Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Well, I found it really hard to play the B part of this piece as it is written in Brigg's Banjo Instructor, so I cheated and changed the hard part into something playable at faster speeds. I dont have the resources for a nice minstrel banjo with soft wooden tones, so excuse my twang. All the same, though, I think the style is on point. Enjoy.

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Comment by Greg Adams on December 8, 2009 at 11:31pm
Good for you, Lucas! That's great. You're really gettin' some chops together. I'm proud of ya! Let me know when you come up north again!
Comment by Rob MacKillop on May 14, 2010 at 3:27pm
It's funny hearing these videos of you in your pre-tackhead days, Lucas. What a radically different sound. I'm glad you got a 'real' banjo! You are right that it is the style that matters, but when the style is so deeply interlinked to the instrument, something (in my opinion, of course) gets lost in translation. I'm looking forward to many more videos from you. How do you feel about the sound/style question now? What is better (in your opinion) when this repertoire is played on the tackhead, and what is better when this same repertoire is played on your modern banjo?
Comment by Lucas Bowman on May 15, 2010 at 1:01pm
Well thank you kindly Rob. I am very glad I got a "real" banjo too. Since my first string broke in the night while i was lying in bed, I have put on all nylgut and the volume got seriously turned up, along with gaining a real bass drone. I'll see if I cant field some of these comments. I find the styles (I assume minstrel v. clawhammer/old-time) so closely related that I usually only separate certain minstrel techniques from the old-time styles. Otherwise, they are nearly synonymous. For instance, many minstrel tunes, most especially earlier ones, rely upon the bum-ditty (clawhammer) technique for much of the verse and some melody. However, minstrel tunes usually have some special little technique hidden inside them to make them a little harder. In this tune (Whos dat at the Door), the main theme is essentially bum-ditty, but there is a spot with a glide into a hammer on, producing a melodic line. This is the part I would say is "more minstrel" and possibly more likely African as well. When you get into harder tunes (Buckleys Jig, Brigg's Jig and Reel, etc...), the gulf between minstrel and clawhammer styles widens. Anyway, I wonder if that really what you were asking... heh :D
I find slower tunes are particularly well suited for the deep resonance of the minstrel banjo. The lower tuning, usually coupled with an non-muted head, allows for many overtones within these slower melodies that just sound gorgeous. Certainly, the translation of some minstrel tunes onto a more modern banjo looses this sonorous quality. That being said, I feel there are also tunes better suited for modern banjos. I tried an old-time tune on my minstrel banjo and while it sounded pretty neat, I lost a lot of speed, clarity and playing ability. The taut strings on a modern banjo allow for really fast pull-offs and hammer on's that I cannot yet do proficiently on the minstrel banjo. These subtleties also seem to break through better at higher registers like that on a modern banjo simply because these techniques can be muddled at higher speeds in lower registers. That being said, tunes like "Hard Times" sound really cool when played fast on the minstrel banjo (I might have a video coming of that) as do ones like "Joel Sweeney's Jig."

Anyway, theres more to say, but that is enough of an essay response for now ;D
Comment by Tim Twiss on May 15, 2010 at 1:18pm
Lucas....M 10, you know that is a "Briggs' Quarter Rest", right? It looks like a backward eighth, but is quarter. It will change your phrase.
Comment by Rob MacKillop on May 15, 2010 at 2:48pm
Good response, Lucas. I asked in the first place because I did not come to the banjo from clawhammer or bluegrass, which one may or maye not view as an advantage or disadvantage - I've no idea. I don't even play stroke style - well, maybe a few attempts every now and then which start off with good intentions before failing. So if I'm asking dumb questions, be sure to let me know.

It sounds to me that you come from a clawhammer background, and therefore naturally bring out any 'pre-echoes' (the word does exist, I'm told) of that style. I've also noticed in the CB site that some folks with bluegrass backgrounds naturally hone in on something in their CB repertoire that resonantes with their bluegrass style.
I've also noticed some guys on BHO getting a tackhead and playing straight clawhammer styles on it.
Now,when I listen to Tim play the same stuff, it doesn't sound like clawhammer. Please note I am making no personal value judgements here, just observations from someone outside the culture. A site like this one exists to explore a particular period in banjo history, and what I like about it is that everyone brings a little of themselves to it. Will we ever know how things were really played? I doubt it. The instrument can of course teach us about the limits of the possible, and I suppose your observation that speed and clarity are harder on a minstrel banjo either tells us that we shouldn't play so fast, or that the minstrel guys liked a 'muddier' sound, or that our instrument makers and string makers have not quite got it right, or that we haven't quite got the right technique for the music and instrument.

The more people who contribute to this site, the more we learn. I hope Tim keeps up his quick stroll through the repertoire - so many pieces! Keep it up, Tim. But let's hear from more contributors as well. Everybody has something unique to offer. Looking forward to your 'Hard Times' video, Lucas!
Comment by Lucas Bowman on May 15, 2010 at 10:46pm
Ah, yes I see Tim, you are refering to my version "directly" from Brigg's? Im coming in too early there, eh? It does give it a different feel when you add the written rest into the piece. I'll have to make a new video for it with the "real" banjo as correction. I guess I had Tom Lather's version stuck in my head with the quarter note triplet feel and refused to read the music to see it was actually a quarter rest. Thanks, Tim!!! ;D

Yea, Rob, I agree. I totally ignored anything remotely bluegrass in my response likely because I learned clawhammer first. You actually may be in more advantage by coming at it from the outside with possibly less bias.

I like your imaginative supposition into how it may have gone down. Sometimes, we can learn a great deal by performing something to same way it used to be done to gain valuable experiential knowledge about history.

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