Cammeyer Zither-Banjo


I picked up this banjo on eBay for about $60 a couple of years ago via British Columbia.  I got it mainly because it appeared to be fairly complete except for the fingerboard and I was interested to see how these zither-banjos are built.  For some good background on zither-banjos, players, and musical literature, visit   There is lots of good stuff there including information on Cammeyer himself.

Alfred D. CammeyerAlfred Davies Cammeyer was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1862.  He was musically talented and by his early twenties was a banjoist of some note.  He was invited to England and moved there in 1888.  He became a very popular performer and composer.  In 1892, he and Clifford Essex formed the firm of Essex & Cammeyer, manufacturing banjos and publishing music but the partnership was dissolved in 1900.  Cammeyer continued to write, perform, publish, and make banjos until his retirement in 1939.  From 1900 on, his studios and manufacturing facility was located at 3 Swallow Street, London W (in Piccadilly).  This banjo was probably made there.

The stamp on the heel reads as follows:


On the opposite side of the heel is stamped "GRADE 2"  The heel cap features a stamped facsimile of Cammeyer's signature. On the reverse of the headstock is stamped the serial number "4468".  I understand that Cammeyer's records still exist but I was not able to access them to find a date of manufacture.  If anyone can help, I would like to hear from you.

Here is the banjo as I received it.  You can see that the fingerboard is missing and only a tatter of the head remains, but otherwise it is complete.
Viewing the reverse side, we see that the back has been stripped of the original finish and given a clear topcoat, probably shellac, which has darkened quite a bit over time.
It has, as is common on zither-banjos, geared tuners one might find on a classical guitar.  A highly notable feature is the "hollow arm" neck:  The fifth string runs through a brass tube located under the fingerboard and emerges between the 4th and 5th frets.  There was a large chip of wood missing from the headstock above the 1st string tuner.
Here to the left is the rear of the headstock with the stamped serial number.  Note the 5th string guide tube at the bottom of the right slot. The tuners are a bit rusty and tarnished but quite handsomely stamped in a leafy pattern.
Also very distinctive of the zither banjo is the construction of the rim.  The head is not mounted directly on the rim but is suspended inside the rim by brackets.  The rim, as I am calling it here, acts like a resonator and does not support any of the head tension.  Here you can also see some of the crumbling veneer and missing segments of the rim cap.
Here's a closer view of the rear.  It has been refinished and there is some marginal chipping.  The rear is a carved, one-piece plate of wood.
Finally, Cammeyer's stamp on the neck at the heel.
Upon disassembly, I found that the body was out of round and some of the glue joints were loose, so I took the body apart and reglued all the joints.  There was some interesting numbering on the neck-side rim doubler.  I don't know what they mean.  The rim itself is upside-down in the photo.
The skin head is mounted on three hoops, shown here already cleaned and polished.  There is a heavy, cast and machined bezel upon which the heads sits directly.  In the middle is a thick, round brass flesh hoop.  On top is a cast and machined brass tension hoop.

Here's the bezel by itself.  The lugs in the bezel are threaded.

 Here is the tension hoop by itself.

Three dots are stamped into both hoops to insure correct alignment.
Head tension is maintained by 18 stout brass bolts.
I mounted a new skin in the usual way.  Here are the hoops all bolted up, top and bottom views, and ready to put aside until the body is ready.
While getting the neck ready, I observed that the dowel stick was crooked, so I steamed it out in the usual way.  This revealed an interesting construction technique - the dowel tenon was slotted and a small wedge of soft wood was inserted.  The wedge is intended to hit the bottom of the hole when the dowel is pushed in, expanding the tenon and making a better glue joint.  I am told that this is an old furniture makers' technique, called a "fox joint".
As I mentioned earlier, the veneer was loose and crumbling to dust in a number of places.  I don't know what the veneer was made of but possibly rosewood.  I replaced it as needed with thin ebony veneer.  The rim cap, made of a fine-grained, "ebonized" but unidentified wood, was missing in a few places, so I replaced the missing bits with ebony, too.  I finished the whole body in black lacquer with two topcoats of clear lacquer.  Here's the finished body with the handsome tailpiece bracket installed.  The screw runs through the body and into the dowel stick.
Here's another interesting feature of the Camm.  There is a small adjuster mounted on the neck and tailpiece sides of the body.  The central part can be turned with a sharp rod to rest against the main bezel.  I think they are meant to improve tone by making a more solid connection between the neck, body, bezel, and tailpiece.  I assume they could also be used to slightly change the action, much like the lower coordinator rod in a modern banjo.
The head assembly is secured to the body by 6 brackets.  Here you see how they are screwed into place on the head assembly.  The whole assembly with brackets weights a hefty 3 pounds, 5 ounces.
Here's the body with the head assembly installed using the 6 brackets.  Sitting on the head are some of the 10 other brackets.  They are screwed into the top margin of the body but are not attached to the head assembly.  They are essentially ornamental.

Here is the body-head assembly with the 10 ornamental brackets installed and all ready to go.

Here are some crude mechanical drawings that I made of the cross-section of the body structure.  On the left, I attempt to show the section at the head assembly lugs.  On the right is the section between lugs showing how the head assembly is suspended from the body.
Here is the headstock after I filled in the missing chunk of wood with a scrap of ebony left from the fingerboard blank. Its hard to see here but the 5th string runs into the guide tube from the 6th tuner (lower left in the enlarged image).  The tuner on the upper right (enlarged image) is unused.
The tuners cleaned up very nicely.  Here you can see the handsome ornamental stamping a bit better.
Ebony fingerboard replacement with minimalist inlay.  I was unable to find out the original inlay pattern.
Here is a close-up of the small bone pip I installed at the fifth fret.  Some zither-banjos have them to the right of the fret, others to the left.  I put this one coincident with the fret.  Note how the 5th string emerges from the guide tube under the fingerboard.
Here is am image of the stamped Cammeyer signature in the heel cap.  This image is heavily "doctored" by merging two shots from slightly different angles and enhancing the lettering.  In the actual heel cap, a sizeable shrinkage crack has obscured the "mmey" quite a bit.

Finally, the overall shots.  It is strung at this time with light steel strings at the first, second, and fifth positions.  The third and fourth strings are nylon.  This is the more-or-less standard stringing for "classical" style playing.  The bridge is an inexpensive no-name from my parts bin.  Some of the few zither banjos I've seen have a Grover "No Tip" bridge mounted but I find their string spacing too narrow for my taste.

In conclusion, this was quite an educational project, delving into the unfamiliar realm of zither-banjos and classical style banjo literature.  I think the 5th string configuration is a great idea that has been unfairly passed over. It produces a nice wide fingerboard and the 5th-string tuner doesn't get in the way.  So far, I have had no problems with tuning the 5th string or string vibrations in the guide tube. 

I am far from any kind of expert on zither-banjos, and all errors of fact here are mine alone.  Sincere thanks to David Wade and Chris Egerton, both of the United Kingdom, for their helpful information.  Please send any comments or corrections to me by email.