The banjolele (brand name; sometimes banjo ukulele or banjo uke) is a four-stringed musical instrument with a small banjo-type body and a fretted ukulele neck. "Banjolele", sometimes also spelled "banjelele" or "banjulele", is a generic nickname[clarification needed] given to the instrument. The earliest known banjoleles were built by John A. Bolander and by Alvin D. Keech, both in 1917.
The instrument achieved its greatest popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, and combines the small scale, tuning, and playing style of a ukulele with the construction and distinctive tone of a banjo, hence the name. Its development was pushed by the need for vaudeville performers to have an instrument that could be played with the ease of the ukulele, but with more volume.
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In terms of overall construction, banjoleles parallel banjos, though on a smaller scale. They are always fretted. Most are built of wood with metal accoutrements, although the mid-century "Dixie" brand featured banjoleles made from solid metal.
Banjo ukulele heads were traditionally made of calf skin, but most modern instruments are fitted with synthetic heads. Some players prefer the natural skin heads for a more traditional tone. The bridge floats on the head and is held in place by the tension of the strings.
The banjolele is commonly tuned G-C-E-A ("C Tuning") or A-D-F?-B ("D Tuning"), with a re-entrant 4th string. The A-D-F?-B tuning often produces a more strident tone, and is used for this reason. Both of these tunings are known as "my dog has fleas" tunings (fifth, tonic, major third, major sixth).
The banjolele was the instrument played by British comedian George Formby (1904-61), who developed his own style of playing in accompaniment to his comic songs. His name is associated with the instrument more than that of any other musician.
In Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black, prison guard O'Neill excitedly tells Caputo about his purchase of a banjolele. He later plays it for a group of nuns.
Queen member Brian May used a banjolele in the song "Bring Back That Leroy Brown", which appeared on their third album Sheer Heart Attack. He also used one to compose "Good Company" for their album A Night at the Opera, although on the recording he used a regular ukulele.
Recent users of the banjolele have included Jeff Claus of The Horse Flies, Alan Randall, Andy Eastwood, comedian Frank Skinner,Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer, and Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar. The instrument can be heard in the theme song to the television show Arrested Development.
In the 1959 hotrod-monster movie The Giant Gila Monster, hero Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan) plays the banjolele and sings, first to his handicapped little sister, and later in front of a bunch of kids at a dance, just before the monster attacks the hall.