critique on YouTube in which he says, “This is a great little instrument. The price is right and it’s got a great sound. It has really gotten me interested in doing different kinds of music.”

I hear your dog in the background. How does your dog like the cello banjo?

“Two dogs. They both love this one. They’ll leave the room when I play the tenor, but they love the cello banjo. “

Playing cello banjo at a recent festival, I noticed the pleasing effect it was having on the audience, which, I think, is the same effect it has on us – and the reason we’re playing them – isn’t it?”

“Oh yeah, I think there’s something to that. Once you play a cello banjo you will be hooked.

The odd thing about this is that the cello banjo was never intended to be played like we’re playing it now. The hundred years of not playing cello banjo has changed everybody’s perspective, so they’re not really thinking in terms of it being a baritone aspect of some group, they’re starting to play it in duets or even as a solo instrument.”
The way Marcy Marxer played it in her banjo duet with Cathy Fink in their YouTube video of Buffalo Girls and Puncheon Floor really seems to have set the stage for a whole new era with this instrument.

“Well that’s what convinced me to get one. She accidentally sent an email to everybody on the cittern list (because one person who was considering buying it) saying the cello banjo was now available. I didn’t know anything about a new one being released, so I found the video on YouTube and I said, ‘I gotta have one of these.’”

What is your historical understanding of the cello banjo?

“They were primarily used in ensembles, both five-string and four-string cello banjos; the four-string came later. You see these old photos of banjo bands and they have a huge banjo bass, they’ve got some banjo cellos and they go up into lead banjos, – little piccolo banjos, which are like mandolin banjos with four strings. So, they played all these different voices and they must have been pretty impressive. I’ve heard mandolin orchestras like that and it really sounds pretty neat.”

When did they start making them, before 1900?

“I think Stewart came out with the first cello banjo in about 1885. It was a five-string. The four-string banjos would have been around 1910. The one Marcy has is a 1918 and they’d already been making those for a while. The banjo bands would have been popular from around 1885 to 1925, so there was about a 40-year span when these instruments were played. The four-string was probably only around for about 20 years.”

What are some of the ways that you think these new cello banjos will be utilized?

“Because these banjos are being made available again there are more people who are starting to talk about playing ensemble music. There are already mandolin ensembles and there’s no reason why they couldn’t go to banjo or that people would just get interested in playing different types of music. I think in two years, you’re going to see a lot of cello banjos out there. People are going to find out there are uses for it. You’re going to see somebody recording something that’s totally off the wall and you suddenly realize it’s a cello banjo. You’re going to see jazz and all sorts of things played on them. Totally unexpected stuff is going to come out of it, because it’s just a unique sound – a great sound. It’s got a universal tuning, so you can do a lot with it.”


%d bloggers like this: