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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It's hard for me to say.  I'll hear some fiddler at a little distance from me playing a tune at their campsite, and I'll guess it's in G or D because of the 'mood character' of the tune.  G usually is so cheerful and resolved for example, as opposed to A tunes which usually sound more thoughtful and guarded, a little edgy.  But then I can't be so sure whether it's the key or the tune itself that is expressing the mood.  ...Or maybe that's the same thing that they are referring to, in either case?  

I think for the most part it is the intrinsic quality of the instrument ....via the open strings to use, tension,  and resonating quality of whatever chamber is reflecting the sound.

Now that I have offered up my theories (that seem to be somewhat unpopular), I will offer a bit or evidence to support an argument of the Briggs pitch used later.

The following is a page from the scan of "The Banjo Made Easy" by Frank Converse published by Hamilton Gordon, 1893.  It can be downloaded complete here.

http://contentdm6.hamilton.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/spe-ba...

This note was hand written in the back.  What it shows is that as late as 1893 the idea of retuning to play in different keys (at least in the hands of the owner of this book and perhaps their teacher).  Note that "Briggs' G," "A notation" and the most common at the time "C" is covered.

The book is in "A notation" as was just about all banjo instruction books published  between 1858 and 1908 in the US (and that covers more than 200!).

That's cool Joel, thanks for posting that. Was it you who once said that Westin tuned to Bb?
Tim, I think the realization that F and Bb scales on the Fiddle both can use open strings help get my head wrapped around those keys a bit. Perhaps that they fall differently in the scale helps shape the sound.

Joel- those hand notes on the back of that book-  On the top the person wrote "Play as if written in the key of A"....so am I correct in thinking?- this person was using the same Briggs and Rice tuning intervals and simply tuning the whole thing up first a step and a half from key of G to Bb, then further up another whole step to C...with their purpose being able to play in all those keys while using the same fingering as they do when tuned to Briggs key of G or Rice key of A?  (Sort of the same method that a capo would apply)  If so, then we are talking about tuning two and a half steps up from G...that's a pretty large amount to tune up without either moving the bridge as well, or breaking a gut string.  Thoughts?

It seems obvious the intervals remain the same. Man, we need to clarify "pitch" and "tuning". It is perpetually misunderstood.

I've been bringing up the difference between how the banjo player can favor remaining in basically the same tuning (intervals) while just cranking everything up and down for different keys while using the same fingering....as compared to the standard tuned fiddle which often does the opposite: stays in the very same tuning without cranking up and down, and plays in different keys by using completely different fingering for each key.

Yes...so it changes "Pitch". Many here get confused however.

Right, that is why I always use "pitch."  The "old time" tradition of scordatura seems to have originated with wire strings in the 1920s or 1930s so if one uses the word "tuning" it causes confusion.

Lisa, yes,correct.  During the popular banjo "fad" that lasted from the late 1870s to just past 1900 most music for the banjo was published in just two keys and their relative minors.  Those keys are A and E+D.

While the notation was printed in A, by 1882 it was common to pitch banjos in C (fourth string + the same intervals) like todays "concert pitch."  One still reads in A, but the sound that came from the banjo was in C.

Banjo music was (is) fun and easy to read. When the "orchestra" (really clubs) came along in the early 1890s the music for every instrument was read and fingered like you were playing a regular banjo.  That way anyone could play the Banjeaurine, first, second, piccolo or bass part. 

It was easy and fun (sorry to repeat myself, but that was important).  It was social.  And that was why it was a popular pastime all over the US.

I would love to be able to connect with a few banjoists locally that could read this stuff.  It is one of the reasons I now live for the ABF rallies.  We can sit down, throw a fairly easy piece up on the music stand and after 15 minutes or so be playing a duet.  It is amazing to sit in a room where we all "speak the same language." 

Sadly, the whole "ear" thing has demonized reading.  It has gotten so bad that important people to the banjo world will straight up lie and say that the banjo cannot be noted on paper.  

Why would any teacher of any subject say that reading is a bad idea?  Yet that is exactly what is going on with the banjo today.

I wonder how much the "pitch" was relevant then....in 1858. Reading in G/D with one and two sharps is actually easier. Even if you changed the "pitch" to A/E, it seemed a deliberate effort to actually bring it up a whole step. Why not just continue with the familiar tuning of G/D and stress the flexibility of changing pitch? This was the mystery and original intent of the post. The trend seemed to be deliberate....TUNE UP TO THE PITCH OF "E/A" There must be something to it. I believe it is related to the functionality of the instrument as it related to the changing styles.

Sadly, the whole "ear" thing has demonized reading.  It has gotten so bad that important people to the banjo world will straight up lie and say that the banjo cannot be noted on paper.  

Why would any teacher of any subject say that reading is a bad idea?  Yet that is exactly what is going on with the banjo today.

Hi Joel...There will always be music teachers in favor of learning by ear and teachers in favor of learning from written notation or from tab etc.  We can't (and maybe shouldn't) change that.  I feel there is no single 'best/right' way to teach playing an instrument since people are all so different and music is such a diverse and personal thing.  I've not heard this lying you refer to, but there are multiple learning approaches 'going on with the banjo today'.  
Every banjo teacher I know (including some 'important' ones) has their own custom approach to teaching.  Some use paper, some prefer to teach by ear, many do both.  Many teachers are out there trying to make a living, doing gigs, selling cds and tab books, giving lessons.  Lots of these people are not music teachers with degrees, but simply good players who give lessons for extra money because someone liked their playing and asked them for help.  Some of them don't read music, but maybe they can read tab...in any case they are good players nonetheless, and some of them are wonderful teachers.  (still others are good players but lousy teachers...lol)
    Because there is nowadays such an abundance of workshop/teaching music camps and courses featuring multiple teachers and approaches, I believe most students who seriously explore the banjo will fairly quickly gravitate towards the teachers they can relate to, teachers and mentors who present a learning style that is a good fit for them.  I've seen a whole lot of that going on during the past 20 years or so.

Tim, I agree.  I suspect it was more a matter of simply 'raise the pitch' than any effort to enjoy a different 'key mood'...at least on the banjo player's part.  The real criteria however were the practical needs in terms of playing with other people- fiddlers, guitars, voice, etc.  Banjo is not just a solo instrument.

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