Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I’ve recently been spending some time learning and playing tunes out of various tutors, inspired by the recording of others as heard here, on youtube, and on commercial recordings. With some of these I have found that I am able to do a better job of executing the proper right hand stroke style motions, as documented in the notation,  if I plant a finger or two on the head. For instance, I’ve been working on the Converse’s arrangement of  “St Patrick’s Day” ( 1865 “…with or without…” pg 24) , trying to get it up to speed. I have a much easier time of it if I brace my hand with my fourth finger on the head.

I’ve tried it both ways, finger planted or nothing touching the head, and though the sound is slightly different I find I have a lot more control and can also to a degree modulate the tone in a pleasing way due to the damping effect of my finger touching the head. I also don’t seem to lose any volume but I tend to play pretty loud anyway.


I suspect that I am using this as a crutch to getting the tune down and will probably abandon it over time but I was wondering if anyone else does this? Dave Culgan


PS I did use the search function here and read about hand plants but I don't have my banjo or the book that was referenced to understand where that discussion fits in with my question.

PPS Happy New Year to You

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Hi Dave. Well, the bluegrass finger planting had to come from somewhere. I've noticed that, unlike the pinky and ring finger plant of the bluegrassers, that the pinky only works fine, and the two finger plant actually gives me a little pain due to our minstrel strings being spread further apart than a modern banjo. And of course, the peculiarities of my hand. I bet there are guys who do a nice fingerstlyle and never touch down. Let's hear a clip, Dave.

I'd slog through it and keep fingers off the head.  If you anchor, you might as well play guitar style (though Converse, after the Green book, says not to).

The whole motion, the solid strike, that is what gives the sound to banjo music.

I forget what book, Rice I think, that says to hold a small penknife in the right hand while playing.

You'd be hard pressed to get though all of the ABM movements (esp the "hammer") with a finger on the head.

While it is your banjo and you may do whatever you enjoy, true banjo style floats the hand.

On string spacing, the Baur bridge spaces pretty much the same as a modern classical guitar.  From the mid 70s on the bridges get thin and narrow-- more so than the current banjo.

Try the Converse pattern bridge from the Green and play with the height.  Original banjos had no back angle to the neck and were high action with a 3/4" bridge.  1/2" was normal.  

In the end, what works for you... But remember everything feels odd at, then it feels normal.

I'm with Joel. I like to keep the hand airborne.

As usual, anything goes...however prolonged use of the pinky as an anchor can open you to the potential of nerve irritation and tendonitis on the ulnar side. The free hand stroke really is the most anatomically nuetral position you can work from.

Thanks for the thoughtful replies. After posting I went home last night and picked up the banjo. The motions that planting a finger seemed to make easier were where you have several notes played in succession with the thumb only (such as in the beginning of St Pat's Day tune), successive down strokes with the finger in the second part were OK.

Now in 99% of my playing I do keep the fingers curled up, off the head, it was just some of these tunes with different rhythms (like St. Pat's and "Bully for All" that is next on the list to learn) that led me to try this way of trying to get up to speed quickly.

As I've moved from the Brigg's book, to Buckley and Converse I've been starting out by trying to be true to all of the finger notation but once I get the tune learned and can play it at a reasonable speed I tend to make changes where I feel its appropriate to make it easier to play and sound better to me.

When I first started to play clawhammer I put a rubber band around my fingers to keep a nice steady base for my strikes.  Then my wife accidentally closed the door of her 1974 AMC Hornet on my hand as I reached down to find my seatbelt.  This pretty much permanently formed my fingers in the shape of a claw, eliminating necessity of the rubber band.  I don't recommend closing your hand in a car door, unless you first exhaust every other alternative.  I personally enjoy the freedom of a floating platform with which to attack the strings.  For me that's one of the joys of playing this instrument.  I offer two pieces of unsolicited advice.  Firstly, remember that thinking too much about the specifics of your technique can be a bit like golf, you'll drive yourself nuts.  The other is that whatever feels right and gets the best results is probably what you ought to do.

My two cents-  There is a lot of pro/con debate on 'pinky planting' in tenor banjo and mandolin circles especially.  I get the impression that people turn to finger planting when they are playing many notes in rapid succession, as in tremolos, triplets, and the barrage of 8th or 16th notes so often found in Irish tunes.  Many mountain dulcimer players plant a pinky when playing in more modern cross-picking/flatpicking style as well.  It stands to reason that when playing some of the more Irish or European based repertoire in minstrel genre, one might be tempted to plant a finger or two on the head to stabilize the hand.

Personally, I am not drawn to that kind of repertoire, so it's not an issue for me.  I like the more lope-y/lazy open drone kind of pieces.  I'm mostly a clawhammer player, and i never plant fingers, and I hope not to feel a need to plant as I begin to play more in minstrel style.

I agree mostly Rob, but like a golf swing, sometimes what initially feels awkward or incorrect (but is mechanically the correct move )  ends up developing into the right thing. You have to play through with faith on some stuff. It all does not feel natural initially. And like golf, there is far more pleasure derived from playing well than playing badly.

I was a great bowler when I was a kid. I went bowling one day with my girlfriend and she asked, "Which foot do you start out on?" When I demonstated, my butt slid into the alley after my feet got tangled up. It took a few months to get it together again. Weird. (I should have been home playing the banjo anyway.)

I've played bluegrass for 35 years (roughly), and I plant the tip of my little finger when playing that style. When I make my feeble attempts at Minstrel Stroke and/or Clawhammer, I can't plant a finger. It makes it impossible to execute the stroke. BTW, I'm looking forward to getting a copy of Tim's new book and CD with my Bell Boucher kit!

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