Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I have what seems as though it must be a stupid question......

Why does the "Complete Preceptor For the Banjo", c1851 show a tuning diagram of "GECF,C", which seems as though it is to be played in 'C' and 'F', yet the included music is in 'D' and 'G'?

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That is because it is actually fiddle and fife music. The book was obviously not well thought out enough to provide any meaning to anyone actually trying to play it on the banjo. The "tuning" is tossed into the front of the book...then fend for yourself.

Fairly common in various trades to try and rush something (anything!) to market to rake advantage of a new demand.

The book was obviously not well thought out enough to provide any meaning to anyone actually trying to play it on the banjo.

Might be a case of ...just because you 'can' play something on the banjo, doesn't always mean that you 'should' play on the banjo.

Or maybe a variation would be-

The definition of a gentleman (or lady) is someone who can play all tunes on the banjo...but doesn't.


Al, Joe Ayers' lecture "Joel Walker Sweeney and the Registration of the Banjo in Print Music - 1840-1848", which he presented at the Sweeney Convergence last year, contains the following:

"The banjo under Sweeney was breaking away from any idiosyncratic folk patterns to establish itself as a fully melodic instrument… He played in a fully melodic style with simple classical sounding intros and end tags that European Americans could relate to. This is a process in motion being carried out in stages. That is why there are no obvious or familiar banjo patterns in this early period. This period, 1840-1848, is clearly the period of the banjo’s entry into recorded or transcribed music and the focus is on its melodic side... Howe's initial C tuning, that is barely used in his own preceptor, applies well to the early Sweeney tunes in that key. They become very playable right where they are within the score... It is not unimportant that it requires both of Howe's given tunings, first C, then D, to play the Sweeney sheet music... What it indicates is consistency between Sweeney and Howe concerning banjo tuning."

It is also plausible, given the documented history of banjo pitch continually rising, that that was simply a common pitch for early banjos that was being raised to D and G in order to facilitate playing with fiddles. My gourd banjo sounds great in C and F.

There is also, of course, no reason to think that a talented black banjoist could not have played melodically before Sweeny. Black musicians had already been playing melodic European melodies on violins and flutes etc. for generations. In fact, it may have been this general movement that effected the physical developments of the instrument itself during that period. (I mean, I've played Pete Ross's reproduction of that Caribbean banza and you can't play it above what would be the third fret.)  I would suspect also that since Sweeny learned directly from African Americans, some of these musical cadences must have remained in his playing even when he was playing some established European melody, and that indeed, this was what lit the era's musical hearts on fire. By the time we get to Converse, however, it does seem that a "disengagement" has occurred.

For an example of a very early transcription of banjo playing (Batchelder's Imitation of the Banjo):


This piece is heavy on rhythm rather than melody and makes heavy use of the "thumb string".

I strongly suspect that the published tutorial pieces emphasizing melody probably give a distorted idea of how the banjo was commonly played in the early days. The thumb string was there for a reason, and it was retained by the white folks who would naturally have dropped the fifth string at the outset if they weren't really using it.

I have found several pictorial representations of banjo's in the 1840's (Sweeny's "De Old Jaw Bone" sheet music cover, for instance) that appear to only have 4 long melody strings and no thumb string. It is possible there were hybrid instruments out there right before Sweeny's popularity solidified the modern 5 string form. Maybe one will turn up one day. Of course the fifth string is frequently used as a melody note as well as a "drone" string. I suspect that just like in today's old-time banjo world, some players would have played very rhythmically and others more melodically. The Irish, who play heavily melodic music, seem to have dropped the thumb string pretty quickly!

As for the music you posted, it is quite interesting. From a very preliminary play-through, it sounds a lot like Sweeny's Old Jonny Boker, or Ole Virginy Breakdown. Thanks for posting!

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