Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

It is done and ready. Although this document is embedded in the drive, I wanted to share it all with you first.


About This Work

Early Banjo Complete is the result of many years of immersion in the study of the written record of banjo music. While the instrument was certainly played and widely accepted before this time, there was no formal notation to capture the essence of a performance. Although often criticized for documentation of an aural tradition, notation does indeed provide valuable insight into what existed in another time and place. It is not my purpose to defend nor condemn written notation, but rather to render a faithful performance of “what is”.

The story begins in 1855 with the posthumous publication of the Briggs’ Banjo Instructor. The actual authorship is thought to be either a young Frank Converse or James Buckley, as both musicians had the skills to accurately transcribe a musical performance. The continuity between their subsequent publications along with the painstaking detail of every nuance gives credence to the theory that indeed this music is a representation of what the banjo sounded like at that time.

My goal was to create faithful musical renditions of the written work and to reproduce it on an instrument that is representative of the banjo at that time. I strove to perform it in such a way that it may become a baseline for interpretation by not interjecting excessive creative renderings, i.e. adding percussion or other instruments, and refraining from improvised interpretation.

I included every major work of the period from 1855 until 1872.  

  • Briggs’ Banjo Instructor of 1855 published by Oliver Ditson & Co.
  • Phil Rice’s Method For The Banjo 1858 - Oliver Ditson & Co.
  • Buckley’s New Banjo Book of 1860 – Firth, Pond, & Co.
  • Winner’s New Primer For The Banjo 1864 – William A. Pond & Co.
  • Frank B. Converse’s New and Complete Method For The Banjo With Or Without A Master 1865 – S.T. Gordon ( The “Green Book” )
  • Frank B. Converse’s Banjo Without A Master 1865 – Dick and Fitzgerald ( The “Yellow Book” )
  • Buckley’s Banjo Guide 1868 – Oliver Ditson & Co.
  • The Banjo, and How to Play it 1872 – Dick and Fitzgerald

In addition, I utilized the Banjo Style section from Frank B. Converse’s Analytical Banjo Method 1887 published by S.T. Gordon & Son. Although it was published much later than the others, I consider it one of the most important. Banjo music had evolved into a more refined Guitar Style of play by this time, and a great portion of the Analytical covers that by staying in the fold of what was happening at the time. The attention he gave to the Banjo section of the book is noteworthy and of particular interest to me. Converse defined, but did not change the earliest techniques found in these books some 25 plus years ago. The pieces are highly edited and fingered, but the result is a style true to the sound of the “old days”. It is a scholar putting definition to an idiom of music. The “Strikes and Movements” of the Rice and Briggs’ have become “Combinations” with a way to fit this technique into nearly every piece. It looks complicated, but is actually logical and easy. It provides a cohesive way to view “Stroke Style” banjo playing. The addition of defining the “Hammer Stroke” is a bonus. I am certain it was used instinctively in earlier times, as its description and inclusion into the notation is invaluable to those peeping in from another century. For further clarification, I included only the section from the Banjo Style because the Guitar Style pieces have clearly become a separate entity.

            The development of two distinct styles of play was a slow drift and nearly indiscernible in its evolution. It is a matter of great debate as to how and when the styles existed. In addition, it is widely accepted that the Stroke Style of play was adapted from observation of African American musicians and their technique. Briggs clearly described and notated this. Soon after, with the publication of the 1860 Buckley Book, we see the Guitar Style of play actually mentioned, and many of the pieces clearly are appropriate, given the extended use of vertical harmony and extension of the repertoire into European song forms. In 1865, Frank Converse devoted an entire section of his book to the technique and repertoire of the Guitar Style of play.

            In this time of innovation and exploration, the instruments themselves as well as the music were undergoing radical transformation. We cannot say for certain when this or that started or ended. Rather, we must view the entire body of work and draw our own conclusions. I find the “Hybrid” style most useful, in which both the Guitar and Stroke Style techniques can be applied. Having played the hundreds of songs in these tutors, I find there are many instances where either technique applies. By 1872 in the Converse book The Banjo and How to Play it, the future of the banjo in Guitar Style is well established.

            It is my personal opinion that Frank Converse gives us the Alpha and Omega view of this chapter in banjo history in his Analytical Banjo Method. He is unique in his longevity, talent, and scholarly publications. From a study of his work, and the inclusion of the body of material in between, I hope that these recordings provide the hobbyist and professional a common core from which to depart and creatively interpret this old and precious slice of American music.



Timothy Twiss / June 2015

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I think I have pretty much all of your tutor recordings Tim.  It's great to have them when one sees a page of hard-to-interpret tutor scan...with the push of a button one can hear it played!  Very very helpful to have this huge resource.    :)

Thanks. I enjoy improving and sharing all this. I keep thinking ahead. I do want to revamp the Primer. I have improved with Sibelius and Adobe to create a more uniform format. I also want to really extend the repertoire section.

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