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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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!
Please link us to the videos you're talking about. I wonder who is mixing the styles.

If you want to play the tunes as they were played in a historically accurate way, you need to learn stroke style. Thumb lead or other "old-time" styles are not acceptable ways to play the tunes if historical accuracy is your goal.
Not that it matters, but looking at how Converse maps out his version of "The Orginal Essence of Old Virginny" in the Yellow 1865 book, couldn't that be considered "thumb lead" as the thumb plays all the strings except for the first which is downpicked by the finger? (One example of many.)
The thumb leads frequently in stroke style, but Richard is talking about old-time thumb lead where the index finger up-picks. In The Original Essence of Old Virginny there are still some typical stroke combinations as well as the thumb heavy bits.
I've always felt that claw hammer and stroke style are like fiddling without the bow. I may be out in left field here, but to me the movement of the wrist and arm is much the same.
Thanks John, that is exactly what I was describing. Just wanted to be certain what style was accurate. I actually prefer two finger thumb lead as I am finding stroke style difficult and a bit clumsy for me right now. I do, however, plan on learning stroke style as well. Maybe I will develop a happy medium. Thanks again to all! This forum is such a great resource.


Like you I also play fiddle, and I know what you mean about the wrist and arm, in that fiddling is properly done with as much relaxation as possible in the wrist and arm, but one of the things that perplexes me about stroke style is how poorly stroke style delivers the rhythms of fiddle music.  You simply do not have the flexibility of a fiddler playing rhythmic melody on the banjo in stroke style.  Unless you allow the rhythmic patterns of clawhammer style (which I believe were there all the time in African-American playing) to creep into your playing, giving up following exact melody in exchange for danceable rhythmic drive, you can deliver the notes of a fiddle tune more-or-less how the fiddler would play it, but it's slower, more awkward, and with little of the drive a good fiddle player can generate.  Clawhammer solutions of simplifying the melody and adding rhythmic drive solve this problem, but while I am sure black players were doing this, I'm not at all sure about the minstrels... Especially the jigs...I know we can play a 6/8 melody and get all the notes, but spend some time with someone who can play Irish jigs on the fiddle--banjo cannot get there, playing the notes, without a lot more difficulty.  Ultimately, I think that this focus on playing melody is what led banjo players into "guitar style".  Easier to play the notes, for the same reasons as Richard has been saying.  

I wonder about how minstrel players dealt with this.  Were the fiddle players in minstrelsy very stiff?  I don't think so--I can't imagine that they weren't playing exciting danceable reels and jigs.  I have always assumed they sounded like "Down East" style fiddling (sort of generic Scots-Irish with less ornamentation).  It really does seem that minstrel banjo players were delivering the melodies, based on the various banjo methods, though.  There is some significant missing information in this area, unfortunately...

How are you sure Black players were doing that?

I agree. The skin, gut, low tension etc seems to add an extra latency of some sort. Playing fiddle tunes live at any reasonable tempo is ....so iffy at best. They become something else altogether, played slower and articulated as the minstrel banjo permits. I think perhaps we become confused because of the fiddle tunes that appear in the repertoire. I bet they ended up there because many banjo players doubled, or even did the fiddle better. The Buckley book for example. There is no claim that the banjo should play those crazy tunes in the back. I certainly think the low tuned sluggish banjo would struggle in the day. They simply are there...even the Emmett stuff....it is for fiddles.

That's a very complicated question and you might want to read my published work, but basically...because backbeat driving rhythms a la clawhammer are all over the Gottschalk piano transcriptions of banjo playing from the 1840s and 50s ("Bamboula" and "The Banjo" are the two pieces I have in mind).  The minstrel methods do not show this sort of texture at all, yet it is present in the earliest clawhammer banjo recordings of the 1920s, Gottschalk spent years listening to black players growing up in New Orleans, the architecture of Gottschalk's pieces are based on the repeating-phrase structures (aka, "kumbengo" [Mande], "fodet" [Wolof], etc...) of West African music, as opposed to the fiddle tune architecture of most minstrel music.  There is no demonstration of melody playing as shown in the minstrel methods, but plenty of demonstration of the sort of hocketed rhythmic melody simplification observed in clawhammer banjo playing as well in fingerstyle blues guitar playing.  Therefore, Gottschalk's sources were African-American, and those textures deliver the rhythmic drive lacking in most minstrel banjo playing, as represented by the minstrel banjo methods. 

Interesting.  I'll check out your publications.

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