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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There were over 100 "banjo tutors" published in the US before 1930 including the "minstrel tutors."

Most are easy to find if you look-- the "classic banjo ning" site has a bunch and I have put a lot on the Internet archive.  There are more being posted everyday.  They are all free.

Before the mid to late 1870s the banjo that was the subject of popular culture and the "tutors" were part and parcel of the minstrel show.  I don't want to get into what is or is not a "banjo"-- for the discussion it is the 5 string banjo in the form post Sweeney era.

It was not until that time when there was a sort of movement of banjoists (who played in minstrel shows) who wanted to just be banjoists and not corked up.  Part of that was the "contest" (sometimes called the "pugilistic era" in period documentation).  This is where they had (many times phony) contests to see who was the "best banjoist."  The Dobson family seemed to be at the head of this.  What it did was get people to go and see a banjo concert without minstrelsy.

Pretty much anything before the contest era would be "minstrel banjo."

The popular fad exploded in the early 1880s.  By that time banjos were tuned to "concert pitch" or with the fourth to C sometimes called "drop C" (dropsy?).  So the "modern" sound of the banjo came about in the early 1880s (we have narrowed the use of C pitch down to being common place about 1884).

Just to confuse things, "A notation" continued to be published well into the 1920s, but banjos were pitched to C.

Nope, not the third string-- a "false string" is one that is uneven in thickness and hardness.  It gets thicker and thinner.

The third string intonation issue is mostly a problem with 1930s wire strings.

Thicker and thinner?  Yikes, like badly made gut strings!

The third string intonation problem is still a problem today.  I encountered it just the other day when showing a lady where to position her bridge... we wound up having to slant it grossly in order to compromise between the two awfulnesses.  I find some banjos are much worse than others.  Not sure of why they're not all the same- maybe because different brand string sets have slight differences in gauges.  I use compensated bridges on my fretted banjos which reduces the issue to a level where I can at least not want to throw myself over a cliff.

Joel Hooks said:

Nope, not the third string-- a "false string" is one that is uneven in thickness and hardness.  It gets thicker and thinner.

The third string intonation issue is mostly a problem with 1930s wire strings.

That middle string drove me nuts on my wire rig too till my teacher explained that its very real and I wasn't crazy



Joel Hooks said:

There were over 100 "banjo tutors" published in the US before 1930 including the "minstrel tutors."

Yes, I see most of them simply call themselves instructions for 'the banjo' or for 'banjoists'.. without mentioning style labels like 'minstrel' or 'classic', as we do today.   I guess maybe each era considers itself to be the definitive norm and end product for 'banjo playing', without needing to stipulate.   

I don't want to get into what is or is not a "banjo"-- for the discussion it is the 5 string banjo in the form post Sweeney era.

Indeed, let's not!   lolol

Just to confuse things, "A notation" continued to be published well into the 1920s, but banjos were pitched to C.

I keep forgetting that.  

Okay...Citizen Scientist Tim Twiss signing off after one more entry....the Funeral March.

I conclude:

1. This music is possible but not practical on a fretless instrument

2. This was an ambitious effort by FBC to elevate the banjo from it's current status

3.Having frets and playing in the pitch indicated improves the playability and intonation quality of the performance.

uuugh now I want a fretted banjo haha

YES,,,you do. You are a monster

1. This (guitar/classic style) music is possible but not practical on a fretless instrument

2. This was an ambitious effort by FBC to  "elevate"  the banjo from it's current status

3.Having frets and playing in the pitch indicated improves the playability and intonation quality of the performance of classic style banjo repertoire.

there I fixed it for you.  :)

Guitar-style tunes are definitely easier to play and generally speaking sound better up the neck on a fretted banjo, and I'm at the point where I'll almost always reach for a fretted "concert pitch" banjo to work on one.

Tim, It's been really interesting to watch you revisit the repertoire (both banjo style and guitar style) with your fretted minstrel rig; those up-the-neck come alive in a different way; on a fretless banjo playing up the neck often feels more like a daredevil acrobatic feat than a nice musical passage.  That is to say, that no matter how long and carefully I practice something like the end of Rail Road Polka, my odds of "sticking the landing" never feel much better than 50/50. 

(Granted, I've never practiced or played anywhere near as much as Tim or the pros of the mid-19th century.)

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