Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I'm giving two short talks to a group of high school, then middle school students tomorrow on the history of the banjo. One is a guitar class and one is a strings class. I will break up my talking with musical examples (recorded and live) and a basic ppt of pictures. I am hoping to finish with a group song (I'm not sure of their level so we'll just wing it!)

If there was something you could pass on, what would it be?

A slice of history, your favorite story, an obscure banjo fact. I want to these kids to understand a little more about this instrument and, hopefully, instill in them a desire to study music on a deeper level. I want them to learn, question, and explore because they are able to develop a personal relationship with their instrument, what ever it may be. 

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Personally, given your description, I would be sure to cover how the banjo came from very humble home made folk traditions- a gourd, a cheese box or grain measure, carved wooden pegs, -people using what materials and tools they had at hand to make their own instrument- long before fancier banjos began to be mass produced in factories.

Doubtless you'll touch on the African influence in both the instrument ancestry and in the rhythm of course, you might want to play them a recording of an early pre-1860's tune recorded on gourd banjo to illustrate this period (Clark Bueling's Pompey Ran Away would be perfect).

Covering the home made aspect of early banjos would have the added benefit of planting the seed in young minds that they too can actually make a musical instrument for themselves if they put their minds to it.

Something I always point out, is that the instrument is actually a percussion instrument (same for guitar)....there is nothing until you strike it. The rhythm of the banjo is it's most intriguing feature, especially with the thumb string. 

Thank you both! I am going to take them on my banjo journey starting with bluegrass, onto to Africa, though the slave trade, minstrel (of course!), classic, "old time" (this part is still new to me), and up to present day.

I have sound samples from all of these major points and I am planning on playing as well. I am going to compare the ekonting and banjos with these sound samples and pictures. I will make sure to go more into the construction of the various instruments and show them my own banjo attempt :)

The thumb string in important to my presentation, especially when I will talk about the banjo being given the title "America's instrument. Tim, I never realized the percussive importance of striking the strings and well as the head. 

Off to edit, practice, and to eat some ice cream. Thank you!

Some of the really primitive diatonic motifs sound like tuned drums ...to me.


Don't forget a couple of banjo jokes. I think that they are as much a part of banjo history as the banjo itself. good jokes, and  bad ones.

Here's a page of some. (and some are pretty bad) but it may amuse the kids and keep things interesting.


One of the things that kids know instinctively is that their songs--the stuff they listen to from popular American music--have a groove over which someone is singing or rapping ("heightened speech" is the technical term).  They might call it the "beats."  Though its not much of a feature of minstrel banjo, the role of the banjo in African-American, and West African music, was to provide that groove, that repeated riff, over which the song happened.  You can tell what's important in a traditional music by what they have terms for, and the Mandinka (Mande, Maninka, lots of related names for this ethnic group) call this repeating riff, "kumbengo."  The Wolof (next door neighbors in the Senegambia) call it "fodet"--the point is that this quality of music is something that was not part of European music culture, but came straight into American music from the West Africans who were brought here.  They recreated the instruments they were familiar with, or in the case of the fiddle, they were easily able to adopt their bowed-lute traditions to the European instrument.  And so you might play something like Juba or one of the few tunes that really lay down a groove, because that's what really changed European music into something uniquely American...American popular music is as much West African as it is European.  Basically, kids are going to want to hear you play, and everyone loves the banjo, so you will have a great time! 

Cheers,  Paul

Thank you so much! My first presentation (ever) was a lot of fun. The kids didn't join in the singing, but they were attentive and had a few great questions. 

I think I was able to touch on all of your points. I even threw in some banjo jokes! I did play and sing along with the history lessons. I realized that I am a lot better at stroke style under pressure. I had to cut the Scruggs portion of the presentation short because I just didn't sound that good! But, I did get to play:

Cripple Creek

Earl's Breakdown

Gambia (ekonting tuning)

Dan Tucker

and Mole in the Ground

I really appreciate your guidance on this one! I hope this sticks with them :)

What is ekonting tuning?

Thank you,


As far as I know the tuning has more to do with the intervals between the notes. I leave my 5th string at G and leave my second string at B. I then tune the first string down to A and play only these three strings. I learned this from Greg Adams last year at Suwannee Banjo Camp. 

So- the A note of your first string is then sixth steps below the G of your fifth string, Valerie?  And your second string B is one step higher than the A of your first string?

Yes. :) And, I only fret the 5th and 7th on the first string. This is a tradition that I would like to study a lot more. Like all banjo related stuff...

Thanks Valarie, I'll try that.

Did you play a konting with Greg last year, or just learn the tuning?  Did you play one of his tin ones?  Do you recall what the neck was mad of?  Just a broom stick maybe?  I've already signed up for next year and plan to spend much more time on minstral stuff.  Did you finish your banjo yet?


Valerie Díaz Leroy said:

As far as I know the tuning has more to do with the intervals between the notes. I leave my 5th string at G and leave my second string at B. I then tune the first string down to A and play only these three strings. I learned this from Greg Adams last year at Suwannee Banjo Camp. 

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