Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I thought it might be fun to do a little introduction to Guitar Style of play. Even though Stroke is the most discussed version of play here, both styles were common and we might want to look at it. Does anyone use this....and do you integrate it into your playing?

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I love stroke style and classic banjo.  There's definitely room for both!

Tim I'd like your take on the style tree--  Do you feel the pre-1890s guitar style banjo morphed directly into classic banjo?  And what roots do you feel bluegrass up picking evolved from, or did it sort of jump off that trail as a modern offshoot of a rural regional style?

I really do not know. I do find myself fascinated by the earliest germ of fingerstyle......discerning the bud popping out of the earth. I know material up to the Analytical 1886, but I do not know how that transitions into the Classic Banjo or when that era is said to have begun.

One thing goes without saying, but I'll say it-  if one has experience playing guitar, or even in bluegrass up picking, it definitely makes it easier to explore banjo guitar style.   If one has never played guitar and has only played clawhammer or frailing style banjo, guitar style banjo is way more of a challenge.  But always good to push our own self-imposed limits.

I remember taking some workshops under Mike Seeger about fifteen years ago.  One was a 'thumb lead' style banjo workshop.  I was so lost and clumsy it wasn't even funny (and I wasn't even old and senile yet), yet others in the course were picking it up pretty quickly.  Now I suspect they may have had guitar or bluegrass banjo in their past, though that didn't occur to me at the time...I just felt lame.

I wish i could take that workshop again now, and all of Mike's workshops in fact.  I would get so much more from them today...not because I'm a better player, but rather because of my mindset has changed over time... the effect Life and the wear and tear that simply living has on a person.  Alas, we lost one of the great and wise teachers when Mike passed on...a true Renaissance man. 

It was Mike's Cafe Lena evening in Albany about 10 yrs ago where I fell under the spell of the gourd banjo as well.  It was magic, pure and simple.  He was playing a Thornburg gourd, and it seemed the banjo was about the same size as Mike, who was small in stature... but you'd need a giant to fill his shoes. 

Anyway, I loved that Mike could flow so gracefully from one playing style to another, and he truly spent his entire life learning and humbly sharing what he learned and loved.   Just an aside- mike's "Southern Banjo Styles cd and accompanying booklet are a real delight- if you want to hear some additional wonderful examples of old banjo styles and read about the marvelous old banjos playing each track, get it!   :)

I'll have to take a look. I found Stroke a near impossibility when I first tried it.

Regarding the "start date" of the Classic Banjo era, I've seen a number of different dates given.  Some give an 1865 date because of the Converse publications describing guitar style.  The "golden era" of classic banjo is often cited as being from 1880-1910, but classic banjo remained popular through the end of WWI and (in the UK) into the 1920s.  I agree with Tim that these styles didn't just spring up out of the ground- they evolved over a period of time and had no distinct start and end date.

While the guitar style that Converse describes in 1865 is a little bit different than refined later variations of fingerstyle technique, I personally prefer to include the early stuff under the greater Classic Banjo umbrella. 

Hi Tim and John-- I think you are both correct, just at two different extremes.

With the resources available today (and soon to be available) one could assemble a year by year time line.  I will attempt to make a generalization based on my own work in this stuff. This concerns only the "Five String Banjo as We Know It" not proto banjos.

We are basically dealing with four generations of popular music.  Beginning with the second, each subsequent generation saw/heard popular banjo when they were in their youth or as teenagers.

As the next hit the stage, wrote books, built banjos, published music and generally drove the popularity of the FSBAWKI they changed their parents music and made it their own.  Their parents shook their fist and proclaimed it noise-- likely shouting "these kids today don't know what real banjos should sound like."

First Generation: Joel Sweeney, Billy Whitlock, Tom Briggs, Eph Horn, G. Swain Buckley, Hype Rumsey, Phil Rice, etc..

Wide open.  All uncharted waters, mostly being mapped by violinists with banjos.  Documentation tells us that this was an era dominated by Banjo Style.  Ground work is laid. Banjos mostly homemade-- the old "flour sieve and pine neck" story.

Second Generation: Frank B Converse, Lon Morris, Albert Baur, Dan Bryant, Nelse Seymour, Henry Dobson and Bros, George Coes, Jimmy Clarke (important banjo builder) etc., etc..

Now the banjo goes a step higher in pitch, music gets more elaborate (and written down).  With this generation we get the "Silver Rim" banjos from NY. Tone gets "thinner."  Music gets hotter.  Banjos start to look recognizable (see all the 2nd gen'ers in my photo album and what they are holding).  Minstrelsy hits in a big way. Mostly Banjo Style is played but Guitar Style shows up in print-- accepted now, as then, as the introduction of this technique.  Later writings from folks who were there say this was the generation that guitar style began with.  We also get vague information about frets-- inlayed or raised.

ACW happens during this.

Third Generation; Horace Weston, E. M. Hall, Dobson's Sons, John H. Lee, William Huntley, Sam Devere, Billy Arlington, Harry Stanwood, etc., etc. and a young S. Swaim Stewart (next important banjo builder).

The music gets a larger production.  Brass and Piano accompaniment is added. Banjo pitch goes up to B flat (then C). The pattern of banjos gets more "normal" -- shallower nickel clad rims, 19" necks and banjos get even "thinner toned."  Music gets faster and slightly more technical-- but still not what I would call difficult for the most part.  The music genres get broader and many banjoists are washing off the burnt cork. We are about 50/50 Banjo Style to Guitar Style.

But something very important happened with this generation.  The fad hit at the end of it.  I'm talking Rainbow Loom big.  Cabbage Patch Kids big… New Kids On The Block big.

This lead to an explosion of new banjoists and stimulated more skilled playing.  Now we see George L. Lansing, Thomas Armstrong, Tommy Glynn, Brooks and Denton, Paul Eno, R. J. Hamilton, A. A. Babb, etc. etc.

With this generation we see the music become super hot.  Eddie Van Halen hot.  Alternate fingering, raised frets, three octave necks.  This was who the Analytical banjo was written for.

This is also when we see the so called "Banjo Orchestra."  Despite the constant insistence of people today, these were not classical music orchestras.  This was popular music.  Our modern concept of musical notation and evening dress associated with classical music does not apply to these clubs.  

At the end of this generation we have Vess Ossman-- his recordings will remove all doubt about the tone they were after.  If you played banjo in the 1890s, you wanted to play like Vess Ossman!

Fourth Generation; I think this is what John is talking about.  Here we have Ragtime!  We have Fred Van Eps, Fred Bacon, Ruby Brooks, George Gregory, R. J. Jennings, A. J. Weidt, and on the other side of the pond we have Joe Morley, Emile Grimshaw and Olly Oakley-- this list goes on. It also takes us into the 1920s and later.  This music is super hot.  Fast, clean and uses all three octaves.  Keys other than the three natural show up regularly.  Most of this is played guitar style with two fingers and thumb.

Sheet music is very well edited including left and right hand fingerings and positions.  One can see how Vess Ossman played verses Fred Van Eps from music published during this time.  Lots of thought is given to right hand "alternate fingering" so that the playing is smooth and fast.  Banjos sound like Fred Van Eps', sparkling.

… Now, these lines all blur.  For example, there was a Dobson Banjo School operated into the late 1930s (perhaps even the 1940s?) in NY.  Frank Converse lived through the third generation (and even complained about their "thin toned" and "buzzing" banjos like an old man should). He continued to write through the 1890s.  George L. Lansing was a machine pumping out compositions and arrangements by the hundreds.  He lived to see banjos played with a plectra.  Thomas Armstrong also lived to the plectra era-- even taught tenor banjo.

RE: alternate fingering.  I have a theory.  I think that it was being used early on (late 1870s-80s or 2nd-3rd generation), just not taught in books.  A couple of things lead me to believe this.

1) Albert Baur wrote about how Henry Dobson would play with his back turned in causal situations so that other banjoists could not steal his fingerings.

2) Fred Van Eps spoke about how completive banjoists were in his Hobbies interview.  He spoke of the "extreme jealousy" and how teachers would withhold teaching if they were afraid that the student would become better than the teacher.

Conclusion-- Learn R.H. alternate fingering.  

One can also see a direct correlation between the music being played and the banjos being played on.  Banjo technology matches the music and vice versa.  The music becomes sharper, faster and more complex, just like the banjos.  Think crude Boucher "tub" (not a well made re-pop) verses a Whyte Ladie.

BTW Lisa, I picked up on the term "tub" from my primary focus banjo era when I got into this (period correct for third generation).  I find it hilarious now as I did then.  I also think it a good way for me to say to myself  "shall I practice on the tub today?"  Seems less pretentious than "Early Banjo" and less syllables than "Minstrel Banjo."

Sorry about all the typos.

Well done Joel. I'm looking in the crack between 1st and 2nd generation. My particular fancy anyway.

Fantastic stuff Joel.  I was writing tidbits about generations 2-4, but mainly about 3 and 4 (my heroes) and Frank Converse (also a hero of mine... I plan on paying respects at his grave site sometime in the next few months).  I did have a comment mixed in there about how the Gen. 2 banjos were more evolved than the early tubs.  

I've got to say, as far as my interests are concerned, I've been really into the early minstrel period (1840s-1850s) but not so much into the Civil War or the rest of the '60s.  Oddly enough it was an interest in popular music during the Civil War that got me playing banjo in the first place.  Lately I've been really into the 1890s and the "4th generation" of banjo players, especially banjo playing during the Great War and English classic banjo playing.  As for the American stuff, I really like the 1890s and all the banjo clubs that were springing up.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program....."music in the cracks".

These pieces hit me as being such. On "Sugar in the Gourd" I use hybrid. The ascending arpeggios especially when skipping an adjacent string are so practical. The main figure works either way. In both pieces you see that fretted chord sequence in the 5th position. Sort of simple....works on fretted and fretless. Real clean on a fretted. "Excelsior Rondo" begs to be fingerstyle...and fretted ( I believe ) due to the nature of the high chords.


I don't mean to beat a dead horse here, but by 1868 there were fretless banjos that were evolved enough that those high chords in Excelsior Rondo wouldn't have been very difficult to play.  

I realize that. Here is a version on a high-ass action tack head.

The result is still better on a fretted. Certainly everyone was reaching for the best thing...better gear, better music.

As I say...possible, but not practical. John I would really love to see your playing experiments that help you draw your conclusions. 

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