Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This weekend I had the good fortune to play with a group of mid-nineteenth century musicians at Mark Weems' house (his lovely wife Julee was out of town).  Mark had a brand new Ashborn reproduction fretted banjo which he let me play.  It was a very fine instrument.  Jim Pentecost was also there with a gorgeous newly acquired 1880's fretted banjo with square hooks and a rounded heel. I played that one too.  I had so much fun playing these that the next day I did something I almost never ever do.  I got out my circa 1885 Charles Dobson with the 11 and 1/2 inch skin head and gut strings and played it all afternoon.  I don't have anything against frets, it's just that I learned to play clawhammer fretless and very rarely play a fretted instrument.  I must admit it was so easy to play I somehow felt I was cheating.  Now this instrument was designed to be played with gut strings and is perfect for stroke style, but it was also meant to be played guitar style.  I feel I may be playing the old Dobson a lot more in the future.  It plays like "buttah."  Is this somehow cheating?  I hope not.  After all, all of Joe Ayers' first minstrel tapes were played on a modern fretted instrument.  Do any of you die hard fretless players have an opinion on this one way or the other? --Rob Morrison

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I am thinking about building a kit, or picking up another fretless.  I did briefly own an old SS Stewart several years ago that was re-'boarded as a fretless.  It was great fun to play, but I didn't know enough about it, got into a rut of playing the same old stuff, so I sold it.  Too bad.

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