Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Demonstration and explanation of tuning the fretless banjo to the key of E/A.

Views: 114

Comment by A.N. Chase on October 9, 2017 at 6:56am

I've been playing in "Rice" tuning for a few months now, and agree that the higher tension helps with intonation and clarity.   Like a lot of people, when I got into early banjo I played in "Briggs" tuning because that's what everyone else was doing, and because that low G plunk is bewitching when you first discover this stuff.

Over time, though, it has felt increasingly anachronistic and arbitrary to me to be playing music from 1858+ at the older, lower pitch.  Since I'm woodshedding this stuff by myself 99% of the time anyway, there's no reason for me not to play in E/A.

There was a long an interesting thread on G/D vs A/E last year: Pitch and Tuning.


Comment by Timothy Twiss on October 9, 2017 at 7:05am

The A plunk sounds just as low as a G plunk.....unless they are side by side.

Now singing, presents a new difficulty with keys.

Comment by Timothy Twiss on October 9, 2017 at 7:42am

And singing -  most sing based on Briggs. Now, those are banjo arrangements placed in G and D. Check the Levy collection for original keys. But then again, many of those are piano keys....so the mystery deepens. They have to fit your voice, or what is the point? Rice and Buckley do beging to put it out...and see Christy's book - fantastic. See the Ethiopian Glee Book too,

Comment by Chris Prieto on October 9, 2017 at 8:58am
The singing is something I asked about a while back. I have found that singing is a touch easier for me in E/A tuning but then I imagine it's harder for a fiddle player to jam along in that tuning no?

But I also have just been playing mostly in E/A tuning for some time now since I am trying to stay away from tabs and am working out of books/pdfs
Comment by Strumelia on October 9, 2017 at 9:48am

There is a large percentage of mid 1800s banjo tutor repertoire that is either obviously Irish/Scottish or else obviously derived from it and composed in the style.  So many hornpipes, jigs, schottisches, reels...   Such tunes were dance tunes, traditionally played in their home countries by fiddlers and pipers, not banjoists.  They were played in certain keys according to how they lay well on those instruments.

I remember when I first began to explore the banjo tutors perusing through the tutor books...thinking to myself Geez, fully half of this stuff is Irish trad?  lol   I suppose I was expecting lots of rough and rowdy work or drinking songs, murder ballads, black spirituals.  Of course it's more complicated than that...

but anyway, I believe that this large percentage of the 'minstrel banjo' repertoire was very firmly linked to instrumental Irish/Scots/English fiddle and dance traditions.  Such tunes were most commonly played on the fiddle in the keys of D and G.  The minstrel lineup and popular music of the time included the fiddle as a major player.

These days, we early banjo players so often play without the fiddle.  There are far more capo-wielding guitar players around to play with than fiddlers.  We tend to play in groups with other banjo players, or else producing performances for our own Youtube channels ...rather than to accompany dances.  We're generally freer to play in keys that suit our voice, our banjo, or the venue's acoustics, as we see fit. 
Not to say it's a 'bad' thing, but I see the movement towards A/E as a movement towards modern solo performance playing of minstrel era music...  evolving further away from its early fiddle and/or dance connections.

Comment by Timothy Twiss on October 9, 2017 at 11:18am

Lots of F....Bb

Comment by Timothy Twiss on October 9, 2017 at 12:06pm

Many of the early banjo players were fiddlers...thus the joining at the waist

Comment by Al Smitley on October 9, 2017 at 1:13pm

Well, they're probably thinking, "Well as long as I'm not playing fiddle on this piece, I can play it in whatever key I want!"  I like a lot of fiddle tunes in A, F, and Bb, and a few in E but they just don't seem to work as well with some of the tunes and songs in the tutorials.

Comment by Timothy Twiss on October 9, 2017 at 2:23pm

Then again....this post (video) was about the better functioning of an instrument suited to repertoire, and not really about what they did then. You have to think, however, that these physical limitations WE encounter were certainly present back then....and were probably dealt with accordingly. I am sure that is why the instrument came up in pitch over time. Man....a soggy head that has pitches real low anyway....how long can you put up with that?

Comment by Strumelia on October 9, 2017 at 3:03pm

Man...a soggy head that has pitches real low anyway...how long can you put up with that?

Forever, if the fiddler you love to play with can't play in E.    ;D

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