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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The thumb simply lands/plants on the 5th string at the end of the (wildly exaggerated for the video) brush.  The 5th string is not sounded, it's serving only as a place anchor. When the hand is brought back up and the thumb lifted off the 5th string, the thumb may or may not sound that 5th string it's pressing on- depending on if you want a 5th string note to sound out in the rhythm at that moment.  The brush itself across the strings can be done with any one or more or all of the non-thumb fingers.  Lots of folks 'save' their main note hitting finger for notes and do the brush with other fingers.  I tend to pick melody notes mostly with my index and use my other 3 fingers for brushing.  Sometimes my middle finger sneaks into playing the main notes too though...and of course occasionally thumbing main notes (but thumbs for main notes happens way more often in strike style).

Timothy Twiss said:

Isn't there more of an embedded "rhythm" in these Clawhammer demonstrations....from the rhythm of the hand?

The Stroke descriptions  ( if you read them ) almost seem to imply this "binary" thing that your hand is either up, or down. The rhythm ( which DOES groove btw ) from this approach ends up with a different result.....and there is a somewhat noticeable difference. 

Ugh, I just wrote a long post about the diffs and the rhythms...and it got stuck in limbo when I tried to add it...and it all went poof.   DANG!!!!!!   >8-(

I think it was Andy Chase that found the stuff about the European lady that was opening up old 19th Century piano tutors. She did find some interesting things, as it applied to the repertoire and instruments of the time. Knowing this and examining it certainly does not take away from any modern player nor anyone's enjoyment...but it does offer a unique insight - one that we often never would have seen.

It was interesting to watch Kathy Fink.  I was surprised at how much wrist motion she uses.  I took lessons from Dan Gellert for a little while, before deciding I needed someone to come down to my level to get me started, and his style was very different.  He doesn't flex his wrist much at all.  He establishes the claw shape, then rolls his forearm as needed to position his "claw" to hit the stings, but most of the motion comes from his entire forearm.  He also talks a lot about striking inward toward the head.  In practice, I think it's a matter of striking inward and down, so when the finger comes of the string, it's stopped by the one below it, or the head as the case may be.  I'm going to look for a video of Adam Hurt.  I still think the Round Peak style, which uses a lot of thumb play on all the strings,  has a lot of similarity to stroke style.  

Here's an old video of Adam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3deHTeVk .

Here's Dan Gellert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WHX9RzNzFGo

I see Dan using his wrist a little more than his exaggerated motion he showed me, but it's different than Kathy Fink's I believe.

There are so many wonderful clawhammer/oldtime players, and they all sound different.  Cathy Fink is Cathy Fink.  Adam Hurt is Adam Hurt- I don't see him as necessarily representing Round Peak- he has his own unique, young, and super talented sound.  Gellert is simply amazing...but he doesn't play only one style either.  I think it's a mistake to focus in too much on particular players or specific regional 'styles' when looking for lineage from stroke style.  Regional styles are mostly learned from recordings nowadays by people who learn from many sources- the folks who grow up 'in the tradition' are few and far between anymore- most are gone now.  It's a global community overflowing with abundant music resources. Most of us in clawhammer learn from many sources now, and we too pass on the mix of techniques we develop.

Mike Seeger put out a wonderful CD on various older banjos styles - he beautifully demonstrated many of the regional uppicking, downpicking, thumb-lead, melodic, frailing...  playing styles from way back, and one can hear different 'echoes' of stroke style in all of them.  

My own opinion: I think of early American African slave and early minstrel picking as being marvelous dinosaurs, and oldtime clawhammer and bluegrass as being roosters and ostriches.  Scientists used to believe that dinosaurs and birds evolved completely separately and were not related to each other.  But now it seems more and more dinosaurs were covered with feathers and were much more mobile than previously thought.  it may be that when we look at the lowly chicken we are actually seeing what became of the dinosaurs.   lolol 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIYgKj5CmCk

I'm not sure if this was the best one, but this is the person...doing to 19th Century piano what we also do to our homey little banjo stuff.

I wasn't actually intending a negative comment about the investigation of minutiae, but perhaps I was reacting a bit to an old war-wound. Students go thru a phase where they question every tiny little thing, "am I doing this or that exactly right?" And if you give them a specific answer, they tend to freak out...all they hear is "I'm doing it wrong".

"Right" = "what works". All I can do is offer a set of tools, show some examples and let you figure out "what works" for you.

Cathy Fink is one of my heroes. She is a joy to watch in person, a great teacher and has a wonderful style of her own. Adam Hurt and Dan Gellert are also great people and very accessible. I don't play like any of them...my right arm and hand are very loose and flexy. The power comes from my forearm but the movement needed to hit any individual string comes from a combo wrist and forearm movement. I never touch the 5th with my thumb unless it is necessary...and I use the SS "hammer" a lot in my CH playing now.

I've watched the videos of that piano player you're talking about. Very cool stuff!

If you want Round Peak, you've really got no further to look than Bob Flesher. I think that RP thumb he has fit so well with the Stroke Style that he went full Stroke. You can really hear the influence of RP in his SS recordings where he sings...I think in those his backup style tends to gravitate away from SS and into RP (or a little of both).

Mark, there is a better link where she address some old manuals, isn't there?

That's cool, Tim.  Fascinating.  And she talks about how the earlier pianos were more lightly built which made it easier to play "lightly, with brilliance".  

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