Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Here is a total newbie question from a guy who is still building his first minstrel banjo and has only had a four string Vega plectrum banjo from the '20s to fool around with until my banjo is done (any day now, I hope!). Hope this isn't too stupid a question!

I am trying to reconcile two conflicting bits of information about the role of chords. The first is Bob Winans' comment in his "The Folk, the Stage, and the Five-String Banjo in the Nineteenth Century" that "Minstrel banjo style involves no chords. It is strictly a succession of single notes."

The other comes from Bob Flesher's "Learning Minstrel Banjo," wherein the first thing he teaches you on the left hand is various chords and states that "The minstrels did not hold complicated chords because the banjos were fretless," but the chords he shows us "are the necessary chords required to play most any song."

The tunes in the Flesher book do not seem to involve the use of chords (as in strumming a chord on the guitar). Are these chords then more like left hand finger positions? Does the left hand spend most of its time in one chord or another while the right hand is playing single notes of that chord? That seems to reconcile these two conflicting sounding comments.

Basically, I'm trying to figure out what my left hand is supposed to be doing!


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My advice is to keep it simple. If you are playing an arpeggio that is built out of a chord, I find it easier to finger the chord rather than to finger the individual notes, especially if you are coming back to them. There is another advantage to fingering the chords, which is that the sympathetic vibrations coming from the other strings make a more pleasing sound, however faint it may be. This doesn't work if there are quick changes in a chord progression. Do what makes sense.
Yes, the chord positions are generally simply spots to keep your fingers in handy positions, ready to do something. It helps a lot to know these chordal positions and to work out of them...even though you are really just playing individual notes rather than several at a time. OTOH, sometimes this gets in the way, esp. if the chord progression moves quickly or if there is a ascending or descending run.

Basic "first position" tunes can be played (substantially) without ever moving your hand (just your fingers) and if you have a good feel for those chord positions to start with, the notes you need will be there.

John's got it right. Do what makes sense. Keep it simple!

Well, this is an interesting question.

I don’t know Mr. Flesher’s book. I have focused on period tutors rather than modern books. When I first read Mr. Winans' article 25 years ago, I was troubled by this part of his description of the style (that is, that there are no chords in minstrel banjo style). You don’t have to look very far to actually find chords, to be sure.

I have since come to realize that the issue is not cut and dried. The trouble with Winans' description is that it seems definitive. The full answer is rather complicated.

For my part, I’ll give both a short answer and a longer, more detailed answer.

The short answer:

I agree with Flesher. There certainly are chords (simultaneous sounding pitches) in the style though the majority of the early pieces don’t have them. On the other hand, most of the repertoire is chord based -- having broken chords, arpeggios, chord-based melodies etc.

Good technique dictates the use of left hand chord positions both to facilitate an efficient technique and to provide the most resonant effects. John’s comment about sympathetic vibrations speaks to this point as well.

There are a few simple chord positions in Converse’s Instructor (1865) which are a good start. Of course, whatever chords are in the Flesher book will serve the same purpose.

Another point, that would take too long to explain fully: My experience playing (banjo and other instruments in several quite varied styles) and my years as a conservatory music theory professor have taught me that chords are essential (much more useful than scales) for a deep understanding of style -- many different styles as diverse as Bach fugues and minstrel banjo tunes.

Chords in Minstrel Banjo

I’ll limit my discussion to these tutors published from 1855 to 1865:

Briggs’ Banjo Instructor, 1855
Phil. Rice’s Method for the Banjo, 1858
Buckley’s New Banjo Book, 1860
Frank B. Converse’s Banjo Instructor, 1865
Frank B. Converse’s Method for the Banjo, 1865

When I use the term “chord,” I’ll be referring to the simultaneous sounding of the pitches. Otherwise I’ll use “broken chord” or “arpeggio.”
The earliest book here is the Briggs. He actually introduces chord playing technique on page 10 (downstroke with the index fingernail and upstroke with the thumbnail). The first five tunes in the book all contain chords. Overall 34% of the tunes in the book use chords. The total will be much higher if broken chords or arpeggios are counted. Pieces such as Briggs’ Reel, Philadelphia Reel, Hard Times etc. are examples of this type.
In the Rice book, chords are introduced in the “eighth lesson” (3rd section of Hurrah for Hard Times) on p. 18. There are fewer examples of chords than in Briggs.
In the 1860 Buckley book, 15% of the tunes use chords. Interestingly (and perhaps Winans observed this as well), most of the tunes that use chords are waltzes, marches, polkas etc. and not “core repertoire banjo pieces.” There is only one jig (Doctor Hecock’s Jig) that has even simple two note chords or double stops in it.
Perhaps the most significant discussion of chords comes in the Converse Instructor of 1865. Converse, arguably the master pedagogue of the group, actually defines left hand technique by the use of chords.

On p. 15 he describes The Five Principal Positions, which are actually chords:
#1 (which he calls “natural position”) is an A major chord (highest note C#)
#2 is D major
#3 is D major (barre chord)
#4 is E major (barre chord -- same as #3 a step higher)
#5 is A major (highest note A)
These are, of course, I, IV, and V in the key of A major.

As he works through the tunes in the book, describing the techniques a measure at a time, he has the student hold one of the positions (chord fingerings) and sound the needed pitches with the right hand.

Think of this as playing the tunes from chord positions. If you learn to play this way, you’ll have a very efficient left hand technique. This type of playing applies to most of the repertoire.

In Converse’s Method, his other 1865 book, he defines chords on p.9 and describes both “harp chords” and barre chords as being “used in both Banjo [read: ‘stroke’] and Guitar [‘picking’] styles.”


Another interesting observation:

Though Converse advocates playing from chord positions and uses many broken chords and arpeggiations, there are actually relatively few actual simultaneous sounding chords in the tunes in these two books.

It might be fruitful to note that several of the tunes containing chords are attributed to or in some way connected to specific players:

Luke West’s Walk Around (Method p. 20 and another version on p. 61)

Matt Peel’s Walk Around (Method p.58)
Luke West’s Walk Around (Instructor p. 45 is a variant of Peel’s, strangely enough)
There is another version of this tune in Rice (p. 64) simply called Walk Around. F. B. Converse listed as arranger.

Briggs' Jig Varied (Method p. 64)

My speculation, based on this info and the number of pieces with chords in the Briggs book:

Players who incorporated simultaneous sounding chords as a regular feature of their playing included Tom Briggs, Matt Peel and Luke West.

That was a scholarly answer. So did chords creep in with frets? It would kind of make sense, and yet I'm presently playing a Converse tune from 1880 that is loaded with chords (Hallelu Band). To play with the piano part he tells you to use a C tuning. I know that in 1880 they were making both fretless and fretted banjos. I have to wonder first if the C tuning he is talking about would be the modern C tuning, or something different, and secondly, if the piece were intended for a fretted banjo. Converse specifically tells us that the older style of playing is called for in the piece.

I think that more complex chords came in with frets.

Of course "fret" meant two different things in the 19th century.

Sometimes it meant raised frets but sometimes it meant markers inlaid level with the fingerboard.

In his Instructor of 1865, Converse says "Raised frets on a Banjo interfere with rapid execution. it is much better to have narrow strips of veneering inlaid across the finger board at the proper distances apart. For convenience, the term "Fret" will be used throughout this work."

This especially facilitated chords higher up the neck.

In De Hal-le-lu Band, I am certain that Converse meant the modern C tuning. This was already being called for in some books in the '80s. It became the new standard, even though the notation didn't change to reflect that until early in the 20th century (I don't recall the date.)
So then my question is, if this is a modern tuning, were the strings gut or metal? I'd be afraid of trying to take my gut strings up that high (they cost plenty!). Would we go to a lower diameter string?
all Dan'ls suggestions are good.


It could be a good reason to get another banjo -- ultimately one for each tuning...

Jim Dalton

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