Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I play standard clawhammer banjo but I'm interested in exploring the roots of banjo - ie: minstrel banjo.  But, the thought of a fretless, partial fretless or even fretless with markers scares me.  Does a banjo HAVE to be fretless to be considered a true "Minstrel" banjo?

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I'll let others respond to your question but...... have you given it a try?  If not, it might not be as difficult as it seems.

You'll be fine. If you've been playing on a fretted rig for a while you already know where everything is. I did the same and with some tabs and youtube vids I was on my way. I do believe there were fretted minstrel banjos at some point but I agree with Al, it might not be as hard as it seems. 

Thanks for the encouragement!  

I had not played any type of banjo prior to getting involved with a fretless one. Like Chris said, with some tabs and some videos I think I picked it up fairly quickly.

If you stick with it for a few weeks, you'll be fine.  Don't expect instant ease. At first it's kinds scary, like a bicycle with no more training wheels.  Later you wonder why you waited so long.  After a couple years, you grab either your fretted or fretless banjo and sometimes you don't even think about it much at all.

Playing this genre of music on a fretless banjo is freeing  -it's part of the texture, immersion, and fun of it.

Thanks for all the positive comments.  My fretless anxiety has been diminished considerably.  But, the basic question remains...  Does a banjo HAVE TO BE fretless to be considered a minstrel banjo?  ie:  Is a minstrel banjo fretless by definition?


I'm certain this has been addressed before but can someone remind me when frets on banjos became not uncommon......a rather awkward way to put it but....

Al, common= early 1880s.  Very uncommon but did exist mid 1850s.

That said, it's not all just about frets vs. no frets.  IF being 'authentic' is part of your goal, it would for example look out of place to be playing a 1901 Fairbanks Whyte Laydie style fretted banjo in a Civil War historic enactment setting.

I, too, was unsure about when banjos became fretted.  It seems to me that if guitars and mandolins were fretted during the Minstrel era then at least some banjos would have been fretted as well.  Strumelia is correct in saying that a 1900 Fairbanks would not properly represent a Civil War era instrument.  However, if Minstrelsy continued into the early 1900's (as indicated by the Encyclopedia Britanica), then it seems reasonable to believe that fretted banjos could well have been utilized in minstrel music.  

Well heck, you can find old movies and even some old TV variety shows with minstrel music and minstrel songs being played on (fretted) tenor jazz and also plectrum banjos. People also play minstrel music today, on whatever banjos they choose to.  ...does that all count as 'being utilized in minstrel music" as well ?  Is there a specific date cutoff point to be considered when discussing/defining the period of 'minstrel music' and the banjos it was/is played on?

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