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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Sorry Tim, I get excited sometimes.


I've always been a advocate of any era on any banjo.


The banjo was constantly changing- and still is.  But this hobby is frozen in time is it not?  I play late century on my tub as well and early 20th.  I even goof around with modern tunes with my friends sometimes.


I'd be very interested in recreating period experimentation.  This would encourage more fun research.


Does "plain everyday and common" even register in our hobby like it does in other aspects of living history?


Guitarists still play D-28 Martins, that's modern music no less. Did banjoists toss their old tubs as soon as soon as the silver rim banjo became common?


When did folks began to replace the earlier Boucher style banjo with the Buckbee type (both "trade banjos")


Could one coax our common idea of early banjo tone out of a Stewart?


The Bluegrassers have a saying "Earl on any other banjo would still sound like Earl."  Would this hold true if he was playing a early banjo?


Scott, it was his choice, not sad at all.  There is room for someone to step in and fill his (very large) shoes.

The banjo was constantly changing- and still is.  But this hobby is frozen in time is it not?  


I guess that I don't really feel this way. The components that people feel are frozen in time often cause disagreement and discussion. I feel, and am driven by, the idea that this music is dynamic and alive. Untapped tunes of a similar nature are still out there waiting to be harvested. It is with this music that I want to push the boundries...experimenting with things that the forward thinking progressive 19th Century Musician might have also been intrigued by. What I look for..(and I don't expect anybody else to fall into this camp)..is a certain purity of what made the music speak then, and try to push that envelope appropriately. And I add that it is experimentation. That means looking at banjos and slight variations on those designs, and examining performance practices...including tempos and instrumentation. And I add that it can only be done by completely understanding correct period practice...thus a forum like this and continued dialogue.   

I think it depends on your view of the hobby.  I reenact, and when I do, I want everything to reflect the time period, my clothes, the instrument, the music. 


However, I also use my instrument in many more places than reenactments.  I occasionally have opportunity to play at church, with a contemporary worship band (I also play keyboards).  I also attend folk music sing alongs, etc.  So the "hobby" to me is playing this 19th century instrument in a variety of settings.  This stretches the use of the instrument, and my playing ability.  So, is my playing frozen in time?  Only when I want it to be.  I really think there is a place for these early instruments in a more modern setting. 

I totally agree!  Yet I'm overwhelmed just with the stuff we have.


I try to get into Converse's head.  I read all the articles I can find on him, everything he wrote, concert reviews, his patents, you name it.  I do the same with later century players, many were active in the "early" era.  


I pay special attention to the performance descriptions and set lists.

So this hobby encompasses a lot of real estate....I think we have a problem when we try to have a "one size fits all" approach. Different people focus on different aspects of it.

Agreed with Tim, John, and Joel... and I think the fact that the 'one size fits all' approach doesn't work is the reason that "Is it OK for me to play a minstrel banjo with a synthetic head and/or nylon strings?" questions will continue to be asked, no matter how many times and how many different ways they're asked answered; to me it seems like the early banjo equivalent of the endlessly discussed old clawhammer banjo question, "Index or middle finger?"

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