Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This weekend I had the good fortune to play with a group of mid-nineteenth century musicians at Mark Weems' house (his lovely wife Julee was out of town).  Mark had a brand new Ashborn reproduction fretted banjo which he let me play.  It was a very fine instrument.  Jim Pentecost was also there with a gorgeous newly acquired 1880's fretted banjo with square hooks and a rounded heel. I played that one too.  I had so much fun playing these that the next day I did something I almost never ever do.  I got out my circa 1885 Charles Dobson with the 11 and 1/2 inch skin head and gut strings and played it all afternoon.  I don't have anything against frets, it's just that I learned to play clawhammer fretless and very rarely play a fretted instrument.  I must admit it was so easy to play I somehow felt I was cheating.  Now this instrument was designed to be played with gut strings and is perfect for stroke style, but it was also meant to be played guitar style.  I feel I may be playing the old Dobson a lot more in the future.  It plays like "buttah."  Is this somehow cheating?  I hope not.  After all, all of Joe Ayers' first minstrel tapes were played on a modern fretted instrument.  Do any of you die hard fretless players have an opinion on this one way or the other? --Rob Morrison

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For what it is worth, the Dobson family taught stroke style and published music "to be played with a thimble." Both stroke and guitar styles were played on those banjos. Even the Acme trademark banjos sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co after the turn of the century were shipped with thimbles. The banjo historians of the 1990s and before downplayed thimble use as it reinforced the "elevating" concept.

I'd play a fretted more...if I had one.



Joel Hooks said:

For what it is worth, the Dobson family taught stroke style and published music "to be played with a thimble." Both stroke and guitar styles were played on those banjos. Even the Acme trademark banjos sold by Sears, Roebuck & Co after the turn of the century were shipped with thimbles. The banjo historians of the 1990s and before downplayed thimble use as it reinforced the "elevating" concept.  Joel-- Yeah and of course Henry Dobsdon started playing practically nothing but banjo style since that's about all there was when he started.  But I was really delighted how well my Dobson plays and sounds with the low tuning and gut strings.  It's a real joy.  I don't think one would have the same result with a Stewart banjo.  They are engineered differently.--Rob

Joel--Yeah and of course when Henry Dobson started playing he played in practically nothing but banjo style since that was about all there was when he began.  I was really delighted how well my Chas. Dobson banjo sounds and plays in the low minstrel tuning with gut strings.  It's a real joy. I don't think one would have the same success with an S. S. Stewart banjo.  They are engineered differently.--Rob

We'll all look forward to hearing lots of it at Antietam Rob! Much as I love my fretless instruments, there are lots of tunes (Dark Horse Reel is one in particular that springs to mind) that I'd much rather play on my old Peerless with frets. My intonation is SO much more reliable that way - especially on numbers where you find yourself up in 10th position.

Ian-- I'll certainly bring the Dobson to Antietam.  I do plan to be there.  My only worry is that the humidity will defeat the skin head like it did last year  In addition to playing with correct intonation it's also great in situations that require simple two or three note chord formations up the neck.--Rob

As a beginning banjo player, and a bit of a "lurker" on this site, I looked up this thread after signing up for Antietam '13.  I wondered what I would do there without a fretless banjo.  I guess I will not be as out of place as I thought.  Other than the fact that I cannot play banjo hardly at all, I mean.  All those years of guitar have ruined me.

Showing up with an open mind is the only criteria. Plenty of banjos to play, and lots of helpful folks. You won't regret it.

 

Well, being a Maryland local, with a lot of experience camping in heat and humidity, I'm tempted to bring a Gold Tone (fretted) with a carbon neck and a modern head.  Will that get me banished from the camp area?

I do have an old fretted Buckbee that I rarely play, but it's a great old banjo.

Seriously, I am really looking forward to it.  I have not really attempted to play any stroke- or Minstrel-style playing.  But I relish the opportunity to hear others play, see some great old banjos, and learn more history.

Thanks for the reply.

It's always more about the music you play than the instrument you have.

Mark--I'm still playing my fretted Dobson non-stop.  Stroke style or banjo style was certainly played on fretted instruments from as early as the 1860's, and there are many fretted instruments which work  very well for the early music.  Remember Joe Ayers' seminal recordings were done on a modern fretted banjo.--Rob

Mark, If you are concerned about showing up at Antietam without a fretless banjo, I can bring an extra gourd banjo or Frank Proffitt-style fretless for you to use for the weekend........but I am forgetful and will need to be reminded.

Also, it is likely that someone else will have a better option to offer.

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