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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I myself prefer gut strings, animal hide and a fretless store tub, but I imagine Joe could play a banjo made out of a bedpan and screen door wire and still manage to sound better than me.

I'm sure you can see this steering toward an older conversation, but rather than beat that one down again, let me pose the questions regarding  the result of playing period music on synthetic materials:


Did the spirit and skill of his performance make these details a less important point?

Is there any way in which the performance was enhanced by this?

Did he comment on his use of modern materials to deliver his message?

Did the gourd performance provide any sort of contrast either good or bad?  


A definite "yes" for me to the first question.  To me Joe's ability does transcend the type of head/string employed, but I also think his modern banjo sounded as good as any vintage or reproduction banjo I've heard.  For myself I still prefer natural materials under good conditions of humidity.

I believe frets certainly enhance performance for more complex melodies, especially up the neck.

I didn't hear Joe comment or say much about his instruments except his delieation of the general evoltion of the banjo from folk instrument to a more refined instrument.  Mark Weems spent much more time with Joe than I did, so Joe may have discussed his choice of instruments with Mark.

Joe's playing on the gourd banjo was more of an accompaniment for his singing than a showcase for his virtuosity, so this question is difficult for me to comment on.  However, I would say his playing on the gourd instrument probably tended to be somewhat looser and impovisational than on the modern banjo, mostly, I think, due to the context in which it was played.

Thanks Rob. I still don't see why you call it a modern banjo. To me, it seems like what evolved in the 1850's....frets, a little shorter scale length, still an open back.  Those are the qualities I see...it's just not a modern banjo. Additionally, I see head and string choice to be of minor importance for the reasons you just stated. One point...you said "it sounded good"...but the argument we find here is "does it sound authentic"? I say SO WHAT  to the authentic argument when the performcance level transcends the instrument...especially when you have reaonable, but not perfect, substitutions. Small consequence in the big picture.

I appreciate your time to share this, and even more to discuss it.   

Tim,  I think we have to keep the performance in context.  If you are doing a living history, where you want the instrument and the sound to be authentic, then it is a big deal.  If it is a public performance outside of that context, not so much.


I don't really want to get into whether Joe's banjo is "minstrel style" or modern. It sounds great either way.  In the 1850's this banjo would sound pretty much just like other banjos of the time.  It's just that in the 1850's, in appearance at least, it would stick out like a sore thumb.  In today's world it looks pretty much just like any other simply constucted banjo.  In other words, mostly appearance not functionality.

What was some of the repertoire on the fretted banjo?


I've never been accused of "beating around the bush" so I'll just come out with it.

It seems to me that the folks that use plastic on their banjos tend to need some sort of reassurance that it is OK. It is only those folks who ask the sorts of questions that you are asking Tim.

So really it is up to you, and others who like plywood rims and plastic heads- how do you feel about it? Do you keep bringing it up because you don't feel 100%?

Clearly it is a bigger issue with you than it is with others in our hobby.

You have my blessing.  Go forth and have plastic.

Paganini played on a wire strung violin with a chin-rest still sounds like Paganini to me. 

Just a topic Joel...don't get so bent.

Not bent, just an observation.

And a topic that has no resolve.  You like the instrument that you play, or you don't.  If you like it, play it (your jo sounds great to me).  If you don't, change or replace it.


Converse played a fretted banjo. According to a source I have he, with Swain Buckley, "were the first to have them."

Yet, the photo of him with Peel shows a smooth fingerboard.

Van Eps used mono-filament fishing line as soon as he learned about it.

I like nylon strings too.

Ayers plays a modern banjo, it must be OK.  I know I feel all warm and fuzzy about it.


It seems to me that the folks that use plastic on their banjos tend to need some sort of reassurance that it is OK. It is only those folks who ask the sorts of questions that you are asking Tim.

So really it is up to you, and others who like plywood rims and plastic heads- how do you feel about it? Do you keep bringing it up because you don't feel 100%?


I don't know. I could be speaking out of turn here, but it seems possible that "some people" ask these questions because (at least on the internet) some other people vociferously insist on safeguarding notions of authenticity with a confrontational and quasi-religious zeal that has the direct effect of sapping nearly all noticeable sensations of joy from every discussion on the topic. This is the type of behavior that makes a lot of people defensive when they have no reason to be. Or, to be less accusatory, it's the type of thing that keeps a discussion going. And questions are part of any discussion.

Does discussing a topic that one knows to be subject to continued inquiry signify some sort of weird insecurity, or is it just a matter of good old-fashioned curiosity? How do you feel about it Joel? Do you keep bringing this up because you don't feel 100% about something?

Just saying that I don't know the difference...  But the violinist would.  That's my point.  It is really the musician that needs to feel good about it.


Point is, that I made before, It's not me looking for support about my banjo.  It's also not the others who play gut and skin with thimbles.

Justification tends to only be asked for by the banjoists that use plastic components.


Topic, always this-

"I've got a plastic banjo, it sounds good to me.  It may not be an accurate copy, but it looks the part.  Is it all right if I play it at ACW events?"


Never thus-

I have a copy of a 1860s New York "school" banjo.  It has a slunk head, friction pegs, and gut strings.  I play using historically informed skills... Is it OK for me to play clawhammer on a plastic banjo?

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