Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

A minstrel tune played on my home built minstrel banjo. The tune is from the From the Frank Converse book "Banjo Without a Master" published in 1865.

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Comment by Brian Kimerer on December 7, 2015 at 8:17pm

Here is my first YouTube video. The frown is because it took, no kidding, 50 takes to get this done. So be gentle. This is way harder than it looks in the mirror, and my hat is off to those of you who do such a great job of it.

Comment by Tim Twiss on December 7, 2015 at 8:45pm

That is one monster of a banjo. 

Comment by Al Smitley on December 7, 2015 at 9:04pm

....and how many of your 49 outtakes were blown in the last couple measures?

If like me, you get near to the end, say, "finally, I'm almost there."... and and then blow it. 

Comment by Strumelia on December 7, 2015 at 9:13pm

Wow, that's SOME BANJO!  Nice!  What banjo plan did you use?

That's not a real easy piece to bite off and chew right in the beginning Brian- and you did good job of it, too.

So, did you play it right from Converse's 'Little Yellow Book'?- or did you get someone's tab for it?

One of the things I struggled with when attempting to play stroke style and differentiate it from my usual clawhammer playing, was that stroke style as laid out in the old instructional books, had a whole lot of thumbed main melody notes. Using my thumb for main melody notes instead of only for 5th string rhythm or drop thumbs was like trying to pat my head and rub my tummy at the same time...it felt really awkward.

But to get through that, I played some of the 'thumb heavy' tunes and passages very slowly over and over until my thumb got used to it.  

If you look in Converse's very detailed instruction on playing this tune note by note, you'll notice he marks an X under every thumbed note- which includes all those bass string hits that give this tune its character.  This would be a good tune to use for that kind of practice, which will come in handy when you kinda have to use your thumb a lot in other minstrel tunes in stroke style.  The thumb use does actually give it a slightly different 'rocking' flavor.

If you like this tune, you'd also enjoy playing "Original Essence of Old Virginny"...which uses the thumbed bass string in much the same way.   :)

I like how your shirt matches the banjer.

Comment by Strumelia on December 7, 2015 at 9:16pm

Al, yeah, it's always when we have that little arrogant thought almost at the end..."oooh, I nailed it."  Then....FAIL.

Comment by Brian Kimerer on December 7, 2015 at 9:16pm

It is huge. The pot is 13" across and 3 1/2" deep. I built it that big to see if I could duplicate the sound of one of my huge gourd banjos that I built. The gourd is 14" across the head. The details are on my web site, where I documented the build from beginning to end.


Here is the link to the gourd banjo that inspired the one in the video.


I did not duplicate the sound of the gourd, although I got close to it. I find that the gourd banjo is almost impossible to hold because of the round back. But I do love the deep voice of it.

As for blowing it, that happened in all stages of the take. In one instance, I managed to plow through it almost perfectly, and then when I looked at the video.... I had forgotten to put the hat on. LOL. In order to be able to play all the way through the tune I had to slow the tempo down to "sloth". I think that is the official word for it.... "sloth".

One surprising outcome was the educational value of the recording. It is amazing how many things I found that I was doing wrong just by watching myself play. 

Comment by Strumelia on December 7, 2015 at 9:20pm

Does it have a closed or open back?

Comment by Brian Kimerer on December 7, 2015 at 9:23pm

I think I learned the tune from tab in one of Bob Flesher's books. I have the "Little Yellow Book", and I checked it out, and it looked like Bob did a pretty straightforward job of tabbing it. I did not check the details of the fingering in the Converse book though, so this one might be different.

The drop thumb parts are always difficult.

I have a really hard time learning tunes from the standard notation. I recently learned Arkansas Traveler from the Little Yellow Book directly. I learned it by laboriously tabbing it myself and then learning from the tab.

Comment by Brian Kimerer on December 7, 2015 at 9:33pm

The back of the banjo is closed. My reasons for doing that are posted on my web page. Too many words to type in here. Here is a direct link to my excuses:


I haven't finished posting all the photos of how I built the back, but you can get the idea from what is there.

The gourd banjo is also totally sealed as well. I did not put a sound hole in it. If you look at the photos of the gourd banjo, you will see that it makes this one look petit. It isn't that I just like to challenge myself to play huge banjos; I really like the deep, round voice of them. They are very mellow and soothing. Sometimes I will sit and play "I'll Fly Away" or "Gum Tree Canoe" for hours because of the marvelous sound. The lousy microphone in the camera does not do the sound justice.

Comment by Brian Kimerer on December 7, 2015 at 9:52pm

I just looked at the Converse book again. You are right about the thumb. I have been playing it wrong. The Flesher tab does not indicate the use of the thumb for the bass melody notes. I think I will go relearn the tune and see if it comes out better. The thing that drew me to the tune was the bass note.


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