Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I'm in civil war Reenactment and my unit is starting a string band. I
would like to play the banjo but don't know where to start. I have
a little guitar experience but I have never played a banjo. What type of
banjo would be good to start with?

What would you suggest I do to learn. There aren't minstrel banjo instructors in my area, is there a book or
dvd that would be helpful?

Any help you can give would be very appreciated. 

Thank you,

Daniel

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Hi Daniel

I'm a relative newbie myself, so I'll leave specific advice to the veteran players - but having some guitar experience should set you well on your way. For CW reenactment you would want to get an early style banjo - there are several makers here on this site. I'm only starting to scratch the surface of the deeper historical aspects of early banjo, so again I'll defer to others who might be able to recommend a specific maker if total accuracy is what you're after.

As for books, you're in luck: The Banjo Factory has scans of Thomas Briggs' 1855 banjo instructor online: http://www.banjofactory.com/Brigg's%20Banjo%20Instructor.htm This, combined with Tim Twiss' video demonstration of Briggs' 5 basic movements as well as his numerous clips of videos from that book, was what got me going. You can spend hours watching early banjo clips on YouTube; it's great for inspiration and for finding tunes that really speak to you. (In my experience it's a lot easier to learn a song when it gets stuck in your head and won't get out.)

Good luck!
Thank you for the links. They are very helpful!

Daniel

Andy Chase said:
Hi Daniel

I'm a relative newbie myself, so I'll leave specific advice to the veteran players - but having some guitar experience should set you well on your way. For CW reenactment you would want to get an early style banjo - there are several makers here on this site. I'm only starting to scratch the surface of the deeper historical aspects of early banjo, so again I'll defer to others who might be able to recommend a specific maker if total accuracy is what you're after.

As for books, you're in luck: The Banjo Factory has scans of Thomas Briggs' 1855 banjo instructor online: http://www.banjofactory.com/Brigg's%20Banjo%20Instructor.htm This, combined with Tim Twiss' video demonstration of Briggs' 5 basic movements as well as his numerous clips of videos from that book, was what got me going. You can spend hours watching early banjo clips on YouTube; it's great for inspiration and for finding tunes that really speak to you. (In my experience it's a lot easier to learn a song when it gets stuck in your head and won't get out.)

Good luck!
The first rule is do not fear notation. There is really only 3 natural keys that most music for banjo is written in + minors.

The Briggs' book, while the standard, is in the wrong tuning, and documentation supports that the pitch it gives, if used, was not used for long. We should all be tuned to "A."

Now, time for a "heads up." Are you going to play modern arraignments with modern techniques on modern instruments? IN other words, is the guitarist going to attack his wire strings with a plectrum while someone whacks away on a bodhran? Or is your group attempting to give a historical informed presentation supported by documentation?

If the latter, prepare for the lonely road ahead. You will not be playing "old time" music, so in order to "jam" with other musicians at events, not in the know, you will have to compromise your hard earned skills.

Otherwise, watch Tim's videos, seek out the early tutor reprints, and while later, work on the Banjo Style exercises on pages 90-94 in "Converse's Analytical Banjo Method."

While very tempting, the simplified method books that are available are pretty confusing as they don't fully explain the very basics of what is going on via scales.

Also get a copy of "America's Instrument" by Gura and Bollman.
Sorry to be coming to this discussion late -- I've been "way over extended" again...

Though I agree not to fear notation, I disagree about the Briggs book being in "the wrong tuning."

There are two common tunings:

The "A" tuning used in Rice, Buckley and Converse.

and

The "G" tuning used in Briggs and the first Winner book -- but there are also several pieces in the 1860 Buckley book in that tuning and at least one in the Rice.

That being said, I do believe that the best of the historical tutors for learning technique on your own are those of Converse.
According to Albert Baur, though I've not seen it, the Winner book is the Briggs' book.

Both the Rice and Buckley books give instructions that to play in the keys of "D" and "G" you change the tuning (Rice- page 9, Buckley- page 7). They do not say to read the notation in those keys as of the banjo was pitched differently. And as the banjo can be played in the third natural position of "D" easily, why change the tuning?

I have a entirely baseless theory on why this change in pitch was included... Oliver Ditson & Co.. So they published a train load of the Briggs' book, which we know was still being sold in the late 19th century, written by Converse and Buckley. Then the Rice book written by Buckley or whoever, and so on. Consistency and saving face. These books were published just like any thing is, to sell. I'd not come right out and say that I'm selling a obsolete book.

Putting all of my nutty theories aside, I'm fairly confident that the reason the hobby has chosen the Briggs' pitch is because it sounds different. Low weird, and very different from the public's preconceived notions of the banjo. The "old time" trap of making things sound "old timey" whatever that is.

Tuning up our tubs makes them sound more like a banjo, clear, sharp and crisp.

I'm so far from "expert" on the subject, I hardly qualify as a banjo "crank," but I would say that these are the two common tunings of todays banjo historian, Briggs' being by far the most common.

Perhaps Converse discussed this in his writings... Carl?
What the heck does this mean?
deuceswilde said:
According to Albert Baur, though I've not seen it, the Winner book is the Briggs' book.
Tim Twiss said:
What the heck does this mean?
deuceswilde said:
According to Albert Baur, though I've not seen it, the Winner book is the Briggs' book.

Stewart's Journal June & July 1892, "Reminiscences Of A Banjo Player"

"After this "Howe's Instructor" several books were published, but they were generally copied after the Briggs' Instructor. I had several, but they have been mislaid, so at the present I cannot give the authors' names. I find one published by William Pond & Co., New York, in 1864 called "Winner's New Primer for the Banjo." This, as far as the banjo instruction part is concerned, is almost a verbatim copy of Briggs' book, and contains the same stereotyped information."

Another interesting comment made in his letter is... "I take it for granted that Briggs' did not recognize guitar style picking in playing the banjo." One might deduce that according to Baur's memory, guitar style was already common at the time of Briggs' publication.
OK -- if you look at the Winner, it has 39 pieces in it.

Only 8 of those pieces are in the Briggs book and the arrangements are different. Sure there are similarities in those 8 pieces but they aren't verbatim.

There are 3 pieces in the Winner book that are heavily influenced (nearly verbatim) by the same tunes in the Rice book. There are also 5 others that appear in Rice -- but in very different versions.

There are 22 pieces that appear in neither Rice nor Briggs.

Now, of course, that is just the tunes. The instruction is certainly influenced by Briggs but there are some differences there as well.

All in all, I'd say that Baur either had a poor memory or, more likely, an agenda. Probably a simple prejudice against the stroke style.

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I'd put a slightly more positive spin on the inclusion of the lower pitch in Rice and Buckley. Rice really only includes one piece in the lower tuning (if I recall). Buckley includes quite a few. I think it's likely that he was simply providing pieces for those who already played in the other tuning.

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At any rate, I think the Winner book deserves more attention than we have given it in the past.
I'd love to see a copy!

I do question the intended pitch to be used with the Rice and Buckley pieces. Later books, including the "Green Book" clearly want you to play in G and D without changing the way you read.

In addition the Buckley book double flags the Es played on the fifth string, yet the pieces in G and D don't get flagged. Could these just be filler culled from violin books?

Going into later books and music, pieces were thrown in D a lot of the time. The "Langey-Carl Fischer" tutor, 1959, still in A notation, and pretty much the same as the "Eclipse Self Instructor," 1905, after a quick count, gives 64 pieces in the keys of G and D. These also to be played using the normal system.

The Buckley book gives the scales for A and E with where to stop the strings. It does not give the same attention to playing in Briggs' positions.

Strangely, the first piece in D, "Original Essence" says "for violin." what does that mean?
O.K., it I should be sleeping instead of posting, but this has peaked my interests.

Sitting down with the Buckley book, I did a quick play through of the pieces in D and G looking for clues of intended pitch. Specifically, pieces using low G (forth string Briggs'). "Walk Around; by Picayune Butler," key of G, and "Butcher's Jig," also G, uses the low 4th and could not be played "tuned up."

Now here is the fun part, the last two measures in "The Pea Patch Jig" has low Gs in the key of A. How does that work? Three sharps in Briggs'?
http://www.zither-banjo.org/pages/home.htm

This is where I got mine. 1864, but uses Briggs' tuning. That may be some of the confusion with Bauer.

deuceswilde said:
I'd love to see a copy!
Compare it to "Camp Meeting-Jig" in Ryan's....lowest note on the fiddle. There is a lot of fiddle repertoire in Buckley. He even has written fiddle books. Much of it is just a straight copy into the banjo book, with a title change. This turns into a discussion of the fiddle/banjo connection, and the inseperable relationship they have. Easy filler, or common practice? Without a thumb string flag, the arrangements could go either way. (for banjoists). I remember that difficulty playing "Jake Bacchus' Jig" at AEBG II. I made my thumbstring "E", (ala Rice tuning, 2 sharps) which clashed with others' conception, which used "D" as a flag/open note.

"Now here is the fun part, the last two measures in "The Pea Patch Jig" has low Gs in the key of A. How does that work? Three sharps in Briggs'?"

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