Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I've been watching several tutorials about Clawhammer since Mark Weems mentioned this. One thing is the concept of "down". Down in the right hand motion can be directed straight toward the head of the instrument. it can also be interpreted as aiming toward the floor. How do you all interpret this?

Another difference is watching the brush of clawhammer where the first finger and the thumb make contact with the string in a slight delay, whereas Stroke style has the finger and thumb making contact with the string at exactly the same time. 

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I've been looking for a discussion like this, but didn't know how to kick it off or what may have been discussed before.  I'm interested in differences between stroke style and Round Peak clawhammer style as played by Adam Hurt (and Kyle Creed et al before), which I am endeavoring to learn.  This style seems to me to be very similar to what I've picked up in the few tutors I've tried, except that the tutors call out the choice of thumb and finger selection in a way that's sometimes counter-intuitive to my clawhammer experience.  But then I wonder if that's just the particular tutor I'm using, and other tutors may have done it differently.  Hope this makes sense.  

Yes, I hope we can sort it out. 

In clawhammer, "down" definitely means 'towards the head', although it often occurs during a motion where the hand is moving towards the 1st string, before it comes back to the 5th string.  Not towards the floor as in guitar playing.  Think knocking as opposed to 'strumming'.

Another difference is watching the brush of clawhammer where the first finger and the thumb make contact with the string in a slight delay, whereas Stroke style has the finger and thumb making contact with the string at exactly the same time.

I'm totally confused as to what you mean there Tim-?-  the thumb is not generally used in a brush in clawhammer, and in fact it's most common to see the middle/ring/pinky used for the brush because of the natural slanted motion of the hand after hitting a main note with the index or middle finger.  Are you possibly talking about Pete Seeger style picking?

This style seems to me to be very similar to what I've picked up in the few tutors I've tried, except that the tutors call out the choice of thumb and finger selection in a way that's sometimes counter-intuitive to my clawhammer experience.  But then I wonder if that's just the particular tutor I'm using, and other tutors may have done it differently. 

Yes you have that exactly right.  No, the other tutors are no different- The stroke style uses the thumb a lot more for playing main notes in the melody on various strings- I found that to have been the single biggest awkwardness of learning stroke when coming out of years of clawhammer- it's very awkward and non-intuitive but you absolutely must work through it slowly if you want to eventually play these minstrel stroke style tunes in a flowing smooth way and be able to say you are playing 'stroke style' from the period.  You'll also need to work through triplets and glides across multiple strings.  In stroke style, there is way less 'oldtime' use of the thumb as the ubiquitous constant rhythm drone, and less 'dropthumb' in general.  You do not just dropthumb to automatically fill a rhythm space.

Because stroke and claw DO share so many moves however, it makes it all too easy to merely clawhammer your way through minstrel tunes and think you are 'playing minstrel style'.  It's a cIawhammerer's dilemma- I don't think guitar players or bluegrass banjoists face this issue at all when learning stroke style.  I really had to sit myself down for about a year to bust through my cemented clawhammer habits.  I had to slow waaaaay down and take it note by note exactly from the tutor fingering suggestions- it's the only way for us clawheads to really make the distinction and get it right.   But try to remember how awkward it was to first learn clawhammer style- the motions are very non-intuitive and clumsy at first!   If you put in the time and effort, it'll become more natural and then real enjoyable, and the differences between stroke and clawhammer will be fun and more obvious to you.

Okay, this is really helpful.  I did exactly as you described, playing out of Weidlich's version of Briggs and slowed down to get the strokes as called out.  With repetition I could keep it going, but I'd revert back to clawhammer habits with a piece that's not marked.  It's good to know that there is consistency across the various tutors, but that takes away my ability to revert to clawhammer, rationalizing that surely ONE of the tutors must have done it that way!  Not to be, I guess.  Thanks.

I would consider down as being across the instrument, towards the floor, in if you will. Think about an up bow and a down bow on violin. In that sense it is referencing the motion of the wrist and the forearm motion

And compare to "down" as I interpret the books (Briggs , Rice, and Converse 1886 )

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPD5oZkjgrQ  at 2:00

I see great consistency in the tutors as Briggs describes Movements, Rice describes Strikes, and Converse describes Combinations. Read all those texts and exercises and you can see them congeal.

The earliest stuff (in my observation ) was a result of Strikes. 

Frankly, I often think that we get caught up in the minutiae of "correct movement" and forget to make music. When striking the strings in any 'downstroke' method, the actual vector of the stroke is really "whatever you do to make the string make noise". Caveat that with "and efficiently lead into the next movement".

Different people do this stuff differently, I've seen great players with terrible habits...and poor ones with 'picture perfect' habits.

When I teach CH, "down" is towards the head...like Strumelia says, "Knocking" instead of "strumming". I have had very good success with students by having them start with striking the 1st string and then following thru to hit the head with their first-joint knuckle (and/or fingernail). I do not teach the laying on of thumbs...at least not at first. Some students need a place to park their thumb, others don't. I am a 'flying thumb' person and have been since day one. My thumb only contacts the 5th string when I need it to. 

Cathy Fink is teaching using one of my favorite techniques, exaggeration. @ 1:35, she is teaching a brush stroke, wildly exaggerated (she talks about that a bit later). In actual use, the 5th string won't be compressed and may or may not be involved at all.

Frankly, I often think that we get caught up in the minutiae of "correct movement" and forget to make music.

I don't think people really forget to play music. Some are just curious. It's an interesting topic. Especially, if you look back at any old historical manual and try to extract instruction from it. There is a woman that does it from 19th Century piano manuals, and the result is quite interesting. Of course it is not everyone's cup of tea, but it sheds a different light on the "minutiae"

 

We are sort of forced to describe minutae if we are trying to compare very specific styles and moves.

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