WUMB January Program Guide

Evolution of Western Swing from Jazz: The Tenor Banjo

The Dixie Bee Line Visits the Birth of Western Swing!

In the earlier days of jazz right into the 1930’s, there were no amplifier, no microphones. We take all this for granted today, but back in those days if you wanted to be heard over a raucous band and dance hall, you had to be LOUD! The singers of those days tended to be able to bellow, a far different sound from the “crooners” of later years thus enabled by electrification. The vaudeville sound, if you will. So one of the staples of the early jazz bands was the Tenor Banjo, as shown below. This instrument could cut through almost anything, and play a pretty rhythmic melody. That is to say, the players learned to strum chords, and build a melody line around a series of chords, because the more subtle single-string playing style just wouldn’t be heard.

To see what I mean, take a listen to this 1935 version of Milenburg Joys, a jazz standard, done by a terrific western swing outfit called “Leon’s Lone Star Cowboys”.

Around 30 seconds into this song you’ll hear the tenor banjo break. Very distinctive, to say the least, and a hallmark of early jazz and western swing. The two genres hadn’t quite split at this time. And remember, it was the depression! So musicians who did not fancy themselves “hillbilly” musicians would take jobs with any outfit they could.

But then came the electric pickup. And the microphone. That changed everything! Singers could croon and still be heard. And the subtle single-note leads could be amplified to be heard, and the brash tenor banjo began to recede as we approached the 1940’s, and was all but dead by the end of the 40’s. The earliest electric guitars were generally large jazz guitars with their “arched tops” (the only style of guitar that could have possibly been heard over an orchestra) but with an electric “pick up” grafted on, and plugged into an electronic amplifier. A full range of subtlety bloomed! Starting with the swing guitar genius Charlie Christian, the Western Swing players quickly adapted to the new technology.

Take a listen to the 1940’s version of Bob Will’s and his Texas Playboys “Twin Guitar Special”, and see why the tenor banjo went the way of the dodo bird:

What’s that you hear? Yes, there are electric guitars as shown above, but the electric “steel guitar”, (shown below) so named for the steel bar which you barred the strings to make the individual notes. Now that’s where Western Swing really cleaved off of jazz. This is also known as a Hawaiian guitar. Did you know there were only two types of guitars ever made? The “Spanish” guitar which is your regular guitar, held upright in the lap, and the “Hawaiian” guitar which is played flat in your lap with a steel bar. That’s a side piece of trivia. Can you tell which is which? In the Twin Guitar Special, above, you can hear the “electric Hawaiian” steel guitar at about 10 seconds into the song, and the “electric Spanish” guitars at about 40 seconds into the song.

In future months we’ll take a look at the metamorphosis of this plain Hawaiian guitar into the mechanical marvel of the “Pedal Steel” guitar. Don’t confuse the two!!

The rest is history! Join me any Saturday night from 9pm – Midnight Eastern time for a swell sampling of all of this and the whole rest of the Hillbilly genre.

Write to me! Sincerely,

~ Jon Gersh

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