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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Nonsense indeed.  I've been drying my tackhead over the fire for years, still using the same head.  Sounds great, dry.


Ol' Dan Tucker said:

Nonsense. 

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.  

Interesting responses here, and I've learned more than I knew to ask!  One more side question, I'm following the progress of a medieval living history group makin parchment, and a former co-op student of mine is a hunter who would probably provide me with all the deer hides I could ever need, if I asked...

Is deer hide any good for banjo heads?

No. Not when you find out what you have to go through. Yes, if you want to de-hair it, soak it, scrape it, then use nasty chemicals or bury it in the ground and let the microbes do their thing. Goat and calf is worth the 15 bucks. Just tryin' to save you some misery. (my boss gave me some, and the results were bad).

Heheh.  No fan of misery here!  I'm definitely going the goat or calf route, just curious.

Thanks!

Bell Banjos said:

No. Not when you find out what you have to go through. Yes, if you want to de-hair it, soak it, scrape it, then use nasty chemicals or bury it in the ground and let the microbes do their thing. Goat and calf is worth the 15 bucks. Just tryin' to save you some misery. (my boss gave me some, and the results were bad).

I'm curious- Do they know exactly what kind of hide was used on the oldest large minstrel banjos?  Have these old minstrel banjo heads been tested to determine the animal used, or are we just guessing about them?

I know that many of the oldest mountain-made banjos from 1900-1950 seem to have had groundhog skin heads.  Dwight Diller tells of the Hammons family using cat skin occasionally in WV.  {{shudder}}

Strumelia, read Al Baur's letters in the Stewart Banjo and Guitar Journal.  He gives a detailed description (and quite humorous) of obtaining and fitting a banjo head.

Converse wrote a "back in the old days" type story about Dave Wambold stealing a dog and killing it for it's skin.  It is a cute story but sounds of all the random "old timers" folksy tales that have no doubt been embellished over the years.

"Back in my day blah blah blah..."

Drum heads were plenty and those were calf, but if you ask a reenactor they were plastic with a fake fiber coating... it looks close enough.

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