Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I received a personal inquiry regarding the use of straps.

I think it was from Nicholas Bechtel but could be wrong as I don't understand this technology well enough to respond quickly and then it was gone.  Perhaps he saw a photo of me and detected that I had a rope attached to my banjo.  'Tis true.  I don't know if this was done in the mid-19th C but I did so for a particular event where I would not have the opportunity to sit and it has remained on ever since.

This raises a valid question, however.  Were straps, indeed, used in the 19th C?

If so, what were they like?

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The only early documentation of a strap in the early days that I am aware of is Frank Converse's claim in his Reminiscences series that Hyram Rumesy stood while he played, his banjo supported by a "red ribbon around his neck." Rumsey was quite tall; dressed very stylishly on stage (as opposed to the standard 'plantation' get-up); his strap was unusual. Standard practice into the Classic era was to sit. On the other hand, there are several illustrations of early players (including Converse) standing while they performed, so a strap doesn't seem unreasonable.

There's a picture of Sweeney playing and dancing.  I remember reading/hearing somewhere that players would sometimes tie a piece of rope or shoe sting to the post on the bottom of the banjo and wrap it around their arm.  I've never seen a picture of this, although I've been looking.  I've heard other explanations as well.  

OK, I can't help but chime in, even if doing so without any documentation to back it up.  I had this very discussion with a friend this past weekend.  I just can't imagine a or several banjoist not, at one point in time during their banjo playing days, thinking "Hey, I can run a string, ribbon, rope etc. from here to here and holding up my banjo!".  I do hate to do or say anything out of ignorance, hence there isn't a string on mine.

If I could see a good old photo of a banjo strap/string, I'd make a pile of them.

One also might consider the lightness of the early banjo. That and playing for the most part in first position might have made standing without a strap workable. And the comedy that was so important then-twirlling, juggling, what-have-you, a strap is going to be in the way.

I recall somewhere (no sure where) that folks would tie a string on the dowel stick, and drape it over the right shoulder.

Carl, didn't think about the twirling etc.  Great points!

When I perform, I always stand, making a strap a necessary item, at least for me.  A cord certainly makes holding onto a gourd banjo more practical.



Joe Ayers playing a gourd banjo with a cord strap.

Sometimes I stand. If I do, I use an old suspender. Hooks right on the end.

I remembered seeing a thin strap on the drawing posted here, from 1861:


That's kind of like what mando players do- a right shoulder strap only.

Tim Twiss said:

I recall somewhere (no sure where) that folks would tie a string on the dowel stick, and drape it over the right shoulder.

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