Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

What banjo style did you play before trying minstrel style?
I tried Scruggs-style but just couldn't get my fingers going that fast. I learned the basic bum-ditty strum and some frailing.

If you play clawhammer, do you have any difficulty going between clawhammer and stroke style?
I've had some difficulty learning to use my thumb more when I want to hit the string with the nail of my middle finger. It does seem that the 3rd and 4th strings sound clearer if you hit them with your thumb instead of your finger.

Views: 321

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

None. I just went right to this and it's the only banjo style I do.
I tried my hand at bluegrass when I was just out of high school. It got old fast. I began stroke style after I started "living history." There were lots of old time musicians at events. Having a little bit of banjo background, I inquired about how to learn to play 19th century music. I was directed to modern books on clawhammer.

I found Bob Fleshers website and read all the books and periodicals I could get my hands on.

I had picked up some clawhammer before I saw the light. When learning the early stuff, I made a solid effort to forget all that I had learned and start from scratch.
My story is the same as Tim's. I went straight to this style.
This may rock the boat, but I feel the only difference between stroke and clawhammer is the musical situation. Otherwise, both styles strike the strings the same way and incorporate drop thumb. To me, stroke style simply implies more use of glides, using the 5th string on the downbeat, other rhythmic oddities not found in old time tunes, and moreover, a concerted focus on emphasizing mostly just the melody; whereas in old time, I would certainly call the 5th string, the drone string, because of its incessant bum-ditty style (old time also has a way of making the 2nd and 3rd strings drone strings too, particularly in modal tunings and drop thumb techniques).

That being said, I started playing clawhammer to old time tunes (yes, Cripple Creek was the first song I learned on banjo) only because I had heard minstrel tunes as played by Tim, Carl and Greg. I did this for several months before I rustled up Joe Weidlich's Early Minstrel Repertoire book and got the minstrel tunes rolling. Although I could have learned it from old time players, that book taught me drop thumb and glides. Rhythmic variation was embedded in these melodies and followed easily--a great example would be "Sebastopol Breakdown" or "Congo Prince Jig" with their slight rests to bring the melody in on the downbeat using the thumb with an upward motion instead of striking downward with the index or middle finger. I just may not be well-traveled, but I have never heard or seen old time banjos played that way. I digress... stroke style was not my original style, but I picked up the banjo with the sole intention of learning stroke style and these 19th century minstrel tunes.



To confuse and maybe deepen this conversation, would those who have already responded, and those who will respond in the future, like to add how and why they got started playing these minstrel tunes?
Hello,
My interest in minstrel banjos are the banjos themselves and an intuitive rather than documented style determined by the actual banjo and its voice rather than historical music tutors.

Yes, I play clawhammer banjo and have played bluegrass in the past.
However, I play fretless, gut strung banjos differently than fretted, metal strung ones.
I have heard many historical stroke style players--but I am not playing that.

It is my thought that any good reproduction banjo will suggest a style of playing that features that banjo's voice, and although the stroke style of playing may be the only documented style that is left--there are likely many undocumented styles that were common that were evoked by the banjos themselves.

I find my technique on big booming minstrels to be heavy with slides and pull offs and the melodies to be simple and rythmic. I think the more classical sounding styles sound better on the early fretted banjos (old SS Stewarts etc) with gut strings.

But this is all IMHO and I like it that others do play the stroke styles as don't think all banjos and banjoists should sound the same and I enjoy the variety of different styles and sounds. :)
Best wishes,
Mary Z. Cox
I was a die-hard Scruggs picker with no interest in frailing until I heard Joe Ayers play Keemo Kimo, and from that moment on all I wanted to play was documentated nineteenth-century style banjo.

Lucas Bowman said:
This may rock the boat, but I feel the only difference between stroke and clawhammer is the musical situation. Otherwise, both styles strike the strings the same way and incorporate drop thumb. To me, stroke style simply implies more use of glides, using the 5th string on the downbeat, other rhythmic oddities not found in old time tunes... would those who have already responded, and those who will respond in the future, like to add how and why they got started playing these minstrel tunes?

Good points, Lucas; I would like to opine that the rhymthic and fingering oddities that you describe form the foundation of the early stroke-style, and therefore make it a distinct and separate genre from the style that evolved from it, i.e. "clawhammer" or "frailing." True, both use the same right-hand motion, but the tune repertiore and the "licks" that come up over and over and quite different.

I wish more clawhammer players would branch out into the minstrel style, ala Bob Flesher and Bob Carlin. I don't know how hard the "retooling" is from clawhammer to minstrel, since I've never played modern clawhammer, but if one is interested in banjo history it's the way to go.
That's what I'm trying to do. I will probably have tunes that I play stroke style and tunes I play clawhammer since I like some of the modern clawhammer, especially Mark Johnson's clawgrass.


Carl Anderton said:
I was a die-hard Scruggs picker with no interest in frailing until I heard Joe Ayers play Keemo Kimo, and from that moment on all I wanted to play was documentated nineteenth-century style banjo.

Lucas Bowman said:
This may rock the boat, but I feel the only difference between stroke and clawhammer is the musical situation. Otherwise, both styles strike the strings the same way and incorporate drop thumb. To me, stroke style simply implies more use of glides, using the 5th string on the downbeat, other rhythmic oddities not found in old time tunes... would those who have already responded, and those who will respond in the future, like to add how and why they got started playing these minstrel tunes?

Good points, Lucas; I would like to opine that the rhymthic and fingering oddities that you describe form the foundation of the early stroke-style, and therefore make it a distinct and separate genre from the style that evolved from it, i.e. "clawhammer" or "frailing." True, both use the same right-hand motion, but the tune repertiore and the "licks" that come up over and over and quite different.

I wish more clawhammer players would branch out into the minstrel style, ala Bob Flesher and Bob Carlin. I don't know how hard the "retooling" is from clawhammer to minstrel, since I've never played modern clawhammer, but if one is interested in banjo history it's the way to go.
I've observed that there is a lot more use of the thumb on the 3rd and 4th strings in stroke style, which seems to voice them more clearly. I find myself often hitting multiple strings when I try to do this with my middle finger, but then, I have narrower string spacing on my Fender conversion.
I played clawhammer style banjo before I tried any stoke style. The two styles and repertoires (especially the repertoires) scratch two quite distinct itches for me. I still play clawhammer with my middle finger and minstrel stuff with my index finger. It helps me to keep them separate in my head somehow. I've been playing a funny mix of historical traditional musical styles on a variety of instruments (button accordion, flute, fiddle) for 30 years or so. In the mid-seventies I acquired a turn of the (twentieth) century banjo. Back then (classical & gourd banjo mystic) Scott Didlake was living in Toronto and told me I shouldn't have my instrument strung with steel strings. It took some doing in those pre-internet days but I eventually found some nylon strings and have kept the old Peerless strung with them off and on ever since. I eventually worked out a quasi-classical, guitar style for tunes I was finding in old tune books and playing them at museums and such. Now, thanks to folks like Tim putting some actual period banjo tutors online I've been amused to find that my guesses at guitar style banjo weren't too far off the mark. I find the stroke style better suited to my folkie tendencies though. I find the connections between stroke style and living clawhammer tradition really interesting but I'm pretty sure that's another forum topic.
Okay, I only play Stroke Style, so I am disqualified from this. Beg tell...someone please state a concrete difference between Clawhammer and genuine Tutor endorsed Stroke Style Banjo. I never listen to Old-Time or Clawhammer. Call me a freak..it's okay.
Tim, I've been trying to figure out the difference myself. It seems that stroke style has more finger glides and syncopated playing whereas clawhammer is more straight time, probably because it's music meant to be danced and at a faster tempo to which means that you have to bang the heck out of the banjo to be heard. I would suggest that you listen to David Holt's two clawhammer lessons on You Tube to see the difference plus do a search under clawhammer banjo...you'll come up with a lot of videos to watch
There are scores of reasons behind the development of each of these following differences, but so far, these are the differences I find popping into my head:

1.) "Clawhammer" styles in old time, as stated before, feature more straight time, i.e. the actual throw or strike of the arm itself into the strings. I harken back to "Sebastopol Breakdown" and "Congo Prince Jig"--watch the actual pulse of your/someone else's hand while they play it. When does the hand go up and when does it go down: that is your pulse or syncopation.

2.) Although I have seen glides played by old time players, it is certainly not the norm. And the player I saw do it had a previous conversation to me earlier about minstrelsy--maybe he had practice already or maybe its just a easy movement that anyone just might happen to start doing, dunno...

3.) Clarity. For whatever reason, and I'm sure there is, minstrelsy emphasizes melodies over the frailing of melodies out of chords like old time (frailing, in my opinion, is simply making the melody louder while still striking most of its chord as well). Perhaps this style encourages no rests in old time, but very rarely is there actual silence in these songs. Tunes and techniques are geared toward filling space--Scruggs rolling technique a perfect high-speed space filler. Either way, minstrel tunes emphasize usually just the melody. However, you can clearly find old time (clawhammer) styles in minstrelsy:

"Brigg's Jig" the B part features a section of straight time where the 5th string is plucked in a predictable and constant manner, sometimes unnecessary in developing the melodic tune--as in old time. I thought I had more examples... I dry, but Im sure they are there.

4.) 1 and 3 combine together to create old time's dependency of the 5th string as a drone string. Because it is straight timed tunes and the 5th string is used more of time keeper or space filler, it is somewhat rare for a 5th string pluck to be featured on the downbeat. This movement of placing a melodic 5th string on the downbeat creates syncopation in certain minstrel tunes.

These differences all relate to one another though and it is very hard to separate them.

Ok, enough late night rant on 19th, 20th and 21st century banjo styles... jeesh. No Tim, you're not a freak.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

About

John Masciale created this Ning Network.

© 2019   Created by John Masciale.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service