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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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!

Richard, I think the consensus is that thumb-lead was not used.  There will always be a few people on the fringe who disagree.  There is no evidence that thumb-lead was used, and it is likely a newer style like clawhammer.  As far as a relaxed feel is concerned, you need to learn to play stroke style without tensing up.  For these tunes, stroke style will allow you to play a lot more notes with more economy of motion, so it should be less strenuous than trying to play all the notes using thumb-lead.

The dactyl rhythmic structure of clawhammer is already found in 1855 in Briggs, as is the use of the thumb string as a drone and not just a melody note. I don't think of it as any more modern than banjo style (Stroke). If you take the pauses out of Brigg's Old Dan Tucker for instance, you have a very nice "clawhammer" version.

John Cohen said:

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.  

I agree.  Minstrel stroke versions of old songs like "Uncle Gabriel" (aka The Sandy Boy)  are almost unchanged from today's clawhammer versions, and whole sections can be exchanged without doing much different at all. 

Sometimes after learning a tutor tune in stroke style, I then realize there are only a very few little fingering differences that keep it from simply being clawhammer-for example maybe a few more thumbs used for the melody notes, or maybe more spaces where CH 'dropthumbs' might typically be.  Clawhammer tends to fill the empty pauses with a more constant 5th string ringing and dropthumbs....like someone who feels compelled to leave the tv on so the house doesn't sound empty..lol. 

The stroke style tutor tunes where I have the most trouble and find to be the least resembling clawhammer, are invariably the ones that sound the most like pure Irish or European parlor tunes, adapted to the banjo, with lots of triplets and arpeggios etc.  Especially as the time approaches the 1880s and the music is less 'primitive' and more 'refined'.

Mark Weems said:

The dactyl rhythmic structure of clawhammer is already found in 1855 in Briggs, as is the use of the thumb string as a drone and not just a melody note. I don't think of it as any more modern than banjo style (Stroke). If you take the pauses out of Brigg's Old Dan Tucker for instance, you have a very nice "clawhammer" version.

Paul, would those elements of rhythmic drive be missing from the tutors because music writing conventions precluded their inclusion, because the "experts" who wrote the books tended toward complexity rather than simplification of the melody and/or because the "experts" lived in a world apart from lower or more common performance practice?
Thanks. I'm working on a small book about a couple of 1860s style banjoists. There seems to be a lot of women, drinking and good times going on. It's hard to see these players as interested in anything staid. And they are all comics.

I read Converse as saying that two finger up-picking was the most common method among the black players that he encountered. Is it possible that downstroke was not particularly popular, but happened to be the method that Joel Walker Sweeney picked up from his neighbors, and so become the style that Sweeney popularized as he travelled about, turning it into the characteristic banjo style?

It took me six months to get the frailing motion down really solid when I learned it 30 years ago. So I have trouble imagining that down-picking could ever have been the only method used in any community.

Stroke-style vs. thumb lead? Are those really exclusive? The tutors have some down picking with the thumb leading, such as parts of "Bully for All" from Converse 1865:


I think it's possible that, historically, some musicians played the instrument the wrong way and made good music. Others who played the right way may have made terrible music. Still others probably tried to take a vote and reach a consensus in the interest of universal harmony. Then someone invented the ukelele---a drone based instrument where everyone has forgotten that there is a drone string. This has lead to real confusion and a discussion of the word, "ukelele." Fortunately, this is not a ukelele group. Personally, I like the idea that the experts who wrote down difficult tunes were interested in improving--they were improvers. They combed the melodeon halls and midst the whiskey and beer discovered interesting pieces and culled them from the general din. They wrote them down and fixed them in space and time--something those tunes never were in actual performance. But that's the nature of writing. No amount of writing can then bring them alive. That requires singing and dancing. We should talk more about dancing. Does anyone know how to dance the plantation jig? The hornpipe clog? I wonder about tempo and lift. Do the tutors address lift?

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