Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This is kind of a follow-up to my earlier question about transposition. Does anyone out there have a notion of when the mean pitch of the banjo jumped (or slid) from A to C? I've got banjo music from 1900 that has the tunes written out in A & E, but if you check recordings of Vess Ossman & Fred Van Epps playing similar material from that era they seem to be playing in concert C & G most of the time.  Banjos in the "folk" branch of the family - the stroke-style descendants - moved up too; at least by the time they were first recorded in the 1920s. I would guess this was because they were being used to back up fiddles and were being cranked up higher to match the usual keys of the tunes.
Curious in Canada
P.S. Lots of wacky music - including aforementioned Van Epps & Ossman can be found at: (http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu/)

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Banjo tuned in C: The answer to your question, Ian, is not a simple one, but we have a lot of documentation to go on. The normal usage was to tune the instrument up to C (4th string, etc.) when you are going to play with other instruments such as piano, guitar, violin or any type of ensemble. This is made clear in the hundreds of publications of banjo music with piano accompaniment dating from at least as early as 1879. A good example is Albert Baur's series, "J. W. Pepper's Celebrated Publications of Instrumental Banjo Music" (Philadelphia, 1882-1883) in which Baur, the arranger of the pieces gives the following instructions before each piece: "To play with Piano or Orchestra. Tune Banjo to C." This is followed by an actual little tuning chart showing the C tuning as used today. However, the banjo player still read his music in the old fashioned "stroke style" keys; e.g. the banjoist would read in the key of A (3 sharps) but actually sounded in C, which key the other instruments were playing in. Later information confirms this practise : S. S. Stewart, in his "Observations on the Banjo and Banjo Playing" (Philadelphia, 1892) and printed in all subsequent editions of his "American Banjo School" explains quite precisely the actual tuning of the banjo in what he calls "Concert Pitch".
He says "Nearly all the banjo players of the day, in performing with piano accompaniment, and in tuning to play with Guitar, Mandolin, Violin, Flute and other instruments, pitch their banjos in C" (p. 29). Reading in a lower key and actually sounding in a key a minor third higher seemed rather daft to the British when they began publishing banjo music at this time, so they transposed all American banjo music up to what it actually sounded in for their their printed publications. It was only in 1907, I believe, that it was internationally agreed to publish banjo music in it's true sounding pitches, and it remains that way to this day. It took a long time to break this old American tradition of reading and when alone, you could, of course tune your banjo to any pitch you liked. The reasons for the tradition are complicated, but perhaps they could be left to a further forum.
Thanks for the great response, James - that all makes good sense to me.

James Tyler said:
Banjo tuned in C: The answer to your question, Ian, is not a simple one, but we have a lot of documentation to go on. The normal usage was to tune the instrument up to C (4th string, etc.) when you are going to play with other instruments such as piano, guitar, violin or any type of ensemble. This is made clear in the hundreds of publications of banjo music with piano accompaniment dating from at least as early as 1879. A good example is Albert Baur's series, "J. W. Pepper's Celebrated Publications of Instrumental Banjo Music" (Philadelphia, 1882-1883) in which Baur, the arranger of the pieces gives the following instructions before each piece: "To play with Piano or Orchestra. Tune Banjo to C." This is followed by an actual little tuning chart showing the C tuning as used today. However, the banjo player still read his music in the old fashioned "stroke style" keys; e.g. the banjoist would read in the key of A (3 sharps) but actually sounded in C, which key the other instruments were playing in. Later information confirms this practise : S. S. Stewart, in his "Observations on the Banjo and Banjo Playing" (Philadelphia, 1892) and printed in all subsequent editions of his "American Banjo School" explains quite precisely the actual tuning of the banjo in what he calls "Concert Pitch".
He says "Nearly all the banjo players of the day, in performing with piano accompaniment, and in tuning to play with Guitar, Mandolin, Violin, Flute and other instruments, pitch their banjos in C" (p. 29). Reading in a lower key and actually sounding in a key a minor third higher seemed rather daft to the British when they began publishing banjo music at this time, so they transposed all American banjo music up to what it actually sounded in for their their printed publications. It was only in 1907, I believe, that it was internationally agreed to publish banjo music in it's true sounding pitches, and it remains that way to this day. It took a long time to break this old American tradition of reading and when alone, you could, of course tune your banjo to any pitch you liked. The reasons for the tradition are complicated, but perhaps they could be left to a further forum.
All good info, Jim, but what still raises my eyebrow is WHY C tuning was deemed better when playing with guitars or violins (including orchestras), when those instruments are happier playing in A and E than C. Pianists tell me playing in A fits under the hand better than C. Wind and brass would have preferred flat keys. Hmm... I must be missing something.
Random Thoughts - Speaking from from a position firmly on the folk side of things, "old-time" banjo players spend a lot of time with capos on the second fret in order to play in A & D. There aren't all that many C tunes in the repertoire so the capo usually only comes off to play in G. I think there are probably more Anglo/Afro/Celtic/American fiddle tunes in A and D than any other key with G running a close third. I don't know when the use of capos would have become commonplace in the folk banjo world. I imagine people just closed their eyes, grimaced and cranked up the pegs. Maybe some of the "old-time" banjo versions of fiddle tunes aren't as "old-as-the-hills" as they're imagined to be. ("old" being a relative term - I'm still thinking 100 years back)


Rob MacKillop said:
All good info, Jim, but what still raises my eyebrow is WHY C tuning was deemed better when playing with guitars or violins (including orchestras), when those instruments are happier playing in A and E than C. Pianists tell me playing in A fits under the hand better than C. Wind and brass would have preferred flat keys. Hmm... I must be missing something.
Rob, I think the tuning and key question has a lot to do with all-round flexibility if you want to play with other instruments. If you want to play beyond the two comfortable banjo keys of A and E (in A tuning), which is also o.k. for guitar or piano (which can play relatively easily in any key) then you frequently encounter problems for the other players. For example, trombone, flute, Bb cornet, Bb clarinet, oboe, bassoon or various other players of orchestral instruments would find it very awkward playing in the key of E because of fingering problems and the curtailing of natural instrumental resonances. Conversely, try playing in the relatively simple keys of Dm or Cm on your A-tuned banjo. Your left hand is not going to be very happy. It is no wonder that it is rare in early banjo music to find pieces in minor keys, and when you do they are usually highlighted in their titles, such as -------'s Celebrated Minor Jig, or the like.
Step outside of the folk music world for a moment and remember that beyond the minstrel repertoire, the next generation of banjoists were aspiring to be taken seriously by "legit" players and strove to fit in with them, as Armstrong, Baur, Stewart or Farland did, and the younger professional players like Parke Hunter, Ruby Brooks, Vess Ossman and the young Van Eps certainly had to do on the vaudeville stage with orchestras or on their recordings. These guys wanted to play more than jigs and reels. Not only does tuning (and indeed, reading) in C work better and offers much more flexibility all-round in the non-folk world, but on stage the projection of the banjo's sound is much better.
p.s. Interestingly, the tuning of Howe (1850) and Briggs (1855) of G, which is a tone lower than the soon-to-be standard of A, is much better suited to fit in with other instruments. I have always wondered why, for reading, the incredibly awkward A tuning held sway over so many other less clumsy possibilities.

Rob MacKillop said:
All good info, Jim, but what still raises my eyebrow is WHY C tuning was deemed better when playing with guitars or violins (including orchestras), when those instruments are happier playing in A and E than C. Pianists tell me playing in A fits under the hand better than C. Wind and brass would have preferred flat keys. Hmm... I must be missing something.

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