Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

How did we all end up playing in G/D and why do we do it????

Is this a "pot roast"??

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I think Briggs makes some interesting commentary on this subject at the bottom of this page:

You don't make existing inventory obsolete.

Ditson- "This new work is good Frank, but if we print this in these keys then what are we going to do with these stacks of Briggs books?"  You are going to stick us with inventory we cannot sell."

Converse- "But A is the proper key for the banjo-- it is progress."

Ditson- "Progress does not pay the bills.  Do you want this book published or not?  We can get someone else to write it"

Converse-  "We are tuning up-- A is best for the Banjo.  

Ditson- "We paid an advance for you to write the book we wanted.  You are not holding up your end of the deal."

Converse- "How about we add a section on playing in the keys that "Briggs" was in?"

Ditson- "I guess that will work.  If you want to keep writing for us you can't keep changing keys."

Converse- "I can't see it changing anymore. A is it.  Speaking of other books, I would like to pitch you some ideas on a couple of new book I am working on."

This dramatization brought to you by The New Hooks Electric Banjo Thimbles-- "Always play with protection!"

Kidding aside, these guys really were in it for the money.

There are tunes both in Buckley and in Rice that are in D/G, they may be legacy, i.e. older tunes, but they are there. I would suggest looking in Howe's Musician's Companion.  There are versions from the 1840s-1850s.

By the way, Howe' New Violin Without a Master (1863) has the majority of its tunes in Bb, F, C, G, and D.  There are a few in A.

Al Baur was specific that the stuff in the back of the Buckley book was violin music.  "Filler" if you will.  D is the third "natural key" of A notation.  Not hard to play once you get the hang of it.  But in this case it was filler.


John Masciale said:

There are tunes both in Buckley and in Rice that are in D/G, they may be legacy, i.e. older tunes, but they are there. I would suggest looking in Howe's Musician's Companion.  There are versions from the 1840s-1850s.

So, you are a banjo player, and you know everything in A/E, and you are now playing with a group of people. Your fiddler knows everything in D/G. What do you do, make the fiddler tune up, or do you tune down?

The banjo is actually about as pure a "folk" instrument as there is. It has been played continuously by common people (not professional stage musicians up North) for dances, parties, and pleasure in this country since at least the early 1700's. What is more "folk" than that? If there is a fad to be noted here, it was in turning a buck on the minstrel stage.

Joel Hooks said:

There was never any question about the legitimacy of them Mark, but what professionals used is important because they were the driving motive for banjo to be played in the first place.

A big part of my occupation is watching trends in the craft market.  There has to be a motivation for a product.  With popular music it is the celebrity musicians that drive sales of instruments.  Take guitars-- Guitar Center is covered with inventory of imitation "signature" guitars.  Look at the increase in banjo sales when Mumford and Sons used one!

It would be nice if the banjo was a "folk" instrument, but it's status as a well documented fad both in popular music as well as the fad of the 80s and 90s shoots holes through the folk theory.  

Those Boucher model banjos vanish from photos right when the banjo takes off and are replaced with cheap imitations of "New York" pattern banjos (see the photo of Converse and Peel, Snodgrass, or pretty much any other photo in the collection I posted for New York banjos by Jimmy Clarke, etc.).  The infamous "Buckbee" banjos were cheap versions of these.

We are attracted to a hobby for whatever reason.  I am not discrediting Boucher model banjos-- But I do stand behind my reasoning that they are a reenactorisim (and also that the originals were terrible-- the reproductions are a thousand times better).  Bringing up the very rare images of people holding Boucher banjos is the exception that proves the rule.  There as been as a narrow focus on them and great pains have been taken to find those photos-- forest for the trees so to speak.

The reason why the Bouchers are available is because people will buy them.  If people wanted copies of New York banjos that is what would be made.  Terry can make them-- he made me one.


First, I'd slide my bridge down several inches if possible, to minimize the retuning.  That's assuming i'm on a fretless.  I would not expect the fiddler to tune up like that.


John Masciale said:

So, you are a banjo player, and you know everything in A/E, and you are now playing with a group of people. Your fiddler knows everything in D/G. What do you do, make the fiddler tune up, or do you tune down?

John, that is a good question. I don't know. Converse, as a accomplished violinist, must have had a plan.
Mark, I did not know that the five string banjo in the form we know of today was common in the 1700.

I would be afraid to attempt to tune up a whole step for my sake and the violin's.  Besides that re-tuning a fiddle is a supreme pain!   ....one reason I've never been interested in optional tuning methods.

Mark, I completely agree with your observation and would add that many, in the best folk instrument tradition, had home made instruments, often self-made, until Sweeney popularized the 5 string style that has pretty well dominated ever since.

Mark Weems said:

The banjo is actually about as pure a "folk" instrument as there is. It has been played continuously by common people (not professional stage musicians up North) for dances, parties, and pleasure in this country since at least the early 1700's. What is more "folk" than that? If there is a fad to be noted here, it was in turning a buck on the minstrel stage.

Joel Hooks said:

There was never any question about the legitimacy of them Mark, but what professionals used is important because they were the driving motive for banjo to be played in the first place.

A big part of my occupation is watching trends in the craft market.  There has to be a motivation for a product.  With popular music it is the celebrity musicians that drive sales of instruments.  Take guitars-- Guitar Center is covered with inventory of imitation "signature" guitars.  Look at the increase in banjo sales when Mumford and Sons used one!

It would be nice if the banjo was a "folk" instrument, but it's status as a well documented fad both in popular music as well as the fad of the 80s and 90s shoots holes through the folk theory.  

Those Boucher model banjos vanish from photos right when the banjo takes off and are replaced with cheap imitations of "New York" pattern banjos (see the photo of Converse and Peel, Snodgrass, or pretty much any other photo in the collection I posted for New York banjos by Jimmy Clarke, etc.).  The infamous "Buckbee" banjos were cheap versions of these.

We are attracted to a hobby for whatever reason.  I am not discrediting Boucher model banjos-- But I do stand behind my reasoning that they are a reenactorisim (and also that the originals were terrible-- the reproductions are a thousand times better).  Bringing up the very rare images of people holding Boucher banjos is the exception that proves the rule.  There as been as a narrow focus on them and great pains have been taken to find those photos-- forest for the trees so to speak.

The reason why the Bouchers are available is because people will buy them.  If people wanted copies of New York banjos that is what would be made.  Terry can make them-- he made me one.

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