Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Shedding light on the beginnings of fingerstyle banjo and other topics

I was reading through the Gatcomb's Gazette editions that Joel Hooks kindly uploaded, and in Volume 7 No. 3 the opening article titled "Old-Time Banjoists" provides a lot of information that is very relevant to this forum and could shed light on a number of topics discussed here including the beginnings of fingerstyle banjo.  Here's a link:


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Thanks for directing attention to that portion. Stroke is specific, and not that easy. I recall exactly the sentiment expressed here....give it up and play it like a guitar.

The date is significant......that by the 1850's awareness and experimentation  with "harmony" was gaining an awareness. This translates ( to me ) something beyond a monophonic line and the beginnings of stacking notes vertically.

Earl Pierce? I have to look further. I have not heard him mentioned before.

Exactly, the 1850's date given supports what you've been hypothesizing.  It even suggests that Frank Converse was playing guitar style that early, well before the 1860 Buckley tutor.  Interesting stuff.

There aren't that many different ways to make a string sound...pluck up, strike down, brush accross.  Calling up picking 'guitar style' would probably be only natural for people who were already familiar with seeing or using up picking on guitars.

Converse wrote about an African American busker who up-picked, so there's at least this piece of evidence supporting your opinion.

Paul Ely Smith said:

This will be a fringe opinion, I'm sure, but we have no real evidence that up-picking wasn't being done by African-Americans all along.  The technique is common in West Africa; there's no reason to think it didn't come to the Americas with the banjo's ancestors.  It is a thriving tradition among African-American musicians by the time people start recording them.  The monophonic melody line texture of banjo playing was cultivated by the minstrels, for whom the polyrhythmic and polyphonic textures of West African music were foreign and difficult to understand.  Textures with vertical sonorities that Europeans would hear as chords were present from the beginning, certainly in the banjo transcriptions/imitations written by Gottschalk and can be found througout West African plucked lute styles.  Clearly, Converse, et al, were influenced by guitar music in their use of up-picking, but I think it is likely that it was part of African-American performance practice.

Most surviving published written material seems to be decidedly promotional in nature, about top performers, tours and concerts, teachers, method books, and instruments makers...to be the most skilled, most superior, etc.  No surprise there, but it does present only a certain slice/slant on what was going on.  Things that made money in one way or another.   I notice the Gazette seems to be focused heavily on teachers and on the banjo, mandolin, and guitar orchestras that the teachers would lead, populated by their students. 

I used to be in such an orchestra actually...up in the rain forest mountains of Puerto Rico, I took lessons under a 'maestro' of the cuatro, Cristobal Santiago. He had a whole cuatro orchestra which included about 25 of us with various sized cuatros playing the national folk music, local Christmas folk music, and Spanish danzas, and we would go play in the public parks and in schools.  I was the only 'white' person in the orchestra...they called me their 'mascot'..lolol.  I had a beautiful cuatro made by Cristobal himself out of yagrumo wood- a striped wood of grey and white...a local mountain tree species.   Being in an 'orchestra' was fun.

"Banjo in those days [the 1840s] was not as now.  Then the thimble or stroke style was in vogue, a very difficult art to grasp for the reason that the necessary combination of thumb and finger had to be severely taught.  Many gave it up and went to 'picking' the banjo in guitar style"  [quote from Gatcomb's Gazette]. 

That sounds like a reasonable explanation for the transition from stroke style to guitar style.   To me anyway, "stroke style" is still a difficult art to master.  I presume that others have already answered this question, but I'll ask it anyway:  Why did stroke style (clawhammer) persist in Appalachia, but not elsewhere in American banjo playing?  Or did it persist elsewhere? 

By the way, I'm attaching a picture of Earl Pierce as per Tim's comment.

Lots if newby questions. Is there any advantage to stroke style compared to thumb lead old time picking that uses up picking with the index finger?
Why is stroke style so predominant in Minstrel playing as compared to thumb lead?
Is it acceptable to play thumb lead if that is more efficient for someone to use?

Well, stroke style is completely different than thumb lead... it's like comparing apples to oranges.  Stroke style came first and is the historically correct way to play this music.  Guitar style is another period way of playing that, according to the magazine linked to above, began in the 1850s.  It became popular in the 1860s, and by the 1880s it was the predominant playing style, although stroke style was still taught in the tutors well through the end of the 19th century.  The old-time styles (clawhammer, thumb lead, etc.) are modern, 20th century styles.  You can play however you want, but if you want to play the minstrel music as it was meant to be played, you'll want to learn stroke style and possibly guitar style as well for the later minstrel-era stuff.  I think that you'll find stroke style to be more efficient than thumb lead by a long shot when it comes to playing the early banjo repertoire. 

So, no real evidence the two finger thumb lead was being used for Minstrel playing? It seems to me that I can pick a lot faster in two finger thumb lead than I can in stroke style. Maybe just more practice.

It's not all about faster though.  You could probably play the whole minstrel repertoire of period tunes and songs at a burning hot speed in bluegrass style up picking...but it would not sound anything like how the music was played in the 1800s.  As said earlier, it's mostly about what you are setting out to do, what you want to accomplish.

My goal is to learn and play Minstrel tunes. Not necessarily fast, but accurately. Just wanted to be sure whether it was critical what fingering technique one used or if either was acceptable based on which suited one better. My initial curiosity was if both were historically used by early banjo players of the 1800's. I have seen both used and mixed together on videos I have seen. So, if the main goal is to play the Minstrel repitoire, does the fingering style matter, or is it up to the player to choose? I appreciate all the input and advice!

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