Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I am curious...what led you into this style of instrument and playing? I came fresh at it with ZERO banjo experience. I like history, and while learning more about the 4th Michigan at a muster in Jackson MIch, I stumbled upon the 2nd South Carolina Band on a cassette. Something really appealed to me about it. That led to finding Bob Flesher and his resources. Then I decided....should I noodle around aimlessly like a spacey new age musician, or try to play this style as it should be, just to see what it really was. I hooked up with Briggs' site where I got all my information, and encouragement. I bought  a decent instrument, some clothes and just started showing up at stuff. Then, AEBG happened, and it really pulled the picture together. I think the internet is great, because there were no players where I live....you really need to see the style. I guess it was a curiosity about something so obscure. Although it is an endless endevour, I still feel like I can "put my arms around it" grasp it, and understand it.

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My journey with low strung, skin head, fretless banjos began when the Wunderlich Hunchback showed up at my door. Although I had heard and enjoyed the more classical minstrel styles--the rough tubby tone of the Hunchback seemed to inspire a more rowdy, down home frailing style to my ear--so I kind of just let the banjo play itself.
When I got my John Bowlin 1865 fretless--the same type of experimentation continued. Yes--I enjoy the old minstrel styles--but they just seemed too refined for my particular banjos. :) I've tried to come up with a banjo inspired style rather than an exact historical copy of a style or tune. Hope there is room here for this kind of free thinking and banjo experimentation. Just put up a new video of "John Bowlin's Groundhog Strut."
Happy St. Patricks Day,
Mary Z. Cox
It played itself? I can hardly play my fretted banjo, I think I may need one of those automagical models! I started with reenacting quite a few years ago, but at the local rondezvous, most of the music is bluegrass. I felt that period music was more to the point, even if it was mostly after hours when the camp is closed to the public. So I'm going to try to rectify it a bit, though I may find some resistance to the idea.
When you've played an instrument a long time--the different types of banjo--by their woods, strings, skins etc--seem to suggest ways of playing that enhance the voice of an instrument and when you experiment with individual banjo voices--they really do seem to almost play themselves--not literally--but there is kind of a trueness in tone that comes alive when a certain banjo is played a certain style.

There are many folks who take a banjo and adjust it to make it sound like the player wants it to sound and when I was beginning I tried that too. (things like forcing a bright banjo to sound thumpy by putting a sock in it, or imagining frets on your fretless banjo--making it sound too exact)

All I'm saying is a clear, bright banjo may sound wonderful playing Celtic tunes and an A scale spun rim banjo may sound nicer doing classical tunes and a gourd banjo may sound more wonderful with a rough, rowdy style to
complement it's fretless neck and low tuned gut strings.

When banjos are forced to the player's style--the player plays the banjo--but when the player conforms to the banjo--the banjos really do seem to participate a bit. :)
Best wishes,
Mary Z
I think there are two parts of this, for me. First, as kind of an amateur musician, I had been trying to make and record experimental/noise/pop music for years, but frankly I lacked the creativity and ability to really produce anything original that was worth listening to. Somehow (and I don't really remember how) I stumbled onto old-time music, probably as an offshoot of my interest in pre-war blues. Anyhow, as someone who had been more or less obsessed with the idea that, to be a musician or artist of any merit you HAD TO create and play your own music, I was completely taken in with the notion that in the world of old-time music the primary means of expression was through participating in and interpreting the same pool of traditional songs, ballads, tunes, etc. It was sort of a revelation that really changed the way I consumed and thought about music.

Building banjos followed very shortly after that, I think. I was working in downtown Boston as court reporter at the time and one sweltering Summer afternoon, while browsing a bookstore right near the Old South Church, I stumbled on an old copy of Dennis Waring's book, "Making Folk Instruments in Wood." It was an amazing little manual for constructing all kinds of instruments: hammered dulcimers, glockenspiels, tone boxes, and, best of all, mountain banjos. A friend of mine is an engineer and MIT graduate and had a really nice workshop in his basement, so we started to try to build a mountain banjo from the diagram. It took FOREVER, and when it was done I thought it was just about the best thing I had ever seen. Of course, in retrospect it is a more or less horrendous, incredibly crude rendering of that instrument, but it got me hooked, and I make one banjo after another, each one getting slowly better than the previous one.

Finally my interest in minstrel banjos was, I think, a natural progression from that first banjo I built, my growing interest in old-time music and its roots, and my natural interest in history (I am a librarian now, and was a history major in undergrad). I'm pretty sure that my first actual experience with a minstrel banjo was at the Lexington Music Emporium, formerly owned in part by Jim Bollman. One day while I was in there (I kind of hung out there on the weekends) I saw a giant old reproduction Boucher. I was completely taken aback when I picked it up and found that the enormous, solid looking instrument was light as a feather and the sound (despite the fact that I could hardly play it, whatwith the size and lack of frets) was just about the best thing I'd ever heard. Ever since then the combination of craft, history, and music represented by the early banjo has been something I've never gotten tired of learning about.

The rest is history.
Paul Certo said:
I think I may need one of those automagical models!

There's a book about one of those (a magical banjo that more or less plays itself). If one is into fantasy/SF type stories, I more or less recommend it. (Actually, it's part of a trilogy, and that gets a little creepy for my taste. But the magic banjo part is pretty cool.)


PS -- It's not a minstrel banjo, though.
Actually, I'm only joking with that comment. I mostly read historical stuff and once in a while a thriller for a change of pace. I'm fixing to start another of Allan Ekert's books. Besides, a truly automagical banjo wouldn't need me getting in it's way!
My relationship with banjo has always been a bit curious because I grew up in Massachusetts listening to 1950s and 1960s jazz, The Beatles, and 1970's hard rock. I have always liked the sound of the banjo itself, but I don't particularly like country music or most bluegrass. So, it wasn't until a few tech-savvy old-time players began posting clawhammer tunes to the internet that I became aware of this whole other world of old-time music... and it was around that time that I also realized that, as an adult, I could darn well buy a banjo and learn how to play it.

So I did! I've been playing clawhammer for about 8 years, some years more than others... but I remember seeing Bob Flesher's minstrel stuff for sale very early in my banjo research, and I had always been curious about it. I never really pursued it though, because it's hard enough to find old-time enthusiasts in central Massachusetts, much less early banjo enthusiasts.

And then two banjos more or less fell into my lap: a gourd and a tackhead. While waiting for them, I came across Carl and Tim's abundant clips on youtube, and here I am. Old-time is fun, but there's something really primal about these early tunes... the excuse to acquire and wear period clothing is welcome too. I've never been drawn into CW reenacting, but I'm beginning to feel like I've entered the outer orbit of that whole scene. I'm really just getting started with the stroke style, but it's a blast and I'm glad there's such an amiable community online.
Shiloh, 1997. Shiloh, muddy Shiloh. Sitting under a tent fly in the pouring rain wishing there was something to do besides playing Mumbly Peg and drinking Old Crow. After a wet walk through Sutler Row I found myself in Mr. Wunderlich's Banjo Emporium. I thought to myself "I must have one for myself." I bought a copy of Joe Ayers Dan Emmett tape and enjoyed it on the ride home. A while later and a few calls to George (for dimensions) I set out to build a banjo. I got the hoop from him, a 13 inch behemoth and with the help of a former cabinet maker cut out a neck. In about 5 days I was finished. In about 3 more days I was able to play almost every song on the tape I had. (Keep in mind I have been playing guitar by ear since age 7.)
Some other gents and myself started a Minstrel Band (The Allendale Melodians), they still play, I do not. Have been on a layoff from the music for a bit, due to a general lack of interest, and am just now picking it back up.

Glad I found this place.
Interesting thread. I guess it's time to add my two-cents worth.

I've been playing clawhammer since 1986 -- sometimes more actively than others. I knew nothing about early banjo until this year when it just sneaked up on me.

Last year I bought Weidlich's "The Early Minstrel Banjo" with the idea of playng some of the tunes on my Chuck Lee banjo, but found the book hard to follow and put it back on the shelf.

On a visit to Chuck's shop in March 2010, he showed me two Thornburg banjos -- a large gourd and a grain measure tackhead -- he wanted to sell. I was curious about them, but not terribly interested. That night on YouTube I saw a Mike Seeger playing a large gourd banjo. Loved the sound, and bought Chuck's. I played around with it not knowing what I was doing. Found out how to tune it (thanks to Tim Twiss) and learned one tune from an MP3 -- Camp Meeting on the Fourth of July (with elevated base). It has been an addition to all my storytelling gigs since then.

Bought the tackhead a month later, but really didn't do much with it until late summer when I met up with Joel Hooks in Dallas who showed me how to deal with it. Been working hard on stroke style since then and have about 10-12 tunes I can play pretty well: Circus Jig, Git up in the Morning, Mary Blane, Walk into the Parlor, Come Day Go Day, Old Dan Tucker, Joe Sweeney's Jig, Arkansas Traveler, Camp Meeting on the Fourth of July, and others, all with varying levels of competence. I even play them on the Lee banjo sometimes.

I've discovered that many of the stroke style moves shown in the instructors were some I was already doing in clawhammer as a result of just playing around with the instrument and "making them up" as I went. Others, especially triplets and their variations, 6/8 time, and the more frequent use of the thumb, had to be newly-learned.
I'm putting a few of my own ideas into some of the tunes, but trying to stay within the stroke style conventions -- adding occasional triplets, etc., where they are not indicated in the tab. I still haven't developed an ability to translate standard notation into banjo tunes.

I have no plans at the moment to get into CW reenacting etc., and dressing the part, but the tackhead is finding a niche in my Civil War story set. The gourd is always a hit with its great mellow sound and terrific eye-candy qualities. (I keep it hidden from the kids until I'm ready to use it).

My goal is to play stroke style as authentically as I can, sometimes pairing it up with clawhammer and playing the same tune in both styles on the same banjo.

But it all boils down to one thing: stroke style is great fun to play.

This web site has been extremely helpful -- thanks to one and all for making the music accessible.

Dan Gibson, Storyteller/Banjoplayer
Dallas, TX; Burlington, NC

Since I asked , I better tell, If I hadnt already, I forget sometimes.


 I was searching yt for bones playing. I had seen a guy playing them and they semed too fun.  I came across  Old Cremona's channel,  finding Cuffie going like crazy on the bones. And this guy [Carl Anderton]  playing a banjo like I had never heard before.  I was a Doc fan and loved his claw,,, but this was even better!  i kept watching and looking until I bought a banjo off yt,  and then found this site. 

  Thanks to Carl Anderton for making so many performance vids,, and Tim Twiss for so many instructional videos.  You both have made the  hidden,, known     Ive played different inst for yrs,,, but this one seems to fit my love of the old , love of history  and just everything about it.


Believe it or not, I first remember liking folk music in 4th grade music class when we had to sing "Piping Tim of Galway" (tune of "Rakes of Mallow").  I found that I liked bluegrass when I saw the Dillards on Andy Griffith in the mid-60s.......but I played rock & Roll in high school but started fooling around with a cheap banjo my sister had.

When I was a senior in high school, I watched Pete Seeger's "Rainbow Quest" on PBS and that got me going from bluegrass to folk music and I started playing in that style.  Within 5 or 10 years, however, I was playing concertina, and then fiddle and obsessed with Celtic music. both Irish and Scottish, and some Cape Breton and Scandanavian.  During that time, Bob Winans lived in the area and he gave a workshop at the Paint Creek Folklore Society but for some reason, the minstrel banjo didn't hit me, then, perhaps because I was too much into fiddle, etc.

I went though steaks when I played nothing for years at a time but while visiting Mufreesboro Battlefield, purchased a set of CDs with CW music...including a couple cuts of John Hartford and Bob Carlin.  The low-down plunk of the minstrel banjo did something to me.  I began to look for more and purchased the CD, "Minstrel Banjo Style". 

On my birthday in 2007, my (now ex-) wife asked me what I wanted to do.  I saw, in the newspaper, that a minstrel banjo player was playing at Stone Schoolhouse in Ann Arbor.  I wanted to go to see it.  As it turned out, it was Tim Twiss and the banjo he played is now mine as Tim decided to purchase a different one.

Being that I have been fascinated by the antebellum era, this is a perfect fit, and I have become interested in songs again, whereas with the fiddle it was all tunes.......and though I still would like to play fiddle, banjo is so much more relaxing!!   I now have a tough time even thinking of the minstrel banjo and the modern banjo as the same instrument!

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