Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

The Fred Kelly Freedom Fingerpick is my new favorite gizmo. I just can't keep a fingernail and when I can, it's jagged from wood working. That damages my gut strings. I never could get a brass thimble pick to stay on or feel right. Here's a photo of the Kelly pick. With some sanding to make it fit perfectly, and shortening the 'nail' area, it feels invisible and my notes are clear and consistent, and louder. There's a link on my site to a guy who sells them with 2 day delivery.

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There's a great clawhammer player named Reed Martin who also plays with very short nails and gets great tone.  However as far as I have seen this is the exception rather than the rule.  Everybody's different and the one thing I'm sure of is that there is no single best method.

I too am battling sore joints in my fingers, very painful sometimes, but the love of playing this style of music gives me the ability to try and overlook the discomfort sometimes.,and funny that you mentioned how the Thimble relieves some of the stress when playing the downward stroke style when playing. I did in fact notice there was less fatigue, did not think much about it until you mentioned it. 

In regards to historical accuracy, this is all new to me, I love the idea of emerging myself in this music and the whole feel of the 19th century in which this music came from.  Same with the CW reenacting. Only through my own interpretation can I try and approach it in the sensibilities of that time period. That was the attraction.  Now realizing that there are many gaps in the history which lends one to his or her open interpretation and approach is quiet alright. I'm sure after I have years of playing this music under my belt I may be less caught up in the spirit of the time and the music in which this style came from. For now it's new to me and very fresh. Love losing myself in the 19th century.


Greg Adams said:

Interesting discussion. Nice to see different positions and how people personalize their approach to this early banjo material. 

I have very good, strong fingernails that seldom break or split and as a guitarist and fingerstyle banjoist I use a combination of flesh and nail to pluck strings. However, I've grown accustomed to using a thimble, especially when I'm playing in a downstroke motion for many hours at a time. After using  downstroke techniques since 1994, I find that the thimble helps to focus my sound while also not overusing the joints in my right hand. As I get older I notice that the large joint of my index finger is more becomes more fatigued when I don't use a thimble. Thus, for me, the thimble helps mitigate the long term repetitive motion concerns I have (i.e., it is functional for my own long-term preservation).

Ultimately, to each his/her own. I do what works and what helps me communicate most effectively as a musician. I can interpret the music and primary source material in literal ways, but I also don't have a problem varying my approach with various forms of experimentation in order to personalize the experience to my own sensibilities and satisfaction. Regarding being historically informed about playing technique, the historical record has many gaps that require us to invent personal solutions where it is necessary. For myself, I try to be as intentional as possible. If I am deviating from literal interpretations of period documentation, I know the difference, and can easily explain it to people who might be concerned about how my practices align with period sources.

Have a great Mother's Day,


If I were playing often and trying to cut above a band in an unamplified Minstrel show in a hall, I would most likely use a thimble. Don't know about the casual players.....

If I used one ( and I DO have a Hooks Thimble ) it would be one of Joel's. They are really nice. And DO provide a brilliant tone.

I just enjoy the connection of only my hand, and the flexibility of switching styles quickly.


Some time ago, I decided to go from 'nail playing' to 'bare finger' for the fingerstyle "Classic-banjo". My nails are thin and weak and my index splits nastily in the winter months (regardless of how I care for it). Previously, I had basically evolved into using a 1/8" long exposed (white part) nail that suited each style I played (almost all of 'em). When I switched to 'bare finger' (no nail exposed at all), I worried that steel strings (for CH) might become a problem...they didn't. The 'all meat, no nail' treatment works fine.

My biggest problem is getting clear notes on nylon/gut when playing arpeggiated notes like those in Circus Jig, et al. I found that I really need a thimble to execute those cleanly and clearly. I don't have that problem with steel strings (and the same arpeggios)...it is just the way nylon/gut bounces off my finger that deadens or muddies those notes.

I have switched to fingerstyle on occasion without removing my thimble...it works fine but those notes really jump out (compared to bare finger) and I have to remember to make the mental switch to keep the "boooinnnngg" out.

My Ashborn has a very nice "thimble park" up in the peghead due to the geared tuners/slotted headstock. I simply tuck it under the strings in the treble slot. Shouldn't ever lose it!

Here (I hope, technology being what it is) is a pix of my right hand. the long nails are for brushing, the middle finger nail for rolling and for down stroke single notes and the index finger is for up picking. I have "developed" a four finger style, mostly index finger and brush or index and up-picking with the second finger. I've tried the brass thimble and like it for some tunes but for singing I prefer the quieter sound that naked fingers give.


Hey Tom....throw a video up. I'd like to see that in action.

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