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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I am referring to this short video clip, found in the featured section.

Negatory.  This is the Round Peak style. Most people think Bump Ditty when they say clawhammer. Here's me Bump Dittying on a gourd - index, strum, thumb.... (the crappy Flip Camera hardly picks up the strums, but they're in there). This tuning is dADGa (Sawmill or G Modal).

Tim, is this your video, or someone else's?

I think of clawhammer as old-time banjo in general.  I think of Round Peak style as a subdivision of clawhammer.  I think of 'frailing' as a form of clawhammer that uses a lot of full strums and not many drop thumbs.

The video you point us to shows a good enough example for the very start of a stroke.   I teach differently though.  My basic stroke angles down onto the head.  The thumb is the fulcrum that the stroke arcs off of, not the elbow.  My motion is more down onto, and then away from the head, not sweeping across the head.   Seeing that forearm sweeping up and down across all strings pivoting from the elbow in the video seems more to me like a guitar player strums.  But the video you cited will probably get people started.

No, it is Dan Levinson I believe.

Actually, I don't want to get people started with this video. I am seeking comparisons to differentiate the subtlties of Stroke from Clawhammer.....if we can at all quantify it.
 
Strumelia said:

Tim, is this your video, or someone else's?

I think of clawhammer as old-time banjo in general.  I think of Round Peak style as a subdivision of clawhammer.  I think of 'frailing' as a form of clawhammer that uses a lot of full strums and not many drop thumbs.

The video you point us to shows a good enough example for the very start of a stroke.   I teach differently though.  My basic stroke angles down onto the head.  The thumb is the fulcrum that the stroke arcs off of, not the elbow.  My motion is more down onto, and then away from the head, not sweeping across the head.   Seeing that forearm sweeping up and down across all strings pivoting from the elbow in the video seems more to me like a guitar player strums.  But the video you cited will probably get people started.

I see.

My own input is that I've played clawhammer for 14 years and the big difference for me personally as I'm trying to learn stroke style has way more to do with the patterns of the right than the basic mechanics of hitting the strings itself.  I find the basic hitting of the string rudiments to be quite similar.

A few of my observations so far:

I'm finding stroke style has a lot more thumbed notes 'where thumb notes shouldn't oughta be' (lol).  This really trips me up more than anything else.  Stroke has less of the drop thumbs that are typically and automatically used in CH, but more 'dropping of the thumb' to play notes in what might be seen by CH players as non-intuitive places.  This can feel pretty awkward and I trip over this sooo often. 

Stroke style also has way more triplets ...because of the many Irish/Scottish based jigs, hornpipes, etc?

Stroke style uses the bass string much less.   

There are more controlled 'rolls' in stroke style where you slowly roll off several strings in sequence- this requires more precision than I typically do in a CH 'roll' which feels a bit looser and more forgiving. 

Lastly, stroke style has a lot of pauses in the playing.  While this is very musical and adds dynamics, it proves a bit awkward for me as well, since I'm so used to playing a very steady and syncopated rhythm that always keeps the momentum going in CH.  So it sometimes feels like it stops and starts a lot, and that interrupts the  momentum that I'm used to.

All these are things one can get used to in time, but are difficult changes at first.

I'm sure others will be adding lots of good observations of their own, which may be different from mine. 

All these are simply my own observations- from someone who is not a good stroke player yet but who is right in the middle of experiencing the various little conflicts between the two styles.

Thanks Strummelia, for those comments. Language does get bogged down when discussing some sort of abstract, like a feel, but these observations help to put it in place.

One thing I see, is the essential concept of how to strike the strikes. The Clawhammer seems to move in a constant rhythmic lilt in an up and down manner, which I would sort of call across and down. Brushing, and keeping the rhythmic motif moving. From what I have gathered by reading and playing descriptions of Stroke technique, is more of a binary operation...the hand goes up and down toward the head of the banjo. The thumb plants upon the downward motion. It certainly creates a different groove, and flow to the music. I sort of stick to this, because of how Converse continues to describe it in the 1880's with his Combinations...and stating that everything can be broken down into a Hammer Strike, or a Combination ( or Strike, or Movement).

strike the strings....sorry

 

Well there is more brushing in CH, (although not so much in 'Round Peak' type clawhammer), but there is a planting of the thumb on most down strokes or 'strikes' in CH.  CH uses and frets the bass and middle strings a great deal both during the melody and in open string brushes.  As you say, there seems to be more of a constant rhythmic foundation in CH, which weaves around and underneath the melody at all times.  In contrast to that, minstrel banjo tunes seem to follow the melody more closely and not necessarily have a constant background of added syncopated rhythm. In the stroke style, the melody notes are the rhythm, and embellishments are sometimes added, like rolls, triplets, or an occasional big strum almost like a bass drum beat for emphasis. 

Stroke style seems more purely melody based to me, while CH seems more syncopated rhythm based to me, with a melody riding on top of that.

Maybe that's why it was felt the minstrel line benefited from additional rhythm instruments, like bones and tambourine...?

Yes...the melody and the rhythm are one. It moves in a horizontal manner.....similar to some REALLY early music...contrapuntal.

Sometimes I hear the music harmonized...don't always like it. Does not need it.

With Stroke, I hear the deliberateness of each note.

I've always thought of "clawhammer" as a generic term that includes many different sub-styles.  My main resource when I was first learning to play banjo was Ken Perlman's "Melodic Clawhammer Banjo" book.  This style is very close to stroke style - it includes a lot of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and drop thumbing and does not make much use of the "bum-ditty" usually associated with clawhammer. If you do a YouTube search for Ken Perlman you can see (and hear) what I mean.  I've also found a lot of old minstrel tunes that sound a lot like more modern clawhammer tunes. "Joe Sweeney's Jig" from the 1860 Buckley book comes to mind.  I'm of the opinion that stroke style is a variation of clawhammer in that, when playing, you hold your right hand like a claw and hammer down (rather than picking up) on the strings.

FWIW,  Ken Perlman's 'melodic clawhammer' style alway sounded really Irish-y to me.  Maybe that ties in to all this somehow too.

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