Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Thinking more and more about these interpretive and subtle differences between "stroke" and "clawhammer". Labels force us to think about it one way or another, and maybe that is not always the best thing. There is however something different between interpretive styles that is difficult to discern, at least in words. I feel it is in the groove of the backbeat, brought out by the "ditty". The way the strings are struck enables the groove to move in different ways. As I interpret the early books and the description of executing the right hand, "down" means more of a direction toward the head of the banjo. "Down" can also the direction of the floor, creating a different angle and motion of the hand. The same tune played both ways has a slightly different effect. Pure "stroke" grooves in a different way. Compound this with the fact that most of the Briggs' tunes play well both ways. Many of them serve as accompaniments to vocal tunes of the day.

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I came to the minstrel music after playing clawhammer. There is a tune I learned years ago that always fascinated me because of the changeup in feel of the second part. It's "Spotted Pony." The first part is clawhammer - the melody followed by brushes and thumb drones with one 5th string note hinting at the melody. But the second part opened the door for me to minstrel music. The tune's second part does not use the clawhammer brush at all, the melody becomes more complicated and the 5th string note is woven into the melody - and what a weird feel for a clawhammer player.

Yup, I sure agree. pure stroke grooves in a different way. And I believe (it's just a guess) that there was heavy emphasis on the downbeat of minstrel tunes. When I play clawhammer tunes it's the other way around. Either way, you've got to find that feel that lets you ride on top of the music I believe, not wade through it.

So here's my clip, the first tune is Little Sadie, clawhammer style in modal tuning but the second tune is Spotted Pony, the tune (for me) that seems to link clawhammer and 'stroke' style. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJ7V1W1dFMk

Tim,

In a recent interesting discussion with Joe Ayers, he pointed out how a guitar method published in 1820,  which taught the first principles of guitar playing and music, refers to using a "strike" in playing finger style guitar, in what we nowadays would call "picking up". This 19th century understanding of the term totally makes the word "stroke" irrelevant as applied to banjo method.

It seems as though it (Stroke) has been adopted and accepted. "Strike" is so definite in Rice. I don't think strike stuck in guitar lingo.

right, but I don't think it stuck in banjo lingo either - I've never heard of any old clawhammer players using the term for instance. I wonder which of our 20th century contemporaries first started using it? Perhaps some player of the misappropriated "classic banjo style" used it to refer to the old school players.

It was "Banjo Style", but obviously that would not work today. Too styles of banjo play. I do think we need a word that we can use. IMHO, I don't think it really matters if the word has a historical precedent...as long as it is used and accepted as a contemporary description of what we consider to be be the root (19th) style of play. We might end up like Prince....being "the banjoist playing the style formerly known as Stroke".     

How about just "Early Banjo Style", and be done with it?

Of course, as a Southerner, I'm partial also to "Sweeney Style"!

May I butt in?

I don't think "Early Banjo" says anything to the general public - except maybe dudes in straw hats strummin' a tenor banjo.

Mark, we need some more clips. Your voice is great.

I like the Sweeney Style thing. Makes as much sense as Scruggs Style, and whatever else. I do recall at the very first AEBG on Sunday morning hearing all agree that "Early Banjo" would be the way it should be referred to, at least in that small circle.

thanks, Terry, maybe I'll work on posting more in the future.  

In my experience of talking about this style, "stroke" doesn't mean anything to the general public either. And to use the word "minstrel" just opens another big can of something else altogether.

"Sweeney Style"....nice little ring to it. Opens up a good conversation to a lay person too.

Well, he was its popularizer, just as Scruggs was for three finger, Keith was for melodic.

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