A Brief Look At
The Original Banjorchestra
and the New Ramey Banjo-Orchestra®

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 "The inComplete History of the Banjo-Orchestra, by the D. C. Ramey Piano Company.Part of the information below is excerpted from the booklet entitled "The inComplete History of the Banjo-Orchestra®," 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 Ramey Banjo-Orchestra® to:

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

The Original Banjorchestra

From THE MUSIC TRADES -- November 6, 1914

BANJORCHESTRA, THE NEWEST FOR TANGO TEAS AND MOVIES

Connorized Music Co. Produce Wonderful Instrument
to Replace Dance Palace Orchestras --
Invention of James O'Connor......

The Connorized Company's new Banjorchestra (circa 1914). The Connorized Company's new Banjorchestra (circa 1914), shown with the front panel open.

The Connorized Co.'s Newest Product, the Banjorchestra

The Banjorchestra is the product of the Connorized Music Co. and is the brain child of James O'Connor, the president of this concern. The case design on the first instrument shown, and which is pictured herewith, is by Arthur Conrow, Mr. Connor's able assistant. The Banjorchestra is a composite instrument of the banjo, piano, snare drum, bass drum, triangle, tambourine, and castanets......

As head of the Connorized Music Co. the demand for tango and other dance music assuming unusual proportions was indicative to him of the necessity for a thorough, competent, complete, and dignified dance orchestra as well as an orchestra that would provide music of the kind that the Banjorchestra produces.

The Banjorchestra is 6 feet 9 inches high, 3 feet 5 inches wide and 2 feet 7 inches deep. The first example shown is finished in Mission oak, and this style of finish will prevail unless otherwise specified. For special purposes the Banjorchestra will be manufactured to harmonize with the surroundings of the place where it will be housed......

On Monday of this week THE MUSIC TRADES representative was given a demonstration by James O'Connor and Arthur Conrow in the Connorized Music Co.'s factory, at East One Hundred and Forty-fourth street and Austin Place. The demonstration was arranged so as to give such dramatic value as was necessary in order to gain absolutely uninfluenced by visualization, and when THE MUSIC TRADES representative stepped from the elevator to the spacious roll-cutting and experimental rooms of the Connorized company's plant the instrument was in operation. The effect was absolutely bewildering in that heretofore in all his rounds of musical instrument factories (and it may be mentioned, tango parties) a more perfect dance orchestra had not been heard by him. Mr. O'Connor caused ten selections to be played, ranging from the lightest operettas to the heaviest orchestra music, and in every requirement exacted the instrument excelled itself......

The Banjorchestra will prove a handsome addition to the equipments of halls, assembly places and other locations where tangoing is indulged in and orchestra music is required, and a demonstration justifies the prediction that in the Banjorchestra the Connorized Music Co., or, more particularly, James O'Connor and Arthur Conrow, have created a "winner."

With such a glowing prediction for a wonderful future, what happened to the Banjorchestra? How many were made, and where are they now? Aside from a couple of advertisements with pictures and descriptions of the instrument, who has actually seen one? The most complete Banjorchestra was discovered by Rick Crandall at Knott's Berry Farm. The D. C. Ramey Piano Company has since restored this instrument. It was serving as a "puppet show" nickelodeon. The banjo and traps had been removed and replaced with dancing puppets. The front soundboard remained where the banjo and traps were mounted, and the placement of the banjo and trapwork could still be seen, due to the shadows made from sun bleaching of the sounding board surface. The piano and banjo valve chests were left intact.

There is another Banjorchestra (or the remains of one) at the Musée Mecanique at the Cliff House in San Francisco, California. The banjo and traps were removed by Jim DeRoin, who sold the banjo to Tom Fretty, who later sold it to David Ramey, Sr. Maybe a third instrument exists, but that is yet unconfirmed. Only two incomplete instruments is all that are known to have survived.

But to turn back the clock, there were two different companies who advertised their own style Banjorchestra. The first was the Connorized Music Company, and the second was the Engelhardt Piano Company. The Connorized Music Company was established by W. Scott O'Connor, the last known owner of the "Encore" Automatic Banjo patents. O'Connor was the major owner of the American Automusic Company, the main manufacturer and sales agent of the "Encore" and sole producer of music rolls for it. The "Encore" was a coin operated automatic instrument featuring a lone banjo operating from an endless paper music roll, introduced in 1897. The original production of the "Encore" ceased by 1906. However, they have been made once again, on an individual basis, by the D. C. Ramey Piano Company since 1978.

The first Banjorchestra was built by the Connorized Music Company in 1914, as stated in the Music Trades article. A later advertisement from a 1915 Music Trade Review features three pictures of a differently styled mahogany cabinet. This later ad shows a view with the back opened, revealing a 44-note piano similar to those made by the Pianova Company and used in early models of the Mills Violano Virtuoso. The drum in the pictures looks like it was a banjo pot (a banjo without the neck attached). It probably had two beaters to serve as "bass and kettledrum" without any snares. On close examination of the pictures in the ad, there are numerous inconsistencies to be found. The pictures are not simply photographs. They appear to have been altered or retouched, or perhaps they are not photographs at all, but artist renderings of a proposed idea.

The Connorized Music Company was a music roll manufacturer and is not known to have ever manufactured pianos. It is suspected that O'Connor never went into production of the Banjorchestra, but that the manufacturing rights were given or sold to the Engelhardt Piano Company of St. Johnsville, New York. The two extant machines were clearly made by Engelhardt, as they have the name cast in the piano plate. The banjo in one of the machines is the identical banjo used in the "Encore." The two extant Banjorchestras are not the same as either of the two styles advertised, but closely resemble the instrument advertised by Engelhardt.

The Engelhardt Banjorchestra, circa 1914, illustrated with an art-glass front panel.The Engelhardt Banjorchestra (made by the Engelhardt Piano Company) was advertised in a cabinet identical to the Engelhardt "F," finished in mahogany, featuring a Piano, Automatic Banjo, Chinese Drum, Tambourine, Triangle, Snare Drum and Bass Drum Effect. The pianos of the extant Banjorchestra are straight-strung 58-note pianos, which play 42 notes. The cases are built of solid quarter-sawn oak, and not finished in mahogany. They appear to be Engelhardt "F" cases, except the cases were built over 4" wider to allow for the interior mechanisms and the piano back to swing out, like a Mills Violano Virtuoso. The only drum in the machine was equipped with two beaters (probably a reiterating beater for a snare drum and a single stroke beater that struck with the snares dampened for the Chinese drum). It appears from the picture that this drum is a banjo pot. The "bass drum effect" mentioned in the Engelhardt ad was nothing more than a felt bass drum beater that struck the piano soundboard. The ad also claims that the roll mechanism is "directly connected with pumping apparatus by shaft, thus eliminating belting." However, this is not the case with the extant machines, which employ a couple of leather belts to operate the roll mechanism. The ads were somewhat misleading as to what a Banjorchestra really was.

Although it is known what components make up a Banjorchestra, since no original rolls or even a tracker bar have been found it is not known how the music was arranged, nor how they actually sounded. The Banjorchestra played 42 piano notes and it did not use the upper treble notes on the 58-note piano. The banjo had the full playing capability of the "Encore" Banjo, as the original valve chest had four picker valves and 40 fret valves. It was common in American coin pianos to use a 65 or 88-note tracker bar. But even if the Banjorchestra used an 88-note tracker bar, by the time 42 holes are taken for the piano and 44 for the banjo, only two holes would be available for all the traps, expression, music roll rewind and shut-off controls. Perhaps it was somehow tubed to simultaneously play the piano and banjo, but this would be a little tricky, since the frets of the banjo must be down before the string is picked in order to get a clear tone.

On a banjo roll, the fret hole comes up before the picker hole, giving it sufficient lead-time before the note is plucked. If it was simply "teed" to the piano, the piano note would play before the banjo. If the fret lead-time on the roll were eliminated, the banjo would sound sour. Another problem with playing the banjo and piano with the same tracker bar hole is that there are overlapping notes in the fretting of a banjo. There are 40 frets, 10 on each string, but the banjo is only capable of playing 24 different fretted notes (for example, G# of the same octave can be played by the C or G string). Some piano notes would have to be tubed to two banjo notes. If this kind of tubing scheme was used it is hard to imagine how the original instrument would have sounded.

A major stumbling block for the original Banjorchestra was that the banjo had an animal-skin head. Skin heads are notoriously very sensitive to humidity, shrinking or expanding with the slightest change. This shrinking and expanding not only affects the tuning of a banjo, but it also affects the picker mechanism adjustments, too. The pickers will pick the strings lighter as the head expands, to the point where they might miss the string altogether. So, on a cool, damp morning, the banjo would be faint and flat; by mid-afternoon it would be loud and almost in tune. The earlier "Encore" Automatic Banjo constantly had problems like this. Today, all this can be avoided simply by using a plastic head, because with a plastic head the banjo becomes quite consistent and reliable. A lone banjo going a little flat is one thing, but if it is combined with a stable piano, the skin head banjo will rarely be in tune, with the piano and the resultant music perhaps a little hard to enjoy. Maybe this constant tuning trouble is why only two Banjorchestras are known to have survived.

The New Banjo-Orchestra®

The new Ramey Banjo-Orchestra shown in a Mahogany case.The new Ramey Banjo-Orchestra in a Mahogany case, with the piano assembly swung open for internal access and easy maintenance.Some 80 years later, the concept of a Banjorchestra was reborn by the D. C. Ramey Piano Company. This was not a surprising move, since the company was already involved in manufacturing the new Encore Automatic Banjo. The Banjo-Orchestra was merely an extension of the Encore, adapting it by using technology and craftsmanship that had been developed many years earlier when working with various coin-in-the-slot pianos and orchestrions. Thus, by using the two ads, as well as measurements from the two extant machines, along with the combined experience of Dave Ramey and his son, Dave Ramey, Jr., representing 50 years of dedication and work in pneumatic coin-piano restoration, the new Banjorchestra was created. However, since it is more of a re-creation than an exact reproduction, it was named the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra, so as to differentiate it from the original instrument.

The Ramey Banjo-Orchestra is being produced in limited numbers, the first of which was unveiled to rave reviews at the 1994 Music Box Society International Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas. The Banjo-Orchestra consists of an automatic banjo supported by tambourine, triangle, bass drum, snare drum, castanets, wood block and cymbal, and is accompanied by a 61-note piano. All instrumentation is visible from the front, including the piano, with the banjo and trapwork out in front, beautifully showcased in a cabinet of either quarter-sawn oak or mahogany, with a three-door hinged front that is fitted with glass panels.

The new Ramey Banjo-Orchestra shown in an Oak case, with the front access doors opened to fully reveal the banjo and percussive trapwork.The outward appearance of the new Banjo-Orchestra is like that of the late model Connorized Banjorchestra. The cabinet was, in fact, custom built by carefully scaling the pictures in the 1915 Connorized ad, which showed the cabinet with a one-piece plate glass front that had to be lifted out in order to tune the banjo or expose the instruments for increased volume. The Ramey Banjo-Orchestra was first built this exact same way, but the awkward front proved to be too cumbersome to be constantly opened for displaying and listening to the instrument. Therefore, it was redesigned with a three-glass-paneled front that can be easily opened to access the banjo and trapwork, as well as offer the option of listening to it with the front opened or closed.

Decorative corner filigrees were added to allow the music to penetrate the front when the doors closed, and to tie it in aesthetically with its ancestor, the "Encore" Automatic Banjo. Both the Engelhardt and Connorized Banjorchestras utilized a decorative backboard, a sort of "second sound board," located in front of the piano, which was used to mount the banjo and trapwork. Thus, the piano is completely concealed. The Engelhardt Banjorchestra was first restored leaving the "decorative" soundboard as original, which meant that the piano was more or less enclosed, causing it to sound a bit subdued or muffled. It was then decided to restore the instrument with the banjo mounted on a middle support, with the traps mounted on the side of the case, which allowed the piano to be exposed and much more clear and present in tone, the same arrangement used in the new Banjo-Orchestra.

View inside the back of the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra, showing the main pneumatic stack (which mechanically interacts with the piano action).The Ramey instrument uses a newly cast 61-note overstrung, full perimeter plate. Seeburg used this same type of piano in their models K and KT to great success. The extant Banjorchestras both have a 58-note straight strung piano, playing only 42 notes, while the new Banjo-Orchestra plays all 61 notes. This type of piano is of a superior design both structurally and acoustically. And, as with the original Banjorchestras, the piano of the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra swings out for easy access and servicing.

The design of the roll frame in the Ramey model is based on the exceptionally durable Western Electric, Style A, tracker frame, which had proven itself as completely reliable ever since its inception in the 1920s. This wonderful dependability stems in large part due to the gears always being in mesh, so that there is no grinding of engaging or disengaging gears. The tracker bar has 100 holes, which, by means of a little multiplexing, allows full piano accompaniment to the banjo. This means that the piano can play the full range of its scale and is able to carry the Melodie Violin with full treble capability. In contrast, it is believed that the Engelhardt Banjorchestra piano could only play accompaniment. This full range is achieved by means of some simple multiplexing, with some tracker-bar positions tubed to both the piano and banjo, but that can only play one or the other, whichever is called for by a multiplexing control switch. By multiplexing certain tracker holes, there are effectively enough holes in the tracker bar to not only correctly play the piano and banjo, but to individually operate each trapwork device, as well as control the expression of the piano and traps separately from the banjo.

The Music Roll Shelf in the new Ramey Banjo-Orchestra.The music rolls for the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra, of course, have to be specially arranged. For this job, Art Reblitz, a noted music-roll arranger, first helped to create a tracker scale specifically designed for this new instrument, before any music could be arranged and laid out for roll cutting. Original "Encore" Banjo rolls were used as a base for arranging some of the new music. Mr. Reblitz also adapted certain European orchestrion arrangements for the Banjo-Orchestra's 10-tune music rolls. These historic orchestrion arrangements were inspired by 78 R.P.M. phonograph records of American dance band arrangements, played by some of the best 1920s jazz bands, and represented melodies that could easily have originally been available for the Connorized or Engelhardt Banjorchestras.

Transcribing and adapting many of the wonderful old orchestrion arrangements permitted the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra to enjoy some of the finest music ever arranged for automatic musical instruments. Now, some of the music from the best orchestrion music-roll arrangers, such as Gustav Bruder, who arranged the magnificent Weber Maesto music, would live on in a new way. But even with the arranging and transcribing out of the way, the new music rolls had to be very accurate if the Banjo-Orchestra was to sound like a real orchestra. The extremely rapid picking of the banjo and its relationship to the piano and the fast acting trapwork had to remain musically in sync, or the desired musical effect would be lost. To ensure the necessary degree of accuracy for the new music rolls, all the rolls are cut on a state-of-the-art computerized perforator. And, unlike most American coin-in-the-slot pianos, the music rolls for the Banjo-Orchestra are arranged to be played exclusively by this type of machine, so that the music roll layout perfectly fits the instrument, rather than it having to accommodate several models, each of which is different in its musical capabilities. This singularity of use means that the music arranger does not have to compromise his composition in any way, so as to make sure it sounds reasonably good on a group of differently equipped instruments. The end result is a quality of music unlike anything normally heard on a commercial coin-in-the-slot piano or orchestrion of yesteryear.

That the obscure Banjorchestra was re-born some 80 years after its inception is due to the remarkable interest, enthusiasm, and fifty years of combined restoration experience by Dave Ramey, Sr., and his son, Dave Ramey, Jr. Thus, in 1994, it was -- with due consideration of Mr. Ramey's rich and successful history of restoration and rebuilding experience -- very fitting that he receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Musical Box Society International, and at the same Annual Meeting where he unveiled the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra for the first time.

What does the future hold for the Banjorchestra? A possible third original Banjorchestra is rumored to have been found in the eastern United States. It is said to be in complete original condition, with the tracker bar and all components intact, along with a collection of original music rolls! This suggests that it may someday be possible to know, once and for all, how the original Banjorchestra music was arranged. Unfortunately, however, this potentially historic find is yet to be confirmed or examined, because the person claiming to have the instrument has not yet allowed anyone inquiring to actually see it, although many people have pushed for a viewing. Nonetheless, one way or another, it may someday be possible to see, hear, and enjoy a completely original Banjorchestra, alongside the instrument it was to eventually inspire -- the Ramey Banjo-Orchestra.

Please direct any inquiries regarding the new Ramey Banjo-Orchestra or audio recordings of the Banjo-Orchestra to the company, as follows:

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