|photo: Virginia Curtiss. San Diego Roots Festival,2004.
Welcome to Curt Bouterse's very personal introduction to the wonderful world of fretless banjos, or banjers as they might
more properly be called. The term fretless banjer is probably redundant since banjers are, by origin and nature, without frets.
This is not just a technicality, it is a reflection of both an older kind of music and a different way of making sounds.
The word 'banjer' may need introduction to the general public. The earliest references to what modern audiences call the
'banjo' all approximate to the sound 'banjer.' Thomas Jefferson, no literary slouch, spelled it banjar. Modern rural players
traditionally call it banjer. If those who developed the instrument, kept it alive for two centuries, and continue to play
it even today call it banjer, I feel thoughtful people should agree: banjer it is.
I suspect that 'banjo' came about when
an early urban observer asked a country player (black or white) what he called the instrument. Upon hearing something like
'banjer,' the chronicler overcompensated thusly: "We know these people call potatoes 'taters,' tomatoes 'maters,' and yellow
'yaller,' ipso facto this cannot be a banjer but, rather, a banj-O." The word banjo, being already in common usage, may be
used for speaking generically, or about the modern instrument, but the traditional, fretless, especially handmade, instrument
is a banjer.
I've never really played a fretted banjo. I picked them up occasionally in the early days when banjos were scarce and
I was first beginning to play. But my first instrument was one I made in my friend Charles Thomas Young's workshop in 1963.
We used hand tools only because neither of us trusted ourselves with too much power. Slow and steady won the race. The tortoise
has always been my totem.
To see ancient pix of this enterprise, click here.
I had been inspired by my friendship with Stu Jamieson and listening to him play his home-made fretless banjo. At San Diego
State we had a folksong society and a good friend, Warren Stromberg, had just bought a Frank Proffitt black walnut banjer--the
most beautiful instrument I had ever seen. I learned to play on it and picked it every chance I got. After college Warren
moved away and I dreamed about that banjer. Forty years later my dream came true when Warren sold it to me. It hangs next
to the flame maple Proffitt I bought in 1964.
|Black walnut Proffitt, 1963.
INSTRUMENTS DON'T MAKE MUSIC, PEOPLE MAKE MUSIC.
|My first dulcimer, 1963.