Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Ok.....so I have played a lot of this stuff, all of it on the fretless Minstrel in D/G tuning. I hypothesize that much of the music is NOT a good fit. In particular, I feel a need to revisit the Guitar Style stuff in the Green Converse. This time around, I will try it on a fretted Minstrel in E/A tuning. I'll post these as I go through them. From my brief encounter......I am finding this to be a more logical pairing. anyway...that is what this is all about ...right? Experimenting out in the open. I had a heck of a time on some of those on fretless. Your experience??? Love to hear it.

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Indeed!! What might sound good to us, doesnt always mean it sounds good to the people on the other side of the banjo...

Switching banjos isn't a bad idea. Certain music and progressions, fingering, etc sound better on some banjos than others, due to the banjo construction , strings, heads, etc. I always find it easier to barre and play up the neck on frets. They all have there own personality!!

New York March was an easy one, but as it moves through, the intonation required for the chords spells F R E T S

Well, the guitar style was the beginning of the march to classic banjo style, right?

Yes....I think it was. I find it interesting to see all this music in transition. Dome of it seems right in the cracks, doesn't it? 

I wish I had one of them fretted minstrel rigs to try out. It does seem like it would be fun. Especially for later tunes in E/A. I bet they will sound much tighter.

It plays equally well in Stroke. Doesn't matter

Yeah I listened to both new and old videos and both were on point. I did enjoy seeing that weird bridge chord thing.

You will notice it more as I progress to the more difficult tunes

Tim I agree that those guitar style pieces really call for fretted banjos.  Just as the classic banjo repertoire does. In fact, imho the guitar style in the tutors already 'was' classic style banjo, no longer 'stroke style'. 

Guitar style relies less on drone strings, and more on up-picked closed positions up and down the neck.  In that sense, it parallels the very same differences between bluegrass (up picking with closed chords all up and down the neck) and down-stroked clawhammer (also called stroke style) which relies on open tunings, mostly low on the neck and lots of open drone string incorporated.

To me, guitar style sounds and feels more modern than stroke style.  Even more so when tuned up a step and with frets.  Not saying guitar style is 'bad', but my ears tell me it's Classic banjo.

Which brings me to the question:  Is there a real difference between say the guitar style playing in the Converse book ...and typical Classic style banjo?   I mean, does the fact that a piece is presented by Converse in the green book just automatically make it 'minstrel banjo'?  How do we define/determine what is or isn't 'minstrel banjo'?  By the time period?  By the characteristics of the tunes or banjos themselves?  By whether it's uppicked or downpicked or fretted or unfretted, or the tuning?  Or by whether the piece was actually played in minstrel shows by minstrel performers?  And are the answers to all these questions merely relative personal opinions?   Are there clear definitions set out somewhere for this stuff?

"Guitar Style" is the same as "Classic Banjo."

GS was to differentiate it from stroke or "banjo style" when that was necessary.

The term "classic banjo" came about during the "folk music" scene to differentiate it from "folk" styles or bluegrass when a description was necessary. Before the folk banjo, one could say they played "regular banjo" (as opposed to plectrum banjos) with no more description needed.

Neither are perfect descriptions and "classic banjo" has caused people to focus in on the word "classic" thinking it means "classical" for some reason (it does not).  Despite books and articles about banjo history making such claims, in nearly all cases the authors are completely oblivious to what the actual repertoire was because the means of recording was written notation--a language most of them do not read.  It reminds me of someone trying to write a history of Mexico and not being able to speak Spanish.  One would not get very far.

There is no doubt why frets are the norm these days and fretless is a subgenera.

They make playing cleanly with a crisp and clear tone easy and that allows one to focus on the music.  That is not to say that one could not play with the same accuracy and clarity on a smooth fretboard.

A lot of the "controversy" historically about frets came from the fact that manufacturers were selling banjos to the public.  The general public would not be able to understand things like false strings.

S. S. Stewart wrote two pre-journal circulars (that I know of) in the late 1870s (about 1878-79). And in them he claimed that all good banjos should be fretted with a three octave neck (22 frets).

He took this claim back shortly after he started selling banjos with any velocity.  Why?  Strings were often "false" or uneven in thickness and hardness.  With a smooth fingerboard this is not much of a problem, but with frets the banjo will sound like the intonation is off.  When average joe budding banjoist buys a $20-$30 banjo and finds that after he puts on a new set of strings the banjo plays out of tune in the higher positions, well, it is the banjo's fault not the strings.  It must have been fretted wrong.

That gets a return visit or complaint letter. If you are trying to run a small business then it is a big distraction dealing with people complaining about something that is not really a problem. The easiest way to prevent this is to not sell fretted banjos, or at least tell people they were on their own if they bought one.  If they insist on frets, only give them 17 to 19, that way you can minimize complaints of false strings.

The subject of false strings was a constant in period periodicals.  Eventually strings got better and by the mid 1890s SSS (and others) began to offer three octave necks again.

Fretless banjos are very fun and very musical but they are limiting in what one can reasonable do with them.  Once you push them to the edge one encounters what Tim has.

Frets are a big improvement in instrument technology and opens up a new world of banjo music if one wants to go beyond the two part short pieces that fill the "tutors."

Strumelia said:

Well, the guitar style was the beginning of the march to classic banjo style, right?

Hi Joel!

I'm glad to know you feel the guitar style is actually the same thing as classic style.  It certainly simplifies discussions!   :)

I also am interested to learn the name "classic style" did not come about until the folk revival.  That makes sense, just as when all banjos were fretless, they were just called 'banjos'...and later when most banjos were fretted, the minority without frets were no longer just 'banjos' but became 'fretless banjos'.

Lots of the early banjo tutor books and sheet music clearly labeled or titled themselves with the word "minstrel".  Were there later banjo tutor books that contained only the up picking/classic style and if so, how did they title or describe themselves?... surely they would have wanted to make it clear they were not presenting the now passe stroke style pieces... so how did they make that clear- did they still continue to describe and label the arrangements as 'guitar style' for a while?

(Frets) make playing cleanly with a crisp and clear tone easy and that allows one to focus on the music.  That is not to say that one could not play with the same accuracy and clarity on a smooth fretboard.

Definitely frets make it easier to play fast and notey tunes.  Your fingers don't have to stretch quite as far with frets either. And yes the tone can be clearer/sharper with metal frets.

But there's something else aside from tone- intonation on the part of the player.  I'm not talking just about the 'false string' problem.  I find that there are LOTS of players out there who cannot not hear when a note is slightly out of tune.  I mean 'slightly' enough to sound sour.  Thank goodness for modern affordable electronic tuners!  A fretted banjo, if tuned properly, will mostly solve that problem for people.  But the same person on a properly tuned fretless banjo can sound pretty bad if they just don't hear their small intonation errors.  If you have a good ear, your fingers will automatically adjust to sweeten any off note. 
The fretted banjo that is tuned with an electronic tuner enables folks without 'good ears' to play relatively in tune.  Except when their tuner is calibrated slightly differently from the people they are playing with (!) and except for ol' the middle string intonation issue that you refer to as 'false string' that can be made less infuriating with a compensated bridge.

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