Ca. 1968 Dopera Original Plectrum Banjo

The 5-string banjo was immensely popular during the late 19th century, but it needed modification to serve as a rhythm instrument in early jazz bands. The new musical forms were better suited to strumming than fingerpicking, and the droning of the open 5th string caused problems with chording. Some early jazz banjo players simply removed the shorter string; this lead to the creation of banjos with only four strings, which were intended to be played with a plectrum. The tuning of the four long strings remained the same as on a contemporary 5-string banjo (C-G-B-D). While most bluegrass players have shifted to an open G tuning, plectrum banjos are still commonly tuned the way they were a century ago. The result is a deep sound, excellent for rhythm playing, with less cutting power but more sustain than a tenor banjo and close chord voicings. Although the popularity of the jazz banjo waned as guitars became louder (and more electric), the plectrum and tenor variants never completely went out of production. The folk music boom of the 1960s lead to a revival for the banjo; Pete Seeger and his long-necked Vega particularly stirred interest in 5-strings, but the tenor and plectrum variants saw renewed interest as well.

This was the situation ca. 1968, when John and Rudy Dopyera started making banjos. The brothers had previously made banjos in the early to mid-1920s under the National brand, which would make its mark starting in 1928 as a manufacturer of resonator guitars. The National banjos had several features that presaged the first tricone guitars: metal resonators with 3-dimensional flares and engraved decorations, some with shield-shaped emblems. When the brothers returned to banjo making in the 1960s, the resonator designs were very similar. The rest of the instruments, however, was unique. Cast brass rims and tone rings gave the banjos enormous volume and a surprisingly warm voice, without the metallic clank associated with resonator guitars. There were plectrums, tenors and 5-strings variants made, as well as a 6-string guitar-banjo called a “banjitar” on the headstock.

Equally notable as the construction was the decoration. All banjos were heavily engraved on the resonator and headstock overlay. My banjo’s resonator still bears the hand-drawn outlines of the engraving pattern. The patterns must have taken a huge amount of time to draw and engrave, and very few surviving specimens have the same pattern. Most of the aluminum resonators were also anodized and dyed in wild, intense colors. A few were even selectively anodized, leaving complex patterns of dyed and silver aluminum behind the engraving. Close inspection of my banjo reveals that the aluminum pot was dyed to match the resonator, though the coloration is quite subtle. The matching headstocks bore engraved overlays and lopsided shapes that strongly hinted at mandolin scrolls. As was often the case with National guitars, the necks themselves were fairly plain: single pieces of maple with unbound rosewood fingerboards, most had simple dot markers.

The Dopyeras attempted to “Americanize” their name by dropping the “y”. The four- and five-string versions were branded as “Dopera Original”, while the six-string banjos were labeled as “Dopera Banjitar”. The brothers weren’t legally able to use the Dobro name in 1968 – it was owned by Semie Mosely of Mosrite fame, who had been building electric and acoustic Dobros for several years. The Dopyeras built very few banjos in the 1960s before switching back to resonator guitars – one estimate puts it at around 10 of each kind of banjo. The serial number on my headstock doesn’t refute this low figure. Within a few years, the Dopyeras' revived resonator guitar business would morph into OMI, which regained the rights to the Dobro brand name after Mosrite’s bankruptcy.

Although few were built, the Dopera Original banjos were high-quality instruments with much to recommend them to players. Remarkably, despite all the metal involved in the construction, my plectrum doesn’t weigh any more than the average banjo. It’s very easy to play (thanks, no doubt, to the modern truss rod) and it offers a much wider dynamic range than my Vega tenor. It can be just as loud when strummed hard, but playing with just fingers reveals a much softer and warmer side as well. My banjo is all original and generally very clean, with just a few scratches to the resonator and minor dings along the headstock.

 

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