Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I'm looking for some advice on the issues of playing minstrel banjo in humid regions.  This weekend I went to a reenactment in the Texas Gulf area.  I brought one of my minstrel banjos along to play for the group.  I was only able to play a few tunes before the head on my banjo sagged too much to be playable.  I know this issue has probably been discussed before but can anyone give me some advice on how to get around in humid conditions and still be able to play a minstrel banjo?

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Bo--

I live in cental North Carolina and, at least in the summer, I have the same problem. The obvious answer is a Fiberskyn banjo head, but I hate to do that. I have two things I do to tighten up the saggy heads. Firstly I bring along a hair dryer and look for an electrical outlet. I can usually find one, even at historic sites. If the sun is out, I prop the banjo up in a chair and face it toward the sun. This usually will do the trick in ten minutes or less. Of course if it's raining you're out of luck. In that case, just go indoors. Good luck.

Rob Morrison
What style of banjo? What kind of head are you using?

Goat will be more affected than others. I've heard folks complain about this. I live in Carrollton, TX- north of Dallas, and I've played under cover during rain, and just a little while ago I was playing in fog. While my tub was affected slightly, it was still very loud and clear.

Same goes for my regulation banjos.

At the gathering I noticed one gentleman using a hairdryer on his 'jo, but all others seemed to be O.K. including my Flesher kit and my new Wunderlich. It was raining yesterday and I was playing the latter on my porch.

Some heads maybe affected more.

I also wonder if it is screw-bracket vs. tackhead?
Easy solutions are to carry bridges of various heights and swap in a taller one as the head sags. Also, adjusting the bridge closer to the neck where the skin will be tighter ... This will of course adjust your fingering but not so wildly that you can't find positions easily enough.

Hope that helps.
Camp fires, oil lamps, sunlight and even multiple candles have worked for me when in the field. At home in the winter months, I roast it for a moment or two over the electric stove when necessary. Letting it sit near a heating vent also helps. Seattle is damp in the fall, winter and early spring.

- Silas
Gentlemen, First let me thank you all for your advice. To add a little more background the head is goat skin with Boucher style hardware. I did tighten it about as far as it would go. I must add I made the banjo and didn't do anything special to the head when I made it. I have read an article from Bob Flesher suggesting rubbing egg whites on both sides of the head to water-proof it, maybe I will give that a try.

I think in the future I will try using a lamp or a hair dryer as some of you have suggested.
Thank you again,
Bo
When you mounted the head did you let it dry with the hoop high, then over a few days take it down to where you want it?  I could be that you did not get the stretch out of it.  Could be that you got a bad head.  

I like Bill Miller's heads.

I think George uses slunk skins, if so, the one on the banjo I got from him is very good.

I'd not waste my time smearing various preparations on the skin, with a tension hoop and hooks, I would just mount a calf head.

Bo said:
Gentlemen, First let me thank you all for your advice. To add a little more background the head is goat skin with Boucher style hardware. I did tighten it about as far as it would go. I must add I made the banjo and didn't do anything special to the head when I made it. I have read an article from Bob Flesher suggesting rubbing egg whites on both sides of the head to water-proof it, maybe I will give that a try. I think in the future I will try using a lamp or a hair dryer as some of you have suggested.
Thank you again,
Bo
Be careful tightening up a "soggy head", it could result in a busted head when it does dry up. Campfires and candles are your banjos best friend at damp reenactments. When I used to play on the Minstrel Stage I was constantly hovering my banjo over an oil lamp. (Not whilst playing of course). I have had tack heads go so slack in the rain that I have found myself on a dark path back to camp furiously looking for my bridge that had fallen out. Not much fun in driving rain+mud, but authentic to be sure.

Thanks for the advice. I think made the first mistake when I tightened the hoop too low on the rim in the initial set up. It probably didn't help that it goat skin. I may go ahead and change it out to calf skin.
deuceswilde said:
When you mounted the head did you let it dry with the hoop high, then over a few days take it down to where you want it?  I could be that you did not get the stretch out of it.  Could be that you got a bad head.  

I like Bill Miller's heads.

I think George uses slunk skins, if so, the one on the banjo I got from him is very good.

I'd not waste my time smearing various preparations on the skin, with a tension hoop and hooks, I would just mount a calf head.

Bo said:
Gentlemen, First let me thank you all for your advice. To add a little more background the head is goat skin with Boucher style hardware. I did tighten it about as far as it would go. I must add I made the banjo and didn't do anything special to the head when I made it. I have read an article from Bob Flesher suggesting rubbing egg whites on both sides of the head to water-proof it, maybe I will give that a try. I think in the future I will try using a lamp or a hair dryer as some of you have suggested.
Thank you again,
Bo
the music and the content are primary

Yes. I'd rather be playing good music, however I add that I am not a reenactor.
You can bet that if we time travelled, those guys would jump all over a stable instrument.
I like your suggestion. I think I will try that on the banjo I made and keep my Flesher Boucher natural.

Once again thanks to all of you that have responded with advice.

This is a follow-up to the discussion on playing in soggy conditions.

 

This weekend I played at an outdoor event at Bennett Place in Durham NC.  Knowing that there was a possibility of rain I thought I'd conduct a simple experiment.  I brought along three banjos, one with a transparent skin head, one with a translucent skin head, and one with an opaque skin head. 

 

All three banjos were laid out on a table, exposed to the air, but were well under cover.  I alternated banjos in my presentations and performances.  All was well for the first few hours, but eventually it began to drizzle on and off.  There never was a proper rain, just drizzle, and the banjos were all dry as a bone.

 

After an hour or two the banjos with the transparent and translucent heads had become completely unplayable, the heads having more or less collapsed.  I continued to play the banjo with the opaque head for the duration of the event, with no problem whatsoever.  It played and sounded great.

 

When I returned home I removed the "thin skinned" banjos from their cases and placed them on chairs.  Within an hour or two both were back to normal with no treatment other than placing them back in a dry environment.

 

For me the moral of this story isn't necessarily that everybody should have a thick-skin head, but rather that thin skinned heads are probably not the best choice for rainy conditions.  The thinner skins definitely provide a clear, crisp sound and are fine for play in most conditions.  Just don't expect much if it's going to rain.

Two or three years ago, I wanted to go see Bob Carlin at the Cumberland County Public Library over in Fayetteville, NC. I had learned to play clawhammer from his early instructional videos and was thrilled that he was doing a banjo demonstration so close to me. He was plugging that From Mali to America CD.

 

The sky was looking ominous, but at the last minute I decided to go anyway. Ravenous, I went through a drive-thru at a burger joint and got this awesome mushroom swiss burger that I nearly inhaled on the way to Fayetteville.

 

By the time I reached the library, it was pouring down rain and I wanted to go home, but that burger had turned on me, totally upset my stomach, and I got out and crossed a parking lot ankle-deep in water just to get to the bathroom inside.

 

When I found the men's restroom and went inside, there was Bob Carlin holding his skin-head minstrel banjo up to the hand dryer trying to dry it out enough to play. We spoke. The dryer ran through at least three cycles before he quit and left. 

 

I did get out of the bathroom in time to hear most of his presentation, and when he got around to playing that particular banjo during his talk, it was again pretty dull, but the music came across.

 

That doesn't help, I know, but it's how I met Bob Carlin.

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