Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hello folks,

Im new to the site and the Banjo.

Ive been reenacting for years and have recently become interested in playing the early Banjo.

Can some of you please give me some imput on geting started? I have found a guy here in town that is a great claw hammer player and I hope to start taking lessons in the next couple of weeks. My bigest question would be what kind of Banjo should I be looking for to start out with? 4 string?  5 string? frets? No Frets? I understand most of the period Banjo's would not have frets, Im asking wha kind of Banjo should a beginner start out with, the end goal to play claw hammer style and period music?

Thanks from East Tennessee!

John McClellan



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Welcome to Minstrel Banjo. What era are you reenacting? There are differences in banjos as they evolved from gourd bodies in the 18 & early 19th centuries, into wooden hoops before the Civil War. String numbers are a variable, too. Modern 4 string banjos are generally either tenor or plectrum models, mostly used in Dixieland Jazz styles of the early 20th century, or celtic music. Clawhammer is a mostly 20th century style that evolved (probably) from the earlier stroke style of playing. Clawhammer  style is usually played on banjos with four long strings, and one short string.  Earlier banjos may have had various numbers of strings. Some evidence says that the 4th long string was added by Joel Walker Sweeney in the 1850's. However, prior to that many people made their own banjos from whatever was at hand, and with as many strings as they may have seen fit to play. There were many people making home made banjos well into the 20th century, and some folks are still doing it themselves.  Frets are most likely post Civil War, probably 1870's. 


Eric Prust in Washington state makes a great starter banjo for a reasonable price, I'd reccomend one of his if you are just starting out. Best thing to do is get yourself a couple of period books (check out site member and early Banjo mahatma Tim Twiss' website "The Banjo Clubhouse" for some nice resources). Most importantly, seek out other players at events, attend the American Early Banjo Gathering in Sharpsburg this summer if you can, this community is all about learning from and teaching to one another. Best of luck!


Looking at your picture, John, I am wondering if you are doing a civilian impression? If so, the problems of carrying a banjo during campaigns is not really an issue. As a civilian, you can explain the banjo easily enough. If your era is at least 1860, you can pretty well get away with most any simple style of open back 5 string banjo. It's really the earlier periods that will restrict your choices, which is why I asked what period you are reenacting.


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