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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The most accessible is the 1992 Current Musicology article, available as a pdf in the press section of my website--www.palouserivermusic.com

Is there a difference in sound between playing stroke style and thumb lead two finger up-picking? I have recorded myself playing thumb lead two finger and compared with Tim Twiss' CD that came with his Early Banjo book and I can't tell much dicernable difference.
Sorry to belabor this, but I am just not sure why one style became historically predominant for Minstrel playing than another - or, were both common at the time?
I am aware that the instruction books of the time describe only stroke style.
Thanks again for the ongoing education. Richard
I've noticed a similarity to bowing patterns and stroke style as well. While I've dabbled with fiddling, most of my bowed string experience comes from German bow doublebass. Its not a direct analogy, but the downbow upbow patterns relate to first finger thumb.

Wes Merchant said:
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.


That first definition you have is the source of the word (the original source is Old French, I think), while the second is a very poorly-articulated and incomplete definition.  My advice is to go to a reference book that concentrates on musical terms if you want a meaningful definition of a musical term.  One of my teachers in grad school introduced me to the use of the word to describe textures that are common in various African and other musical cultures (it is common in SE Asian gamelan music, for ex) and it stuck for me because there weren't really any other terms to describe the phenomenon. 

In medieval European music there was a fashion for awhile where there were pieces in which a melody might be traded off between a couple of performers, and when they weren't performing the melody, they might be silent or play/sing an accompaniment note, while the other performer fills in the melody note.  The effect was that the melody was actually continuous with shifting timbres, though each individual musician might be performing a "broken" musical line.  The trick relies on the listeners' brains to assemble the "broken" melody into a continuous melody.  That was called hocketing (and the individual parts do sound like hiccupping, sort-of). 

In the simplest banjoistic demonstration of what I am talking about, if you play a melody on, say, your second and third strings while your thumb alternates on the fifth string, your brain will assemble those hocketed melody notes on the second and third strings into a melody, while you will hear the fifth string notes as accompaniment, even though none of the notes were simultaneous--your brain separated them out into melody and accompaniment.  The banjo and its West African ancestors are built to deliver this texture easily, though the straight melody playing that became the focus of minstrel stroke style moved away from those sorts of textures, even as they remained central in African-American music, and were adopted into piano and guitar styles, such as ragtime and boogie-woogie, and of course were thriving in the clawhammer (and later bluegrass) styles of banjo playing. 


Sigh...didn't I just do that in the previous three paragraphs?  OK, Wikipedia...Hocket

Found this on Rob MacKillop's site:
It’s always interesting to see how far back you can trace a style of performance practice. The oft-assumed earliest date for the ‘guitar style’ of picking the strings upwards into the palm of the hand instead of striking downwards (sometimes refered to as ‘banjo style’) is the publication in 1865 of Frank B. Converse’s Banjo With Or Without A Master. Here Converse states that…

All of the fingers are used, and are held a little curved over, and touching the strings about three inches from the bridge. Pull the strings with the points of the fingers and particularly avoid touching them with the nails. To soften the sound move the hand forward, touching the strings almost directly over the rim.

Rob MacKillop takes this to the extreme... to make a point he played all of Briggs in guitar style, which is not how it was intended to be played.  Still, guitar style is very different than thumb-lead.  Richard, it seems like you really want to use thumb-lead and are trying to get someone to tell you it is a period correct way to play the minstrel repertoire.  It isn't.  It's a modern style, much like clawhammer.  You can obviously use it if that is what you want to do, but it won't look or sound historically authentic.  I really recommend sticking with stroke-style and giving it a good, long chance before you decide you don't want to play the tunes this way.  

Just a hunch....Guitar Style is there not only because it is cool  it is also there for guys that can't get the hang of Stroke. Maybe fiddle players that have never done another style adapt easier than change over guitarists. But once again, more musical science fiction. Use your own empirical evidence and see.

I agree Tim, I was just saying in Richard's case I think he needs to give stroke-style more of a chance.

Agreed John. THat which one is used to always seems easiest. On reflection, maybe I did adapt to strole style quickly, based on my nowed string background. Guitar style seems hard to me, but I think it will prove worth learning.

Both came quickly to me- I guess I'm lucky.  My only prior experience was playing guitar with a plectrum.  I find stroke style a little easier than guitar style, but I think part of it is that I'm playing more complex pieces using guitar style.  That said, stroke style came to me a little bit slower than guitar style.  You just have to stick with it until it works.

I have not yet made any decision on style. I am playing both, it is just that I feel thumb lead is more relaxed. I just wanted an education as to what was more authentic. Seems like both were used but the concensus is that stroke style is more historically accurate. So be it. I am grateful for all the input and surely didn't intend to cause any debate. I just love the sound and the music. Thanks as always!

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