1929 Washburn Aristocrat

The 5-string is regarded as the “classic” form of the banjo, even if a number of other forms have been developed over the course of the instrument’s history. That short fifth string, droning out the same pitch regardless of the chord being played on the other four, is largely responsible for the archetypal banjo sound. It is critical to several popular styles of playing, including bluegrass and folk music.

The modern 5-string banjo probably has a history more than two centuries long. Early banjos were developed from African instruments by slaves in the southern US. The banjo was first popularized among white players by Joel Sweeny in the 1830s, by which point the arrangement of four long strings and one shorter drone string was probably already commonplace. Sweeny’s act – the stereotypical blackface minstrel show – was hugely successful and managed to transform the banjo from the instrument of slaves to that of middle-class white people living in the US and Britain.

While the banjo was improved upon over time, its basic form remained essentially fixed. Mandolin- and guitar-banjos appeared in the late 19th century, but they never approached the popularity of the original 5-string design. The same was true of shorter-scale variants such as the pony banjo and the banjeaurine. It was not until the 1920s that the 5-string was overshadowed by tenor and plectrum banjos; even then, these 4-string variants reigned for about 30 years before the popularity of bluegrass music brought the 5-string back to the forefront.

However, for most of those 30 years, 5-string banjo production nearly ground to a halt. Most of the major banjo manufacturers officially still offered them, but they were almost exclusively built on special order. Thus, while the odd Bacon, Vega, Gibson or Weymann from the 1920s does turn up with an original 5-string neck, most of the pre-War 5-string banjos with resonators and 19-fret necks are actually converted from tenors or plectrums. The 5-string was simply not as amenable to the jazz age; it was seen as old-fashioned and rural, a fact exploited by the singing cowboy Montana, whose plectrum neck sported a dummy 5th string tuner to make him appear more “western”.

But, if the 5-string banjo was moribund during the 1920s, it wasn’t quite dead. The odd one did make it out of the factory, as this Washburn attests. It’s an Aristocrat model 5108, described as a “Regulation 5 string” in the Washburn catalog and identical to the 5183 tenor and 5158 plectrum except for the neck. The pot is also structurally similar to my A-1 tenor, but the decoration has been embellished in accordance with customers’ tastes later in the 1920s. While not as fancy as the De Luxe and Super De Luxe models – which, incidentally, were not catalogued in 5-string versions – it’s still an impressive instrument. The entire instrument is made of walnut and the hardware is plated in nickel. The resonator flange is stamped with a floral design echoed in the carved pearl fret markers. The Aristocrat was listed at $200 in 1928, but an industry-wide crash in banjo sales the following year lead to a whopping $50 reduction by 1930.