Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I saw this video on the Hangout. Once again, as I plead my ignorance about Clawhammer, I ask those of you that play......is this representative of the Clawhammer movement?

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Perhaps we are splitting hairs....I don't know. But, this is a fascinating topic. Think of the fine line between some funk tunes, and disco tunes. What are the elements that you can define?

I'm one of those clawhammer players who had to not 're-learn' banjo but learn that minstrel banjo IS different. The first thing I had to do was hold a pencil in my right 2nd,3rd, and pinky fingers so they wouldn't brush the strings, it was so automatic. Then I went through a time when my middle finger would want to play on the 1st string (as in clawhammer) so I started using a thimble, not for volume, but to kill the urge to play with my middle finger and after a lot of this, I finally learned. My Buddy Ryan said the Minstrel is harder to learn but way more fun than clawhammer,  if you had to compare them. Gone is the urge to saturate the air with melody, counter melody, harmony, chords, and fills, I LOVE this minstrel stuff and especially love making the banjers.

Strumelia--I essentially agree with almost everything you've written on this subject.  However, as somebody who has played "clawhammer"  for 35 years and "minstrel" for 18 years, the one thing I am certain of is that none of the terms for down-stroke playing are well-defined or have generally accepted meanings.  Also there are so many regional variations of banjo playing across just my state of North Carolina, let alone the eastern seaboard, the Appalachians, or the country, that acting as if there are a small number of well-defined styles such as "Round Peak" or "Melodic" does not describe the actual situation.  We must at least start this discussion by agreeing that the term "clawhammer" is so general that it does not does not denote any one particular style or method of playing the banjo other than being generally downstroke.  Also, having played with hundreds of banjo players over the years I can definitively state that everybody brings his or her own special thing to mix-- the better the player, the more distinctive the sound.  I don't personally see any big differences in technique between clawhammer and minstrel style other than the ones you have pointed out--triplets, rests, arpeggios, and so on.  Otherwise it all feels about the same. I probably do more improvising with clawhammer, but that's just because I'll ordinarily be communing with a fiddler.  This is Just my opinion, but it's based on a lot of banjo playing. 

It seems like the Clawhammer players do well with the Minstrel stuff....as long as it is the simpler stuff...Briggs'...bum ditty tunes. We seem to loose them as the wide umbrella includes funky syncopation, linear stuff, chords...etc. There the technique breaks down, and the prescribed Rice and Converse approach increases its value.

SO...a portion of the Minstrel tunes fits under the clawhammer veil. I view it in a larger capacity. Almost like rock players that move parallel 5ths around....but can't do extended chords, funky rhythms, or anything out of their comfort zone.

It seems that a Clawhammer player might play "Old Dan Tucker" and then say he  (she) is playing Minstrel banjo....are they???? 

Yes I agree Rob.    :)

Terry- you better quit posting and get back to work on my banjo so you can help cure me of my slovenly clawhammer habits all the sooner.     =8-*



Tim Twiss said:

It seems that a Clawhammer player might play "Old Dan Tucker" and then say he  (she) is playing Minstrel banjo....are they???? 

Well, if they play Dan Tucker exactly the way the tutor indicates, then aren't they 'playing in minstrel style' ?  Whether they can also play other more complex tunes in minstrel style depends on how far they progress, but then isn't that true for everyone?  Or, is there a prescribed level one must reach before being able to say "I also play minstrel banjo"...?

Good point...carry on....ANYBODY

I'm staying out of this one.

If A, then B, but not C??

Or some weird logic.....

Let's not get over our heads in dismissing clawhammer or "old time banjo" players.   It is part off a still living tradition as opposed to a reborn one (Stroke Style ) which no one has heard any of the original greats play.  Unfortunately stroke is being  learned  from books as opposed to from being heard.   I ventured to quess there are 1,000s of living clawhammer players whose musicical abilities are superior to the great bulk of today's best stroke style players.   Two of the very best stroke players - Carlin and Flesher started with clawhammer.  There are many, many advanced techniques in Clawhammer/Old Time that Stroke Style players will struggle with and probably never master.    Stroke is basically stuck in two tunings - standard or high bass.  There are dozens of open tunings used in the still exisitng steel string modern clawhammer school that make for delightfull listening.  In some ways it is like comparing classical guitar to 'folk' guitar which includes such artist as Doc Watson, Stefan Grossman, John Miller, Ari Eisinger and many, many others.  There were many great Old Time Banjo players who have passed on who we were very lucky to hear live or on record.  Such artists as Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Klyle Creed, Wade Ward, Hobart Smith, Glen Smith and Mike Seeger - they all sound very different from each other even when they play the same tunes (but different notes to the same tune).  Living today are great artists such as Walt Koken, Mac Benford, Hunter Robinson,  David Holt, Riley Bagus and many, many others.  I enjoy playing both styles and appreciate the very different sound of the same instrument, just tuned lower - no frets on the old but the modern is played both with and without frets.  If the Stroke Style is to become more than an eccentric offshoot it needs to grow and develop more top notch players.  This will take time as the stroke style revival seems to have been reborn around 1990 while the old time goes back at least 100 years,  Uncle Dave Macon recorded in the 1920s - 1940s.  His playing includes many styles from the late 1800s as well as the then emerging  early 20th century  style.  Uncle Dave played both Clawhammer and Fingerpicking styles and was a great show man doing many tricks with his banjo.  I'm sure the lighter weight of the 19th century banjos facilitated those before Uncle Dave doing the same stage tricks Macon learned from them.   I do love both the old and the new styles and think players can learn from both to devlope their very own personal style. 

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