Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Something of interest may be to create a list of "repro qualifiers"...traits that ensure some standard of what we look for in our little corner of the world. What makes a Minstrel Banjo "fit in"...? Is it some combination of materials, crafmanship, dimensions, and ..sound quality? Might be fun to agree on certain important qualities with a point given for each one, and some agreement that "8 out of 10" or whatever makes this an acceptable instrument for public representation of early banjo playing. Not that there will be "Minstrel police" out there, but it might create some cohesive set of values for our craft. At least talking about it may bring some surprising issues to light.    

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Interesting observation...I see it as a forward moving timeline, divided only in retrospect. Popular culture reacts to itself and moves ahead. Future generations are left to sort it out.   


Tim Twiss said:

Relatively speaking, the Minstrel (or Early) banjo developed and changed rapidly, both in style and construction. We are left to pick up the pieces quite some time later. Like our brothers in the guitar world, let's consider what it is like to chase the full development of an instrument, and an art form. The instrument (guitar) continued to evolve to meet the needs. There is still respect for the period performer, but that leaves no room for condemnation for innovators (and he is also called  the opposite) like Andres Segovia. He continued a pure art form, but also inspired innovation with the tools to express it. But perhaps we say, "the banjo is a folk instrument", of lower expectations. The same was said of the guitar.    
Rob, perhaps you could provide a little insight from the Classical world re: playing on period instruments, and then playing on more modern instruments...Baroque music on a Classical guitar etc. I would value your opinion, as well as conservative and liberal views within this community.
Big subject, Tim, one which has caused flame wars on other discussion groups. I'll try to simply state my position...

Baroque lute music sounds perfectly at home on a baroque lute. Likewise baroque guitar music on a baroque guitar. Neither sound at home on a classical guitar, but they can still sound good, just different. If I have a choice, would always opt for the original instrument...

Now, I'm not happy playing Buckley, Converse, et al, on a post-1900 banjo. It can sound good, but not right. I'm sure that if Converse had had a tubaphone banjo, he would have tailored his music to fit. In other words, he would have written different music. Having said that, at the end of the day it all comes down to a good performance, and that can convince me that any approach is worthwhile.
I second that emotion.

Rob MacKillop said:
 at the end of the day it all comes down to a good performance, and that can convince me that any approach is worthwhile.

Third. I am very like Rob in that I tend to enjoy playing the music of that particular banjo's period. Ashborn for the early stuff, Stewart for the 1880's, Essex for the '90's on up, etc. I sometimes actually have trouble playing anachronistic tunes (e.g., Briggs Jig on my 1920's Bacon). The tunes just 'sing out' on their 'proper' instrument...and in their 'proper' tuning.

It isn't that it can't be very nicely done...it can and is. I just would rather hear it on the type of instrument it was written for (and yes, I prefer to listen to 'original instrument' classical recordings like those of Trevor Pinnock).

I am not particularly sticky about gut strings. They're expensive and sometimes finicky. Quite frankly, most people could not distinguish between nylon/nylgut and gut without a very close inspection...certainly most could not hear the difference. Banjo heads is a whole 'nuther issue: I prefer hide...except for my clawhammer & bluegrass banjos (which are routinely played in the Nawth Alabama heat & humidity).


I hope you didn't use a bandsaw or tablesaw or electric drill when making that fine looking banjo of yours.  For me, if you are really gonna be authentic, then period woodworking techniques using period tools puts instruments at the highest level of authenticity (and kudos to George for this).  Of course, I am more of a woodworking reenactor than a CW reenactor, so take that with a grain of salt.  But the wood knows the difference, even if we don't, as my favorite woodworking quote testifies:


"[The wheelwright of old] had no band-saw (as now) to drive, with ruthless unintelligence, through every resistance. The timber was far from being a prey, a helpless victim, to a machine. Rather it would lend
its own subtle virtues to the man who knew how to humour it: with him, as with an understanding friend, it would co-operate."
--George Sturt, The Wheelwright's Shop (1923)

Silas Tackitt said:

Having a time reference helps.  I commenced learning minstrel banjo as an off shoot of my civil war reenacting.  So, my time frame is 1865 and earlier.  Fortunately for me, this captures the lion's share of the total minstrel period. 


My tackhead is something I made which I can also take into the field.  Neck is a Boucher style scroll.  Violin pegs.  Calf skin head.  Bent hoop.  Tail piece is a from a belt buckle known as a "Georgia frame buckle."  This buckle gives a real soldier's feel to the banjo and is noticed by other reenactors. 


As for strings, nothing but gut will suffice.  Nylon isn't perid.  There may be a similar sound, but if you're the one playing it and you're the one representing that this is the authentic sound, plastic strings are farb.  (It's like wearing period style underwear.  No one else my know your drawers are wool and go down to your ankles, but you do.) 

Hand sawed.  Hand shaped.  Hand sanded.  Many coats of linseed oil rubbed into the wood.  I had some tired arms from the regular and jig sawing.  A very raspy file was used to round the edges.  I used a hand held, electric drill with a bit and rat tale file to create the peg holes. The holes for the tacks were predrilled with a micro bit. 


I considered using a hand crank drill, but I didn't see how it would make that much difference in the finished product.  My holes weren't all that straight even with an electic drill.  That was okay with me.  I didn't want perfection.  A drill press, whether electric or cranked, would have given me perfect holes.  


My banjo puts out some decent sound, but I covet a better banjo.  (Who doesn't?)  It will likely be made by one of the usual suspects.  Many parts of it will be machine created.  Would that make it wrong to play a banjo if modern tools were used during any step of the creation process?  I think not. 

I should add that I used the data base for the dimensions of the neck.  I am very greatful for all the time and effort it took to create and maintain the database.  I examined many banjos before I settled on my models to recreate.  I even took a jpg photo of a Boucher scroll and taped it to my plank.  It wasn't a perfect replica.  Far from it, but it retains the basic shape I intended.  Being a little rough in appearance is what I expected.  I didn't need or want perfection.  It was a better first effort than I thought I could produce.


My requirements were : sturdy, but light weight ; no farb because it was going to be used at CW events ; and had to be a CW or prewar style.  I didn't do as good a job attaching the head to the neck as I had hoped.  I added some brass, slotted screws for reinforcement.  Had to go to an old time hardware store to find 'em. 

A man after my own heart.


I built my banjo closely following the dimensions in the database also.  Couldn't have done it without it.


Anyone interested in recreating an appropriate shop from the era should take a look at CF Martin's workbench and shop in the Martin factory museum.  CF Martin and Boucher were contemporaries with similar European training and background.  Boucher's personal shop could have looked something like this:



There's your loopholes!  With a big ol' sneer thrown in, no charge.


Silas, you should be congratulated for all the research and hard work you put into your banjo.  I could never pull something like that off.

Dan'l said:



Your comment: "Informing people that the head or strings doesn't even the playing field. It deprives the player of credibility."


On the other hand, explaining correct information is perfectly credible, and certainly no one here recommends passing on bogus information so I don't know what you mean on that one.  We're all concerned about the children, no? 


By now, SIlas, we totally get it that for the reenactor setting there is only one right way.  We totally get it that in that first-person setting you can't explain too much without breaking character. We get it that the gear has to be spot-on because it has to carry the message.  I'd say "stick to your guns" on that one.


I think we've about about covered reenacting.  We get that one. But there are many settings for MB, several of which don't even require period clothes, let alone strict reproductions. 

I agree with Carl.  I've made the neck on one banjo, and built my gourd from scratch.  It is a lot of work.  (Yes, I admit it, I used power tools on the necks). Silas, it's great to see you working at it. 



I think Dan'l brings up an important qualifier.  What about those of us (me included) that play in modern clothes and in modern locations far from historic settings?  


I think we can all agree that at the living history level we need to get as close to the original as possible.  But, if the sound is really close and the banjo looks pretty close in the modern setting then we must ask this question:  What is the goal?  IS the music the goal or is the banjo?  


If the banjo is the topic then 100% must be our goal.  If it is the music then the banjo can slip down the line a bit.  


Please remember my take.  When I play on my banjos I play on an instrument made without  power tools, modern paint or varnish, modern stains, or modern glues. I am a complete Luddite and a bit of a nut.  I am still OK with a non-period perfect banjo in a non-period setting IF music is really the focus of the performance.  We cannot let the love of material culture stand in the way of the understanding of musical culture when musical culture is the final goal.  That would be a false economy.  

By the same token, we cannot sacrifice material OR musical culture if we are involved in a holistic presentation that strives for a full-world view of a historical time period.  At a reenactment or living history presentation we strive to represent the "world" of the soldier or civilian as a snapshot in time.  In this case any detraction from presentation must be weighed against the overall good of the program.  


Here we fall into a deep trap.  Age, weight, race, speech patterns, hair style, and appropriate knowledge of occupation all play a role as much as material culture.  How far is far enough?  We cannot control everything perfectly so we must control what we can within reason.  This discussion is just one part of coming to grips with that reason.   

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