Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I've just been re-reading Briggs' Banjo Instructor, in particular his comment that

''The performer, in playing the accompaniments of the Songs, can use either the banjo fingering, or map (?) the first, second and third strings with the first, second and third fingers of the right hand, as in playing the Guitar''

[aside: the word 'map' might be wrong - my copy is hard to read at this point]

Well, that seems fairly clear - when playing song accompaniments, you have option of using right-hand guitar technique. A few questions arise:

1. Why? The accompaniment parts could pretty much be played in regular stroke style.

2. Did died-in-the-wool stroke players really learn a new technique for song accompaniment?

3. Was there a bunch of guys playing minstrel solo repertoire in guitar style? Maybe their repertoire was mainly songs, but kept their technique for solos?

4. I can't quote chapter and verse, but I believe there was a style of up-picking used by African slaves. Maybe some of this technique survived in ‘guitar’ style?

5. When Converse writes music for guitar style, he includes some pieces which seem ideal stroke pieces – Gumbo Reel comes to mind – so is he saying it is OK to play banjo repertoire in guitar style?

There is quite a difference in sound and articulation between the two techniques, but there seems to have been some tolerance of overlapping, despite these differences. On a personal note, I’ve not spent much time with stroke style, and actually find things like fast triplets hard to do (they are!) but are easy in guitar style – so I could be accused of just searching for an excuse to play the stroke repertoire in guitar style. I’m probably guilty of that, but I’m also enjoying exploring stroke style and like its unique qualities. I’ve noticed Tim Twiss mixing the two quite deftly, and no-one has suggested banning him from this site (can’t imagine the place without his magnificent contributions!).

No final question, just an invitation for comments on the general question of stroke repertoire with guitar technique…


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1. My take is that chords (esp.) are not easy to make in the stroke style (without some sort of arpeggiation). Watch Carl play backup on some of the recent videos...that Bass/chord style is just too natural.

2. Well...everything was "new" then. Nobody around to tell 'em it was "wrong" or "not in the style".

3. No way to tell. We have no documentation of solos in the Guitar Style until Converse comes along. Still...it was recognized even early on. No doubt in *my* mind that there were people experimenting with it.

4. As I recall, there are still Akonting players who use a guitars style and that the two RH styles were/are concurrent. Greg will know.

5. Converse specifically broke out the Guitar Style to segregate it from the Stroke Style...I don't know what we can read from that. It appears to me that the Guitar Style "smoothed over" much of the characteristic "african" rhythms abundant in the Stroke Style; it allowed the banjoist to play in a much more western fashion and better articulate the western music which was more familiar to the white population. I suspect that in itself helped sell the banjo (as a fad instrument) to white players with newly found "spare time" and money.

Nobody is going to get expelled for playing Guitar style here...or Stroke Style over on the Classic list. The styles crossed over for many years, I see no reason for that not to happen here occasionally. Besides, Tim is just showing off. He plays for Metallica in the off season.
Rob, it's "snap".
Check out Greg's discussion from the 2006 gathering on "Vocal music and expanding the repertoire". http://www.milfordmusic.com/Banjo%20Clubhouse/Pages/greg_adams_lect...

By the way, have you looked at Howe's guitar tutor, or other period guitar material?
One more thought....I am guitarist that swtiched to banjo. That technique is a natural (guitar style). I'm certain there were many people like that back then who either switched over, or added banjo as a second instrument. For the broken chord accompaniment there is no question but to pluck fingerstyle. It is a bigger leap to claim it as a solo technique, as was found slightly later.
Maybe Charlie Converse had a big influence on his brother. I'd like to have been a fly on the wall for one of their discussions.
I started banjo by learning stroke style / clawhammer. I have a hard time now learning guitar style, it feels like I'm going against the grain.
All interesting replies. John, coming from a purely stroke/clawhammer background fears guitar style, while Tim from a guitar background shifts easily between the two. I think this is perfectly natural and was probably very common in the old days. There probably was a variety of ways of playing the core repertoire.

I think we must all agree that solos in guitar style were around before Converse made a feature of it. It's hard to argue that guitar style was 'less African' as many African players played in guitar style. But it is clear from Converse's perspective that guitar style both shared and expanded the repertoire, as some of his pieces are clearly old stroke style pieces in guitar technique, while some are decidedly more European (shall we say) than was normal for banjo repertoire at the time.

There is no doubt in my mind that stroke technique is the more suitable for much of the core solo repertoire, but that guitar style was probably also used for the same (solo) pieces from early on, and it has some legitimacy to play that way today. Having said that, I am exploring stroke technique and enjoying doing so.
I've just listened to Greg's discussion on Vocal Music and Expanding the Repertoire - very good. It brought to mind my research into the Scottish 'guittar' publications of the late 18th-century. Maybe I'll find time to expand some initial thoughts into an essay on the similarities between the guittar and banjo vocal accompaniments. The guittar, by the way, is often called the English Guitar, although the first publication for it was published in Edinburgh in 1758 and is full of traditional Scottish tunes. But that's another story. I think it might be worth looking into, however, as this guittar was apparently very popular in the East Coast USA in the early decades of the 19th century, and maybe we are assuming too much in thinking that guitar style refers to the classical guitar exclusively? I'll chew on that for a while and get back to you.
Thanks for the link to the book, Dan'l. Looks a good read, and does indeed mention the guittar, although it repeats a few old and tired theories about it.

One further observation about Briggs' first song, Annie Lawrie. Why does he say 'Tune third string to C'? From what follows, there seems no need to do so. Printing error? Or am I missing the obvious?
When page 31 says to turn the third string to C, I believe that the common interpretation is that you then tune the remaining strings accordingly (c-F-C-E-G) as is outlined on the previous page (30). I believe that one functional purpose for doing so considers the range of the male voice. As one who occasionally sings these songs, C major makes the tune much more accessible for me and my own vocal range.

Rob MacKillop said:
Thanks for the link to the book, Dan'l. Looks a good read, and does indeed mention the guittar, although it repeats a few old and tired theories about it.

One further observation about Briggs' first song, Annie Lawrie. Why does he say 'Tune third string to C'? From what follows, there seems no need to do so. Printing error? Or am I missing the obvious?
Of course, you are right, Greg. I should have realised. It is an interesting concept in itself, and raises a few question marks. For those without a copy to hand, this is what Briggs says (with my shorthand) on page 30, the page before Annie Lawrie:

To play in the Key of C and F, tune Third String to C
Ditto Key of Db and Cb, ditto Db
Ditto Eb and Ab, ditto Eb
Ditto E and A, ditto E
Ditto F and Bb, ditto F
Ditto D and G, ditto D
Ditto F# and B, ditto F#
Ditto Gb and Cb, ditto Gb

…The learner should frequently change the PITCH, in playing the foregoing pieces, and he will thus obtain a pleasing variety in the sound.

He also states that once we have tuned the third string to the new pitch, we must tune the other strings accordingly so that we end up with the same pitch intervals between the strings. In other words we have the same fingering as usual for the notes we see on the page, but the music comes out higher or lower.

Looked at a little closer, he is asking us to change all the strings from a tone below normal tuning up to a Major 3rd higher (D string up to F#/Gb) – now, with gut strings, this is quite a leap, not to mention the huge increase in tension on the skin. Would anyone here willingly tune a major 3rd higher on all the strings? Did no-one tell the guy about capos? They had been around for a long time before his publication. Maybe a capo wouldn’t work on a fretless fingerboard? The fact that he expects a gut string to rise by as much as a major 3rd gives some indication of how loose the strings must be at ‘normal’ pitch.

Anyway, that aside, he is asking us to do this on the ‘foregoing’ (preceding) pieces, in other words, the solos. Does anyone here do this? I remember Tim saying he tuned up from D to E and enjoyed doing so. Maybe we need to bring more variety of pitch into our performances of this music? Nylgut should make the job easier, but gut is more in keeping with Briggs’ sound world.

Regarding the songs…is he asking us to tune down a tone just for Annie Lawrie, or for all the songs. Looking ahead, four songs later (Wait For The Wagon) he again asks us to tune down a tone – so each time it is for a specific song. If he is asking us to do so because of the pitch range for singing, he must have a specific voice in mind. Surely it is up to the performer to take Briggs’ recommendation of varying overall pitches, to find a suitable pitch to match his/her voice? Or is it because these are ARRANGEMENTS FROM A PIANO/VOCAL SCORE – as Greg was suggesting we do to expand the repertoire? In which case he was maybe indicating the original published key.

The more we learn, the less we know…
I don’t have the Dobson brothers’ 1871 publication, but according to Weidlich, it does mention playing banjo-style pieces with guitar-style technique:

“…the same piece in many cases may be performed in either style” Modern Method, 1871

[If anyone has a pdf of this book, I would like to see it…]

The Dobson’s 1882 publication, Dobson’s Universal Banjo Instructor (four years before Converse’s Analytical, and available from www.ClassicBanjo.com) mentions only guitar style:

‘…the fingers should pick up the strings towards the palm of the hand’

Notably, the repertoire is still old-school: Cracovienne, jigs, clogs, reels, walk arounds, and a Foster song, ‘Way Down Upon The Swanee Ribber’.

It seems to me that as the two styles (stroke and guitar) existed side-by-side from as early as Briggs’ Instructor, there was inevitably a cross-over. Although Converse segregated the styles in his books, there are in fact pieces which do crossover, such as Foster’s Jig, marked ‘A-La Banjo’, which appears in the ‘guitar’ section of his Analytical (page 61).

It seems a legitimate practice to perform stroke-style pieces with guitar technique, although it works better with some pieces that others, especially if playing in an ensemble situation, where the percussive quality of the stroke technique is much more in keeping with the overall style. Something preying on my mind as I struggle to learn stroke style!

I know I'm commenting on a very old thread. That being said, after watching endless videos of people on this site, and people not on this site, but respected as period experts, I have to say that there obviously is a place for upstrokes. While the majority of minstrel music seems to follow the stroke style traditions, there was a lot of music being played during the antebellum period that was not "minstrel" music. 

Sure, Vince. This is indeed an old discussion, and I have refined my thoughts on it here:


Note especially Converse's version of "Brigg's Favorite Jig" which he writes out for fingerstyle playing. And his claim for fingerstyle that

"...This manner of fingering--as I learned in later years when visiting Southern plantations--was characteristic of the early colored player."

The polarity of stroke=African, fingerstyle=European, just doesn't stack up. Both techniques were around - fact. Do whatever floats your boat.

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