Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This past weekend I had the very good fortune of meeting and spending some time with Joe Ayers.  He gave a concert Saturday night in the Bennett Place Historical site auditorium in Durham, NC and a two and a half hour minstrel banjo workshop the next day.  Both events were organized under the auspices of Mark Weems, one of our very own members.  Thank you again, Mark.


For those of you who have never heard Joe's recordings from the banjo tutors, his playing style is absolutely unique.  I have never heard anyone else approach the clarity of tone and perfect articulation Joe can wrestle from a banjo.  And Joe was generous enough to share the method to his madness.  Simply put, he doesnt't play like anyone else I know.


Joe has developed his own method of playing with only one rule.  Let me say that again.  There is only one rule  witn very, very few exceptions.  Joe plays with a stict alternation between finger strike and thumb strike.  And that's it.  As simple as this sounds, in practice it is much harder to do than it sounds.  For instance, in tunes such as Circus Jig, Sugar Cane Dance, or the Modoc Reel, in the places where there are ascending arpeggios (broken chords in which the notes are played discretely rather than simultaneously) most of us mere mortals would play the first three strings by sliding one finger across the strings followed by the thumb. 


Joe, instead, adheres to his one rule of alternating finger strike followed by thumb.  In order to perform an ascending arpeggio with Joe's technique, after the first finger strike the thumb must "pass over" to the next string, followed by another finger strike, followed by another thumb and so on.  The result of this technique is a perfectly articulated musical figure.  That's one reason Joe's arpeggio's sound so beautiful.


To conclude, in reference to another of my personal eternal mysteries, the trill in "Luke West's Walkaround" is performed by Joe in the following manner:  Stop the second string at the third fret, creating a unison with the open first string.  Next strike the second and first strings consecutively as fast as you can, closely followed by the thumb on the stopped second string.  Repeat three times.  And yes, this is one of the very few exceptions to the strict alternation of finger and thumb.


P.S. Joe says the easiest way to learn this technique is to practice a lot.

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What a great time that must have been. It was listening to Joe's music, with his family band and especially his Virginia Minstrels casette recording that got me started in this business 20 years ago. I wanted to put together a band to try and sound like the ensemble on that recording. His music has made a huge impact on my life. Thanks for posting and explaining this part of his playing technique. Dave Culgan


I've been trying unsuccessfully to figure out what in the world Joe was doing for almost 20 years.  The one thing I guessed right on was that unless Joe is playing a gourd banjo, he is playing a modern fretted instument.  However he plays those alternating fingers and thumbs so fast that you just just have to take his word for it  that he is actually doing what he says.  But I believe him. 

In my post I forgot to mention that any day now Joe is going to publish the 1851 Elias Howe Book.  He's also planning to do the 1868 Buckley and at least one other.  He also had a CD as opposed to a tape of the 1858 Rice recording for sale.

Isn't he playing a fretted instrument now...at least part of the show? I think he has a Menzies fretted Minstrel.

Tim--Yes Joe is playing a modern instrument now, but he played the gourd banjo for the majority of the show.  His modern instrument was made to his specifications with wide string spacing. However the modern instrument in no way, except, perhaps, for the square pebhead, resembles most reproductions of early banjos in terms of appearance.  For Joe it seems to be all about the playability and the tone.

Yes, it is a Fretted Minstel banjo...right?


Yes indeed, frets.  You can tell by watching Joe play that he's a classical guitar player.  His fingers are arched over the fingerboard in the correct manner. Joe pracices scales on his banjo in the exact same manner a classical guitar player would.  I imagine the frets make that approach somewhat easier in that one can concentrate more on the music than on exact finger placement.  I'm making some assumptions here, but after having several lengthy discussions with Joe, I believe he would concur.


Did you play the instrument? I'm surprised there aren't more of these out there. It seems appropriate for much of the repertoire as it developed. Gut, nylon, or nylgut? Thimble, or straight? 


I didn't play the instrument.  Gut strings.  Straight.

Actually Rob, I believe they were nylgut, tuned up for playing in A and E.  I got to play his banjo several times on Saturday.


Thanks for the clarification on the string type and tuning.  I'm so used to playing in Briggs' tuning, I think everybody does. Do you remember who built Joe's banjo?  I believe he said who it was, but I can't recall now.  And how did his banjo feel compared to period reproductions?

Should be Menzies

So, we're all kind of hangin' here....what was the repertoire he played, and what was a general summary of his workshop?


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