Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I keep hearing about the "almighty" double C tuning. What exactly is the attraction? I can play in C, granted without the low bass C, in standard G. And maybe I haven't adjusted enough to it, but there doesn't seem to be as much versatility as with standard G.

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You mean like old times double c tuning? I mean generally speaking I believe it is for easier fingering on certain tunes. I actually learned a fair amount double c tunes when I took my clawhammer classes and various books I used all had double c tunes too. I generally avoid them so I don't have to retune because I am a lazy.

I'm not sure what you mean by "standard G"-  you mean Briggs tuning?  or gDGBD modern G standard tuning?

Lots of oldtime/clawhammer players these days use 'double C' tuning but tuned up a step ...for playing D tunes.  Double D.

If you are talking in terms of mid 1800s minstrel era playing, the fingering of the time produced a certain set of hand/finger moves (of both hands) that have a characteristic sound that subtly distinguishes stroke style from clawhammer style.  Part of the difference in sound is a result of the favored tuning of the time, which facilitates certain fingerings and moves.

Briggs tuning is like double C (with a low bass string) BUT with Briggs (for the key of G) the second string (F#) is a half step lower (dGDF#A) which means you need to fret it along with the 1st string to produce your tonic chord.  (in double d or double c you just fret the 1st string on second fret to get the tonic chord)  This may seem at first glance to be an unnecessary hindrance -to be avoided by just tuning that 2nd string higher to begin with so you don't have to fret it  (like a high G version of double C or double D). 
But it's only a hindrence if you are playing in clawhammer/oltime style.  By tuning to double C (or double D or double G) I assume you would be playing the minstrel tunes in clawhammer style.
Yes it works, and it means one doesn't have to learn any new fingerings.  However because one then is playing using clawh left and right hand moves, on many 1800s tunes it sounds more typical of modern clawhammer playing rather than 1800s stroke style playing.  It may make it more awkward to do the typical moves found in stroke/minsrel style that make it sound distinctive.. like triplets, frequent use of thumb for main melody notes, stroke style 'rolls' and brushes.  It also makes it difficult to learn minstrel tunes from most of today's instructional tab books written for Briggs tuning or for high bass minstrel tuning.  It will also mean you can't just tune your already low double C tuning waaaay down to the key of G in order to play tunes in low G with other minstrel style players... if you ever get together with others to play minstrel tunes.

I find that because of keys, and because of the overwhelming confusion in learning, I had to give up trying to play minstrel tunes in my familiar oldtime/clawhammer tunings... except for the 'high bass' tuning which translates directly to a lower version of standard modern G banjo tuning.

Yes, I was referring to modern standard G, or D in Briggs. I also find it interesting that Foster wrote most of his tunes in the high bass D tuning (lower equivalent of modern standard open G). Even with the high bass tuning, one can play quite a few Briggs and Converse tunes, as they don't use the low bass or it's not played open. I like both the high and low bass tunings bc of the versatility. 

Oh boy. Tunning stuff again!

LOL

Scott Danneker said:

Oh boy. Tunning stuff again!

If you play with a fiddler they will have certain 'needs' based on fiddle tunings/fingerings in certain keys.   

LOL...i wasn't trying start a tuning discussion. I was just wondering about the attraction

Ok, you said:

I keep hearing about the "almighty" double C tuning. What exactly is the attraction?

But to pinpoint 'what the attraction is', it'd help to know where/from whom do you keep hearing about it?  The double C tuning is used with some frequency in oldtime/clawhammer playing, but seldom in Bluegrass or minstrel genre playing.

Rob Mohr said:

LOL...i wasn't trying start a tuning discussion. I was just wondering about the attraction

As secondary point you brought up, should my thumb pick out the melody notes? I find my finger does most of that and my thumb is mostly filler. I suppose this is more Briggs than Converse. 

Thanks Lisa, it's finally beginning to make some sense to me.

Strumelia said:

Briggs tuning is like double C (with a low bass string) BUT with Briggs (for the key of G) the second string (F#) is a half step lower (dGDF#A) which means you need to fret it along with the 1st string to produce your tonic chord.  (in double d or double c you just fret the 1st string on second fret to get the tonic chord)  This may seem at first glance to be an unnecessary hindrance -to be avoided by just tuning that 2nd string higher to begin with so you don't have to fret it  (like a high G version of double C or double D). 

I think Converse's tunes are more thummby aren't they?  Original Essence of Old Virginny and Phil Rice's Excellsior Jig are other examples of what Greg Adams called "thumb lead" tunes.  What ever happened to Greg anyway?



Rob Mohr said:

As secondary point you brought up, should my thumb pick out the melody notes? I find my finger does most of that and my thumb is mostly filler. I suppose this is more Briggs than Converse. 

There are always many exceptions in particular tunes, but generally speaking...

In oldtime clawhammer the thumb is used most often as a rhythmic tool or syncopation note- either on the 5th string drone (part of the bump-a-dit-ty) OR as part of the oft-used 'dropthumb' rhythm feature.

But either way, it's most often a secondary rhythm note rather than a main melody note.

In minstrel/stroke style tunes of the 1800s, I notice the thumb does those same things, but ALSO more often is used to play main melody notes of the tune- in a more dominant role similar to the main lead finger notes.  There are some tunes in the tutor books with fingering specifically indicating the use of many thumbed notes (sometimes many thumbed notes in sequence) on different strings- for important segments of the melody.  Thumbed notes in minstrel tunes are not as restricted to part of a dropthumb rhythm lick or 5th string rhythm syncopation.  Lots of triplets, too.  And when full chord brushes happen in stroke style, they usually are a very purposeful and dramatic accent, often snapping across each string in precise sequence, not 'folded into' the tune like they tend to be in clawhammer.

Look at Paul Draper's recent video here of Lanagan's Ball-  the first part has sooo many main melody notes played with the same finger, all in rapid sequence.  You'd never really see that in oldtime clawhammer- they'd break it up with a bunch of dropthumbs rocking back and forth over the strings- adding lots of secondary rhythmic syncopated notes in the process.

The resulting sound with all these main thumbed notes feels more melodic single note-ish.  All this is hard for me to describe- it comes down to my general impressions when going back and forth between oldtime playing and minstrel playing.  I like to observe the differences.  I can't explain how, but the use of Briggs tuning (like a low version of double C but with the second string lowered a half step) somehow facilitates playing the characteristics of stroke style. 
Maybe it's just habit, but if I raise that 2nd string and am in a higher version of doubleC/doubleD, I just automatically start playing in clawhammer style- that doubleC tuning seems to facilitate playing in oldtime style.  Though clawhammer style and stroke style share 'some' of the same moves, they are unique enough from each other to produce a different overall sound and feel.

Again, there are many exceptions- there are some tunes in the old tutors that are pretty easily played in clawhammer style.  But to approach all the 1800s tunes by tuning and playing them in clawhammer style definitely gives the tunes a more modern feel. I'm not saying anyone's doing that here, nor saying that it's good or bad... but some people do that when they get their first 'minstrel style' banjo.  They tune and play the minstrel tunes in clawhammer because It's simply easier to avoid a new learning curve.  Stroke style players can usually hear the difference.

--> Scott- the Rice/ high bass tuning is like a lowered 'standard G' banjo tuning (gDBDG), so you can play any oldtime clawhammer G tunes you already might know in that high bass tuning without learning new fingering.

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