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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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.

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.

Interesting.  I'll check out your publications.

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.
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.  

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