Original and New Encore Automatic Banjo

This page contains text excerpts and photographs that are copyrighted and that are used herein by special permission of the D.C. Ramey Piano Company. Be it further noted that the author of this site is not affiliated with the D.C. Ramey Piano Company, nor shall any person or entity associated with this web site assume any responsibility or liability for any of the materials or products mentioned on this page, and that may be produced, sold, and/or distributed by the aforementioned Ramey Piano Company.

The book "Encore -- The Tale of the Automatic Banjo, by the D. C. Ramey Piano Company.Part of the information below is excerpted from the booklet entitled "Encore -- The Tale of the Automatic Banjo," authored and copyrighted by the D. C. Ramey Piano Company (see inset at right). The booklet can be purchased for $5.00, plus tax (for Illinois residents) and shipping. Please send any inquiries or orders regarding the booklet or the new Encore Automatic Banjo to:

D. C. Ramey Piano Company
17768 Woodview Drive
Marysville, Ohio 43040-9711
(708) 602-3961

The Original Encore Automatic Banjo

For most automatic musical instruments manufactured here in the United States of America there was a European made counterpart, which is what generally inspired either the importation and/or the manufacturing of similar machines here in the U.S. An obvious exception to this rule was the unique Encore Automatic Banjo, and later, a very much related innovation, the Banjorchestra.

The first U.S. patent that dealt specifically with automating a banjo was granted on December 20, 1892, to Willard Gilman. The patent was for an electromagnetic device that could operate stringed musical instruments, such as a banjo, mandolin, or harp. The picking was done by a star-wheel positioned over each string that, when activated, would pluck the string. The closing of an individual circuit would advance the desired star-wheel, thus plucking the appropriate string once, playing the note. This model used a five-string banjo, with all five pickers controlled by electromagnets, with the perforated music roll being read electrically.

Patents granted to Gilman in October of 1893 and 1895 respectively, dealt with the perforated roll and a coin slot mechanism that differentiated between coins. The same attorneys that assisted Gilman achieve his patents helped William S. Reed attain a patent for pneumatic rather than electromagnetic picking and fretting of a five string banjo, granted on April 14, 1896, applied for in June of 1893. Gilman filed yet another patent on July 21, 1894, for certain improvements on the electromagnetic banjo, and this is the first patent to be assigned to the American Automatic Banjo Company, one of the firms set up to manufacture and distribute the Encore Automatic Banjo.

The new Ramey Encore Automatic Banjo (at left).is shown alongside an original Encore Banjo (at right).The first automatic banjo was introduced in 1896, before the name "Encore" was used. It operated by means of an electromagnetic system, of which none are known to survive today. It is theorized that many of the these prototype machines were converted to the later pneumatic system. The magnets used in the electromagnetic version were of the telegraphic type, too jerky and noisy to be practical. Moreover, the only electricity then available was taken from street lights, which caused so much sparking that the paper rolls tended to ignite and endanger the premises. One attempted solution for this problem was to house the automatic banjo in a non-flammable cast iron case, of which at least one of these units was reportedly made, although no trace of it exists today. The cast-iron encased automatic banjo, however, proved impractical, as it was extremely heavy and difficult to move. Another hard to remedy problem was that many prospective customers had no access to electricity at all, and since no practical battery had yet been invented the electrical system was abandoned, in favor of the safer and far more feasible pneumatic system.

In 1897, the name "Encore" was trademarked, appearing in both the top crest casting and on the lower portion of the neck of the banjo, which was inlaid in mother-of-pearl. The banjo that the Encore uses is most like a plectrum banjo; the four strings are tuned to the notes C, G, B, and D. Unlike a plectrum banjo, the Encore banjo has only ten frets. While this gives the Encore forty fret positions, it is capable of producing only 25 different notes, due to the overlapping positions (G# of the same octave can be played on the C or G string) of many notes.

Soon after the Encore name was trademarked, Charles B. Kendall, who was the force behind the New England operation and who held the patents on the automatic banjo, sold them to W. Scott O'Connor. Kendall then established the New England Automatic Banjo Company, while O'Connor went on to establish his own company in New York. The New England company, located in Boston, held the rights to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts, with nonexclusive rights to foreign countries. The manufacturing rights were granted to the Eastern Specialty Company, another one of Kendall's interests.

The American Automatic Banjo Company of New Jersey was established with W. Scott O'Connor, the major stock holder, as president. This company retained the rights to New York, where it was located, and the rest of the United States outside of New England. It must have been intended to be the parent company, since all of the patents were assigned to this company. The American Automatic Banjo Company licensed or partially owned several Encore distributors, and it was the sole producer of music rolls for the machine.

In 1898, seven patents were granted, two of which named Charles B. Kendall as the inventor. One of these patents dealt with engineering improvements in the pneumatic action. This led to the improvements of William S. Reed's pneumatic picking device. William A. Lorenz and C. Edwin Delue are the inventors named in the patent granted on June 28, 1898, the same date on Kendall's patent. These two men, Lorenz and Delue, were probably employed by the New England Automatic Banjo Company. Lorenz was from Hartford, Connecticut, while Delue was from Boston, where the New England Company was located. Lorenz was named as a witness for Kendall's patent. Lorenz's and Delue's patent was for improvements on the pneumatic picking device; this patent however, is for a four-string banjo rather than a five-string banjo like in the Reed patent.

An example of the Walfrid Gustafson patent drawings showing the "improved" banjo picking mechanism.Another patent that was granted on June 28, 1898 was that of Walfrid Gustafson. His patent included yet another improvement in the pneumatic picking device, which is the picking device that most closely resembles the style of pickers that survive today. The device forces the picker to travel in an elliptical path around the string. The picker picks the string once and then returns to its original position, without hitting the string on the backstroke, ready to be activated again. All this is done by a pneumatic hinge two springs, and a guide template, which the picker follows. It is guessed that Gustafson was employed by the American Automatic Banjo Company and contributed to a divergence in design between the two factories manufacturing the banjo.

The list of patents goes on, indicating a wide range of experimentation, most of which were engineering improvements. The New England Automatic Banjo Company produced perhaps 200 machines between 1897 and 1900, of what might be considered a somewhat primitive machine, when compared to the New York version. The cabinet had an early style crest, which featured the Encore name in script. The paper music roll was loaded from the rear of the machine, and controlled a valve chest that used heavy 5/16-inch diameter steel balls for valves, which caused many problems. Kendall recounted the problem aptly when he wrote: "The pneumatic system did not continue as satisfactory as was expected, on account of the great power requirements to operate it, as well as its complications and the many troubles arising therefrom, and the limited area of territory that could be occupied, even in the large cities, because of the unavailable necessity of using the street-light electric current for a native power to operate the pneumatics."

Clearly, being able to operate an instrument only while the electric street lighting was turned on was a serious impediment to placing the banjo in any commercial location, let alone being able to collect much revenue from it. And just as troublesome was Kendall's stubbornness in refusing to give up the use of heavy steel ball-valves, which caused the power source and pump bellows to strain in order to create enough of a vacuum to "lift" the heavy valve-balls. Thus, it was not long, with all the technical problems and limitations imposed by the frequent lack of electrical power, that the two companies ran into severe financial trouble. As a last resort, Kendall and O'Connor decided to re-form the two companies and start over.

The American Automatic Banjo / American Automusic Company

In April of 1899, the American Automatic Banjo Company began to break-up, splitting into two companies. It had been the sole producer of music rolls for the Encore, but it also made rolls for other companies' products, too. The name of the company was changed to a less descriptive American Automusic Company. A year later, the music roll manufacturing part of the company split off to form the Connorized Music Company, with James O'Connor (presumably W. Scott's son) as president and treasurer.

The American Automusic Company, with W. Scott O'Connor remaining as president, continued to manufacture the Encore Banjo, while sharing their factory with the Connorized Music Company. A new style Encore was produced that remained unique to the New York factory. The valves were improved by using a small pneumatic, which moved a flat lead valve. The roll frame was moved from the rear to the front of the machine, which was much more accessible. The cast metal plate on the top crest kept the original company name, the Automatic Banjo Company of New Jersey, and listed many of the patents that led to the current machine. Sometime after 1900, the name "Encore" was no longer inlaid in the neck of the banjo but rather the script was cut from 3/32-inch German-Silver stock and attached in its place. Sometime later, the lower front door panel design of the case changed from an arched raised panel to a simpler rectangular pattern.

The New England Automatic Banjo / Auto-Manufacturing Company

It was not until March of 1901, that the Eastern Specialty Company and the New England Automatic Banjo Company were re-incorporated to form the Auto-Manufacturing Company, backed financially by the investment group of Davis and Soule of Waterville, Maine. From then on the company went downhill, while the New York Company prospered until around 1903. Although Kendall was not president, he remained forceful and creative with the Auto-Manufacturing Company. The Auto-Manufacturing Company produced its banjos in Boston, unsuccessfully experimenting with it mechanically. For example, instead of discarding the cumbersome steel ball-valve system, aluminum balls were sought to replace the steel balls, because aluminum is lighter, therefore requiring less electrical power to operate the instrument.

The New York based American Automusic Company was the sole producer of the paper rolls for the Encore Banjo. This single source of music caused some problems, because the New York and Boston made machines were slightly different. The holes of the tracker bar in the New York machine started from the left and the roll traveled downward in front of the roll mechanism, while the roll frame of the Boston made Encore was kept in the rear and the tracker holes started from the right and the roll traveled upward. This was not an insurmountable problem, however, since all that was needed was to turn the roll around for the Boston machines.

Both companies used the same parts and the outside appearance was identical, and they both used the same custom made banjo (made by the J. F. Luscomb Company of Boston). The furniture casework was made of quarter-sawn oak, except for a half-dozen units supplied with mahogany cases. All had the same cast-brass decorative corners, of which there were two distinct designs, and all used the same coin slide and counter device. Some of the oak-cased machines were made without coin mechanisms and designated as home models, the first of which was exhibited at the Paris Exposition of 1900.

The "King of Slot Machines"

The American Automusic Company issued a four-page leaflet to promote the Encore called "The King of Slot Machines." A variety of information about the Banjo was given, as follows:

"The Company is offering "The Encore," a nickel-in-the-slot automatic banjo for operation in public places after the well-established method of the coin controlled devices already in use. These instruments are furnished with a music roll containing five popular selections, one of which is rendered by the insertion of a nickel in the slot provided for that purpose.... The average time for the rendition of a tune is about a minute and a half, and, therefore, the earning capacity of the instrument is about two dollars for each hour of actual work."

The leaflet goes on to explain that by changing the rolls, a varied program is provided to keep the public's interest. The company claimed that, by arrangement with all the music publishers in the United States, it was provided with advance copies of all new music, which was then immediately transcribed to the Encore music roll. The company provided a catalog of about 2,000 available musical numbers and was kept as current as possible to offer the very latest musical selection of the day, such as "My Old Kentucky Home," "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "On the Banks of the Wabash," and "The Maple Leaf Rag." In truth, however, the company had trouble living up to its promise and received numerous complaints regarding the lack of music rolls.

The Auto-Manufacturing Company rented the Encore Banjos to such public places as taverns, theatres, lodges, restaurants, and drug stores. The American Automusic Company sold, as well as leased, their machine through several dozen sales agents, primarily music stores and arcades operators. One distributor was the Automatic Musical Company of Binghamton, New York, which later re-organized as the Link Piano Company. The Encore sold mostly in the $350 to $500 range.

Fleeting Fame

Unfortunately, the novelty of an automatic banjo quickly wore off as automatic pianos and elaborate orchestrions were introduced to the American scene. The so-called "nickelodeon's" popularity soon made the Encore obsolete. In 1906, W. Scott O'Connor had abandoned the automatic banjo business for the much more lucrative music roll business. The Connorized Music Company became a major manufacturer /distributor of player piano rolls and moved to a larger factory (up until 1906, it had shared the factory at 227 Bleecker Street with the American Automusic Company). James O'Connor didn't give up entirely on the automatic banjo, however, in 1914 he introduced the Banjorchestra, an orchestrion that featured an automatic banjo identical to the Encore, along with drums, tambourine, castanets, triangle, and piano.

The Banjorchestra was never as successful as the Encore. But even as successful as the Encore was, by 1916, used models sold for as little as $25. The actual number of Encore Banjos produced is uncertain, since there are many conflicting statements from various sources. Richard Crandall, an Encore Banjo aficionado, has estimated the number of machines produced by relying on financial statements, production papers, and serial numbers of extant machines, and believes about 2,500 Encore Banjos were built. According to the "one percent survival rule," twenty-five Encores should remain in existence today. There are at least 20 known to be extant.

The New Encore Automatic Banjo

The Ramey Encore Automatic Banjo logo.In 1975, David Ramey, a well known and respected restorer of automatic musical instruments, as well as founder of the D. C. Ramey Piano Company, had the good fortune to purchase the remains of a horde of original Encore Banjos. A supply of parts, along with complete machines, had been stored in an old barn on the East Coast. Unfortunately, the barn had been subjected to several floods and a fire; subsequently all the Banjo machines were badly water and fire damaged. The forlorned contents of the barn were eventually discovered by an interested party and purchased as the junk they were, only to later be offered to Dave Ramey. For most collectors and restorers what remained of the once beautiful Encore Banjos probably seemed to be little more than useless rubble, but Dave Ramey could clearly see the possibilities, and use the parts and dilapidated machines to construct new Encore Banjos, replacing what was missing or unusable.

Top crest and patent plate for an Encore Automatic Banjo. From these original parts and remnant machines copies were made, which led to the remanufacture of the Encore Automatic Banjo. Mr. Ramey made some engineering improvements that enabled his new model to out-perform its predecessor, while keeping the outward appearance exactly the same. Primary valves were used with the picker valves, enabling the new Encore to pick the banjo strings very quickly and accurately. The new model also featured a custom crafted banjo, utilizing the superior "Whyte Laydie" tone ring and a synthetic-skin head to produce a rich, clear tone. The original Encores used a popular, but inexpensive banjo, manufactured by the J. F. Luscomb Company of Boston. The temperature/humidity sensitive animal-skin head of the original instruments made frequent tuning a necessity.

A new Ramey Encore Automatic Banjo with the case open, showing the interior components.A close-up of the banjo in the new Ramey Encore Automatic Banjo.To create a supply of music for the new Encore Banjo, copies of original music rolls were made. In addition, Art Reblitz, a restorer and music roll arranger, arranged two new five- tune music rolls, which included tunes such as: "The Battle of New Orleans," "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," "Ain't She Sweet," "Dueling Banjos" and "Your Cheating Heart." These were the first new music arrangements for the Encore Banjo since the closing of the American Automusic Company nearly a century ago.

To date, the D. C. Ramey Piano Company has built over 40 new Encore Banjos, which have found loving homes in all parts of the world. It features a custom crafted four-string banjo that is inlaid with abalone and mother-of-pearl, and just like the original Encore banjo, it is capable of producing a scale of 25 notes (C to C), two octaves. Unlike the original, however, the new banjo uses a synthetic-skin head to minimize the necessity of tuning and picker adjustment, ensuring that the banjo is always ready to perform.

Close-up of the left-side banjo picking mechanism in the new Ramey Encore Automatic Banjo.Hardware components are nickel-plated. The interior mechanisms are pneumatically operated from a five-tune endless loop music roll, and are throughout meticulously handcrafted using traditional techniques and materials. Minor internal improvements to the valve chest, over the original Encore Banjo, provide exceptionally quick and accurate tracking of the music roll, providing not only many years of trouble free use, but also allowing the new Encore to outperform the original instruments by a healthy margin.

The selection of music consists of popular tunes from the late 1890s through the early 1900s. These recut's, made from original Encore music rolls, are durable and accurately made. And two new five-tune music rolls expertly arranged by Art Reblitz are available, too. The instrument is activated by a single drop nickel coin slide, unless otherwise special ordered. An electric lamp illuminates the interior when the instrument is playing.

The cabinetry is of solid quarter-sawn oak, with glass panels in the front and on the sides. Cast brass corner grills on the front access door decorate the casework. The dimensions of the new Ramey Encore Automatic Banjo are approximately 26 inches wide by 26 inches deep by 80 inches high, and it weights approximately 280 pounds.

Each instrument is individually manufactured on a made to order basis. Included with each instrument are five recut five-tune music rolls, and delivery within 200 miles of the factory is free. The purchase price is $22,000.00. A deposit is required to initiate manufacturing, with the balance due on completion. Manufacturing time varies depending upon other work in progress, so inquiries are invited in regards to a projected completion date.

A newly designed and manufactured "double" Ramey Encore Automatic Banjo. The company has also built several Double Encore Banjos, one of Mr. Ramey's own inventions. It consists of two banjos mounted side by side in a custom made "stretched-out" Encore Banjo cabinet. The D. C. Ramey Piano Company also manufactures their version of the Banjorchestra, known as the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra, to differentiate it from the original Banjorchestra. Click here to visit the Banjorchestra page containing information and photographs on the original and new Banjorchestra.

Please direct any inquiries regarding the new Ramey Encore Automatic Banjo to the company, as follows:

D. C. Ramey Piano Company
17768 Woodview Drive
Marysville, Ohio 43040-9711
(708) 602-3961