Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hello to everyone. 

On page 8 of Briggs', the last sentence in the instructions for The Left Hand states that 'The thumb is sometime used to stop the fourth string.' 

As there is no further reference to this in the text or in the fingering instructions for any of the tunes, I began to experiment with it's applications initially in practicing the 'Movements' on page 10. With the tuning d G D F# A, I stop the 4th string at the second note position A, whenever I am not stopping G and B on the 2nd and 1st strings. I find the sympathetic harmonics very satisfying when I strike the melody notes cleanly. Also, when used with basic first position chord fingerings other than G major, I can strike strings in passing, adjacent to the one for the melody note to pleasing effect. It is quite subtle in some tunes and very noticeable in others. 

I must stress that I am very well aware that the many videos posted by members, who I believe do not use the technique, demonstrate that it is not required for brilliance. However, does anyone else do this?

I will post a video as soon as I have the means to record one.

Kind regards, Ian.

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I would really like to see a video of this to illustrate your point.

Hi Tim,

I don't have any equipment to do a video or an acceptable audio recording but I will get a tech savvy friend to assist me very soon. It is quite likely that it will be 5 minutes of me 'practicing' rather than presenting a complete tune!

I must admit to being somewhat concerned that, as I have not been playing banjo for long and as a newcomer to this site I will appear to be overly confident in my posting on this subject. However, having found no mention of using the left thumb in the forum archives, I thought it would be of interest to fellow players. 

I lieu of a video, this is a simple description of how I use the technique in for example, 'Nigga From De South'.

I stop A on the 4th string with my left thumb throughout the entire tune except for the following:

G-B in bar 1.

G-G B-d in bar 4.

All of bars 10, 12, 14, 16.

I can catch the 4th string as I strike the melody note on the 3rd string with no discord.

This is basically what I do for any of the tunes. As I said in my initial post, there is only the one reference to this in Briggs' and no indications in the scores, indeed the chord slides are either annotated with an open 4th or with the 4th not played. One exception is in 'Wait For The Wagon' with the chord A E G A  but again, no indicator. Considering the extent to which different fingerings are annotated, I find it intriguing.

Kind regards, Ian

Thanks.....and it is interesting to really take a close look at written instructions. Sometimes it is a little key to the past.

I totally agree. As fiddle is (was!?) my main instrument, it is what I have done with 18th and 19th century hand written manuscripts of know English fiddlers. 

I would be very interested to know if you find any merit in using the left thumb or any thoughts at all on the reason it is mentioned in the book. 

Another subject that I find interesting in Briggs is the number of different finger indications there are for playing D on the first string. One reason may simply be to enable the learner to facilitate the various movements throughout the Instructor. I do, however suspect there is more to it than that. Again, any thoughts?

Have you looked at the other books? A lot of this stuff plays out over time in these books, and you can wee the progression and adjustment in thought. The culmination is the Analytical, where it all seems to converge.

I am going through the archives, following your contributions to the various subjects. I am deliberately working only from the Briggs as I feel that I have a lot more to learn from it. I will, in time progress chronologically through the other books. 

I am very grateful to you for your interest.

I do hope to see some video too. I spent a nice chunk of the evening attempting to do this and aside from the breaking of the habit to use any other finger the thumb does work decently in some occasions even in my case of short stubs for fingers.

Yea, I think you need to step back and see the pieces together...it is fascinating. Any one part is great, but to put them all into perspective is really cool.

Hi Chris, 

I took me a while to get my thumb to work. As I mentioned before, applying it when playing through the five Briggs' movement's helped me get the hang of it. As I do on my fiddle, my index and middle fingers always move together on the 1st and 2nd strings and so, on my banjo when they are down, my thumb is up and vice versa. 

I have found that as I begin to really dig into a tune, by which I mean lift and drive as opposed to just fast, I can get loose, but definitely not sloppy, with my right hand strikes. The effect is very similar to my fiddle playing with double stops and partial harmonies. I think it works particularly well on Miss Lucy Long.

Tim, I appreciate the point you make and whilst I am tempted to move on, I'm still breaking down each tune in Briggs and experimenting with tempo, rhythm, ornamentation, syncopation etc. I will see what develops from the relatively scant instructions in the 'first' instructor. I am looking forward to attempting the videos.

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