Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi all,

I'm new to the list and getting set up to start my first banjo build.  I've built a couple of mountain dulcimer type instruments, with a third on the bench, plus a couple of bowed things, but last year at the Metamora Music Festival I was challenged to build a banjo.  Now, I've always liked banjo music, but I knew nothing really about it, or the instrument, so I've been reading and researching, and what I've discovered is that it is a fascinating instrument with a very interesting history!

I'm sure I'll have a lot of novice questions (Iyam what Iyam!), and here's the first one.

I gather so far that on tack head banjos the head can soften up and stretch in inclement weather (remedied by warming up inside or in front of a fire) and that mechanical tensioning systems alleviate that problem somewhat.  (This is the part where I hope you'll jump in and help my ignorance).  What about the mountain banjos described in Foxfire 3, with the smaller heads supported by a metal hoop inside the woodwork.  Would these also be susceptible to changes in humidity and temperature?

Thanks in advance,

Tony

(it's really only "Anthony" if there's money involved)

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Hi Tony,

All animal skins stretch, no matter what kind of rim they're on. If you have a non tensioning banjo, ALWAYS lay the bridge flat when not playing.

Thanks!

That makes perfect sense!  Then on a tensioned banjo do you leave it strung and bridge up all the time, making adjustments as needed by way of the tension ring nuts?  (Sounds like an obvious question, but hey... :)  )

Thanks,

Tony

Anthony, the adjustable rims need little if any tightening ever. But that little bit of tightening, like on the first rainy day you play, makes all the difference. Yes, the bridge is OK standing up on these. But many guys lay them down anyway.

Welcome!

The "mountain banjos" would not be have been in use by professional minstrels.  Often found at Civil War reenactments, they don't make an appearance in reality until the 1930s.

A good head is less trouble than folks trying to sell you plastic would have you believe.  But their are those times (the first night of the Early Banjo Gathering last year) that will take their tolls on a tack head.

My banjo was not in 100%, but it was still playable.

There are message boards who's focus is more on folk styles of banjo that could help you more (banjo hangout "old time sections"), though this board has had a recent influx of discussions on 20th century folk banjo styles.  Those folks will likely be more help.

As far as I know, the focus of this board is popular music of the minstrel stage.  Check out my photo album "Minstrel Hall of Fame" to see examples of they types of banjos used by popular and professional players in the mid to late 19th century.  Touring throughout the world, you will notice that large banjos were the common choice for the popular player.

Thank you, Joel!

I think that Foxfire book was probably my first ever introduction to how a banjo might be put together, but as you mention it, I don't recall any time lines.  Very interesting!
I am actually more interested in the minstrel stage type banjos myself, and the more I see and hear, the more I like to sound of them, and the construction is looking less daunting as I learn more.  I am glad to hear your comment on head troubles, or the lack thereof, as that was the one area that concerned me the most.
Your album sounds familiar (I've been ranging all over the site in no particular order) and I'm going back to look again!

Thanks again,

Tony

Joel Hooks said:

Welcome!

The "mountain banjos" would not be have been in use by professional minstrels.  Often found at Civil War reenactments, they don't make an appearance in reality until the 1930s.

A good head is less trouble than folks trying to sell you plastic would have you believe.  But their are those times (the first night of the Early Banjo Gathering last year) that will take their tolls on a tack head.

My banjo was not in 100%, but it was still playable.

There are message boards who's focus is more on folk styles of banjo that could help you more (banjo hangout "old time sections"), though this board has had a recent influx of discussions on 20th century folk banjo styles.  Those folks will likely be more help.

As far as I know, the focus of this board is popular music of the minstrel stage.  Check out my photo album "Minstrel Hall of Fame" to see examples of they types of banjos used by popular and professional players in the mid to late 19th century.  Touring throughout the world, you will notice that large banjos were the common choice for the popular player.

Thanks!  I've worked with wood and metal, but never hide, so I have no frame of reference for how it behaves.  That's good to know!

Tony

Bell Banjos said:

Anthony, the adjustable rims need little if any tightening ever. But that little bit of tightening, like on the first rainy day you play, makes all the difference. Yes, the bridge is OK standing up on these. But many guys lay them down anyway.

Joel,

I see what you mean about size.  As luck would have it, I've just begun reading "America's Instrument, The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century" by Philip F. Gura and James F. Bollman, and am just getting into the parts where they observe that these banjos are larger than modern ones, up to 14 inches across!



Joel Hooks said:

 ...Check out my photo album "Minstrel Hall of Fame" to see examples of they types of banjos used by popular and professional players in the mid to late 19th century.  Touring throughout the world, you will notice that large banjos were the common choice for the popular player.

there are also waterproofing sprays (the same kind you use on leather shoes) that do have some effect where reducing (but not eliminating) sag is concerned. i now use this method on all my banjos, but it is much simpler on a banjo with tensioning hardware, as you can remove the head after originally setting it in order to apply the various deadly chemicals and solvents necessary to repel water.

Nonsense. I've been roasting banjo heads for 20 years. Wood fire, charcoal fire, little electric light bulbs. The only thing that killed them was that place under right arm where they tend to rot out. At least that's been my experience. Age will dull them, after a couple of generations. Dave

Dan'l said: (edited for clarity, brevity, and levity)

 tightening a banjo over a fire; ...will shorten the life of the skin head, leading to brittleness and changing the sound over the remaining life of the head.  

As with anything, life-spam can be a result of surroundings and activities.  I don't doubt for a second that with the fire method it may indeed dry out the head a tad, done over and over, but that's what these natural skin heads do anyhow; they react to their environment, moisture coming and going.  As I sit here and my banjo is at home I know it's changing as the day goes by: heat kicks on and off, the air circulates, warms and cools, the cat knocks it over (one time so far...damn cat).  I'd like to get another bridge or two, but right now alls I got is one, on my one banjo, a tackhead, and at two 19th century reenacting events, fire.  At home, yeah, different story, all the comforts.  I'd just say to be loyal to history and stick with a skin head for the truer minstrel banjo experience.  Enjoy!

Re:  Preheating of banjo heads--   One of my favorite memories of Bob Flesher was during a little concert he gave at the Augusta Workshop in the mid 90's.  He was in full costume, top hat and all, and with a great flourish, he brandished a Bic lighter under his banjo head (an original 1860's banjo) to demonstrate how fearless he was about drying out the soggy head.  As he kept his eyes trained on the audience, a warm orange glow appeared on his banjo as the handkerchief he had stuffed in the back caught fire.  We all laughed our butts off as Bob jumped about three feet in the air and frantically extinguished the fire.  So, it's OK to use fire on your instrument, but don't try to show off at the same time.  The results may be less than satisfactory.  Sorry Bob, I couldn't resist.

Great Story Rob. So many lessons to be learned!

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