Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I play standard clawhammer banjo but I'm interested in exploring the roots of banjo - ie: minstrel banjo.  But, the thought of a fretless, partial fretless or even fretless with markers scares me.  Does a banjo HAVE to be fretless to be considered a true "Minstrel" banjo?

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Thanks, Joel, for BOTH answers!

Hi Steve, FWIW mandolins did not become popular or even widely known in the US until after the Spanish Students toured in 1880 causing the popularity of an instrument that they did not even play (it is worth a little googleing).  Mandolins would have been nearly entirely unknown by solders during the ACW.

Mandolins at reenactments (esp Gibson flat pattern) are as anachronistic as arch top guitars or 1911 Colt .45s.

For some reason living historians turn a blind eye to music and instruments accepting "old time string bands" in place of documented music. Something I never understood (even when I was a "reenactor" of the 1880s).

Sorry for the drift. 

Steve Stroot said:

I, too, was unsure about when banjos became fretted.  It seems to me that if guitars and mandolins were fretted during the Minstrel era then at least some banjos would have been fretted as well.  Strumelia is correct in saying that a 1900 Fairbanks would not properly represent a Civil War era instrument.  However, if Minstrelsy continued into the early 1900's (as indicated by the Encyclopedia Britanica), then it seems reasonable to believe that fretted banjos could well have been utilized in minstrel music.  

Since you are tossing out dates, Joel, I'm interested in the transition between citterns/English guitars and the guitars as we know them.  I'm thinking it may have started around 1820 and became more complete within 15-20 years(?)  Any insights on that?  I liked the two dates you offered on fretted banjos.....if you (or anyone else) have any for the above question.

That is a good question Al, I don't know much about guitars (German or Spanish) other then the two books I have read on Martin Guitars and attempting to work through Carcassi about 10 years ago.

Well, you can't know everything but thanks for responding!

I have a Dogwood fretless and because I’m essentially at a beginner’s level kinda intimidates me. I just put Nylgut strings on it and playing it seems a little easier. I play Bass, guitar and Mandolin so I’ used to having frets. No frets also on the fiddle is also daunting. 

From what I've read and understand, the originals did not as they were modeled after the gourd instruments that did not have frets. However, as the banjo evolved, frets were added (borrowed from the guitar). For the era, I'd say either/or...I had the same anxiety as you and I just jumped into the deep end. It's not as difficult as you think. Let your ear be your guide. Boucher necks have markers in the design. And most 5th string pegs are at the 5th fret, which will get you up and running...

Thanks! Strumelia’s advice and yours sounds good. 



Rob Mohr said:

From what I've read and understand, the originals did not as they were modeled after the gourd instruments that did not have frets. However, as the banjo evolved, frets were added (borrowed from the guitar). For the era, I'd say either/or...I had the same anxiety as you and I just jumped into the deep end. It's not as difficult as you think. Let your ear be your guide. Boucher necks have markers in the design. And most 5th string pegs are at the 5th fret, which will get you up and running...

They were selling both fretted and fretless banjos in the 1880s. If your concern is civil war era, every picture I have seen with soldiers and common people were fretless.  There were some banjos that had fret lines cut into the neck, but did not actually have frets.  Even if you see fret lines in a photo there is no guarantee that there were actual frets there.

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