Zither Banjo


Here’s a free zither-banjo mini album of compositions by the king of the zither banjo, Alfred D. Cammeyer (1862 – 1949)



The zither banjo is similar to a regular 5-string classic banjo, but with a few significant changes:

1. The 1st, 2nd and 5th strings are plain steel; the 3rd is gut; the 4th is silk or nylon wound in silver

2. The back is entirely enclosed

3. The skin surface is quite small, 7 to 9 inches

4. There are six tuning machines. One is a dummy.

5. Note the absence of a 5th-string tuner. Instead, the string enters a tunnel at the fifth fret, emerging at the nut. Although this feature appears on some regular banjos, it is a common feature of zither banjos.

The instrument responds best to a softer right-hand technique than used on regular classic banjos. It is recommended by Cammeyer and others to use a ‘composite stroke’ of right-hand fingernail and flesh, however I use only flesh, as that is the way I play all my instruments.

The first port of call for info regarding the zither banjo is THIS SITE.

The foremost composer for the instrument is Alfred D. Cammeyer, who claimed to have invented the instrument. His music can be very romantic, expressive, and sounds nothing like any other banjo music.

Almost a decade ago I had a zither banjo by Jack Abbott Snr., but soon sold – although a beautiful instrument, I couldn’t connect with it at all. You can see photos of it, and videos I did with it, below.

More recently I got another zither banjo, this time by the self-styled “Pioneer of the Zither Banjo”, W. Temlett Snr. This is a fine instrument, which I enjoy playing. I am currently exploring the music of Cammeyer, and will include videos here:





The zb illustrated below is the beautiful Jack Abbott Snr., Amboyna No.1 Zither Banjo

And some videos I did in the brief time I owned the instrument:

19 thoughts on “Zither Banjo”

  1. Rather like the mandoline-banjo, with the skin being tautened by a pair of separate smaller metal hoops within the outer body-come-resonator.

  2. Craig Wood said:

    Hello..Im sorting some banjo books(old) and came across
    The Alfred D. Crammeyer Banjoist..containing his most popular solos.Would this interest you..?
    Craig Wood

  3. Jake Glanville said:

    Having been a fan of yours, Rob, for many a long year, I’m delighted to have found this website, and of course extremely grateful to you for creating it.

    I’ve been in love with the zither-banjo ever since obtaining my first one. a Barnes & Mullins Perfect No.2, from a cinema queue busker in Notting Hill for the princely sum of £2 10 shillings. I still have it (or rather my daughter has) and I’ve been through quite a few since, but there are still one or two things I don’t know, so I hope you don’t mind the odd question now and then.

    My family and the zb go back a long way. Alfred Glanville Vance aka The Great Vance, the most famous Music Hall entertainer of his day (the 1850’s) is a distant relative and according to family legend played a zither-banjo. The story of Cammeyer inventing the instrument is totally rejected by the way among our lot, and it is claimed that the term was in common use around the time William Temlett took out his patent in 1869.

    All the best. Thanks for reading this,

    Black Jake.

    • Hi Jake. Good to hear from you. I love the title of “Perfect No.2” as if Perfect No.1 wasn’t perfect enough 🙂 Wow, you do have an important link with the past! That must keep you going. As for Temlett and the ZB, you are of course right. Cammeyer claimed he invented it. He might have tweaked it, and the Vibrante was a cut above the others, but he certainly can lay claim to helping to popularise it, though how many people could play his compositions is open to question. To bring order to this chaos, I recorded my Cammeyer EP on a Temlett ZB 🙂

  4. Wow! What a delight to find your music this evening! I have been playing banjo for thirty years (American), and I have never before come across the zither banjo! Just wonderful! It’s an entirely different and lovely thing!

    I always gravitate to the sweet sounding spot near the neck, to unusual chords and I prefer to play without picks. I let the notes sing slowly and prefer not to cut them off. I like nylon strings too! Tonight I am thinking that perhaps I am a zither banjo player at heart and didn’t know it until now!

    Thanks for sharing!!

  5. Tony Pilkington said:

    Hi Rob, I am about to start restoration of a Zither Banjo and am struggling to find info regarding appropriate strings. Above you say they are a composite set of steel, gut (nylon) and wire wound nylon. I can only find sets of 5 all metal standard banjo strings. Do you know anywhere I can buy a composite set or if I need to purchase individual strings what material and gauges would you recommend for each.

    • Hi Tony. Don’t put regular steel-strings on. The place I used to go for the proper strings no longer exists, after the demise of the owner. I’m out of the scene now, so I suggest you visit the experts and ask them: https://classic-banjo.ning.com/
      Good luck!

      • Jake Glanville said:

        I’m not sure why I got your email, but in response to the question about zither-banjo strings, zither banjos are my thing, and so I will chip in my tuppence worth.
        Special zither banjo strings were available from Clifford Essex in Norfolk (UK) but alas, since the death of its founder the shop remains permanently closed.
        Your best bet is to make up a set, but I hesitate to advise since I use all Nylgut on most of my ZB’s. All the others are steel strung. In my 85 years I’ve never encountered a ZB ‘correctly’ strung. Even my 1890’s William Temlett Senior ZB which once belonged to Tarrant Bailey was all steel strings.
        I reckon the oft-stated ‘correct’ ZB mix of nylon (or gut) and steel was a ploy by Clifford Essex to sell the strings he personally preferred.
        It’s entirely a matter of personal choice anyway, in my view. All I would say is that if it’s steel strings you prefer like Tarrant Bailey, stick to the lightest you can buy. ZB’s are all getting pretty old, like me, and may not take kindly to being too highly stressed. Some of my ZB’s I de-tune a step or two, just to avoid any undue stress on the neck.
        All the Best,
        Black Jake of Norwich, England.

      • I have an idea, you could use 9s on a Zither Banjo, they have a little bit less tension than the Special Strings. If you tune it down a half step to Open Gb, it’ll reduce the stress on the neck & as a bonus it’ll make the high notes a little easier to sing.

      • Thanks for the idea, Oscar, but I prefer to use the historical strings, despite their shortcomings. They have the right historical sound. Rob

      • Oscar Stern said:

        Clifford Essex makes those strings again so we’re very lucky. Jake Wildwood (and I) prefer using all Nylon strings on the Zither Banjo because Zither Banjos often have a really bright sound & the Nylon strings really mellow it out.

  6. I have an interesting idea for strings, why not use Aquila Nylgut Banjo Strings, Gold tone BSL Ultra-Lights 9s, or their BSN-L Strings? Those strings have roughly the same tension as the special strings (maybe a little less). If you use regular banjo strings (like 10s) they recommend tuning it down a couple of steps like maybe a Minor Third Lower than Open G which is Open E like Pete Seeger.

    • That’s more like it, Clifford Essex finally got back on Ebay, woo hoo.

    • Oscar Stern said:

      I sometimes use Aquila Red Nylgut Banjo Strings on the Zither Banjo which are all Nylon strings (Model Number is 11B). The All Nylon set has a bit less tension than the Historical set but it does create a Special sound that’s more akin to an old timey American Banjo that originally had Gut strings (nowadays it would be Nylon).

    • Oscar Stern said:

      The Cammeyer Zither Banjo string gauges are .008 plain steel, .010 plain steel, .034 plain ground nylon, .026w silver plated copper on nylon, & .009 plain steel.

  7. Oscar Stern said:

    Finally a Revival String set to recreate that Original Zither Banjo sound. Having all the machine head tuners on the headstock does make the neck more comfortable which means your hand won’t bump into the 5th string tuner as you move up & down the neck.

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