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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Way back in this thread Joel advised "Do not fear notation"....good advice, to which we might add - Rule 2. "Do not fear opinions".
Thanks. The thread did kindof get away from the original question.



Ian Bell said:
Way back in this thread Joel advised "Do not fear notation"....good advice, to which we might add - Rule 2. "Do not fear opinions".
The short answer. (Based on what I did)

Ideally - acquire (buy, borrow, make) yourself a fretless minstrel style banjo. Mister Google can help you find makers - even instructions how to make one!
If this isn't possible or practical right away, get any old five-string banjo ( an open back style if you can find one) and put some nylon strings on it. You can order them online from Elderly Instruments if you can't find them in your local music store. (they're a slightly esoteric item) Speaking from personal experience you may find it to be a bit less intimidating starting out on a banjo with frets. While you're on the Elderly website look at their minstrel banjo instruction books. They have some modern ones done in a tab and some reprints of the original books from the 1800s. Get one or two of each. Spend some time with them and the banjo and watch a bunch of the videos on this site - heck, watch all of them! By then you will likely have figured out what to do next on your own.


Daniel Pownall said:
Thanks. The thread did kindof get away from the original question.



Ian Bell said:
Way back in this thread Joel advised "Do not fear notation"....good advice, to which we might add - Rule 2. "Do not fear opinions".
Thank you for the advice. I had done a little looking around at the videos on the website and wow.....so much to glean from!

Ian Bell said:
The short answer. (Based on what I did)

Ideally - acquire (buy, borrow, make) yourself a fretless minstrel style banjo. Mister Google can help you find makers - even instructions how to make one!
If this isn't possible or practical right away, get any old five-string banjo ( an open back style if you can find one) and put some nylon strings on it. You can order them online from Elderly Instruments if you can't find them in your local music store. (they're a slightly esoteric item) Speaking from personal experience you may find it to be a bit less intimidating starting out on a banjo with frets. While you're on the Elderly website look at their minstrel banjo instruction books. They have some modern ones done in a tab and some reprints of the original books from the 1800s. Get one or two of each. Spend some time with them and the banjo and watch a bunch of the videos on this site - heck, watch all of them! By then you will likely have figured out what to do next on your own.


Daniel Pownall said:
Thanks. The thread did kindof get away from the original question.



Ian Bell said:
Way back in this thread Joel advised "Do not fear notation"....good advice, to which we might add - Rule 2. "Do not fear opinions".
Yes, if you are not ready to commit by shedding out the cash for a good one, get a cheap second hand. Kays or similar can be had for $50-100. Then nylon strings.

Don't compromise and buy a "built in the style of" banjo if you are going for a documented impression. Buy from a builder that has put in the time and research to do it correct.

George Wunderlich gave a great lecture on theWilliam Boucher jr. banjo. These seem to be the most common variety, the "trade banjo" of the 50s.

Are you civilian? This will open up a lot more opportunity as as far a quality of banjo is concerned. Soldiers would have had a poor, crude instrument, if any.

When contacting a builder, ask questions. For example... "When designing this banjo did you measure an original to base it on?" "I thought Boucher banjos were painted red with black wood grain applied, why do you stain yours dark?"

Also keep in mind that flower-sifter or grain-measure banjos were often written about, but are not currently extant.

It all depends on how far you or your pocket-book wants to take it.

Five string gourd banjos are an anachronism, esp. of you are white.

Oh yes, use a calfskin head, don't believe the myths invented by the plastic head companies. Skin works just fine.
I would like to chime in on the key/tuning issue. If you play on your own, it does not matter whether you play in D/G or A/E tuning. If you like a brighter sound, play in A/E, if you like it deeper, play in D/G. When I am playing for myself, I find that the banjo drifts a little the two keys.

The real issue comes in when you play with other instruments. I at times play with fiddlers, guitarists, penny whistle (I wonder who plays whistle?), hammered dulcimer, etc. I tend to find that most tunes I am playing are in D or G, with a few tunes in C. There is an occasional tune in A or E, but this is rare. Needless to say, I generally use the D/G tuning. When I have both banjos with me, I sometimes tune one up to E/A. However, it is fairly rare that I end up using that banjo in ensemble play.
How do I know what key the banjo is in and how do I change it?

John Masciale said:
I would like to chime in on the key/tuning issue. If you play on your own, it does not matter whether you play in D/G or A/E tuning. If you like a brighter sound, play in A/E, if you like it deeper, play in D/G. When I am playing for myself, I find that the banjo drifts a little the two keys.

The real issue comes in when you play with other instruments. I at times play with fiddlers, guitarists, penny whistle (I wonder who plays whistle?), hammered dulcimer, etc. I tend to find that most tunes I am playing are in D or G, with a few tunes in C. There is an occasional tune in A or E, but this is rare. Needless to say, I generally use the D/G tuning. When I have both banjos with me, I sometimes tune one up to E/A. However, it is fairly rare that I end up using that banjo in ensemble play.
Daniel,

The standard tuning for D/G is as follows:

the Thumb/drone string is set to D. The bass string (the next string down ) is set to G, the remaining strings being tuned to D, F#, and A. You can set these pitches by using a guitar tuner or pitch pipes. The middle string is down one octave from the thumb string.

If you are still confused, let us know, and we will record some tuning pitches for y0u.

The E/A tuning is up 1 step from these notes.

...........................D/G tuning ...E/A tuning
short string .........D..................E
bass.....................G.................A
............................D.................E
............................F#...............G#
............................A.................B

I think Dan Wykes is right on target.  Remember, musicians play the music, not the other way around.

 

Now, don't forget to have fun.

 

Dan Gibson, Storyteller/Banjoplayer

Dallas, TX;  Burlington, NC

www.dangibson.net

Playing well IS fun!

Dan Gibson said:

I think Dan Wykes is right on target.  Remember, musicians play the music, not the other way around.

 

Now, don't forget to have fun.

 

Dan Gibson, Storyteller/Banjoplayer

Dallas, TX;  Burlington, NC

www.dangibson.net



Dan'l said:
Daniel -

The banjo tutor material consists of versions (not the originals) of some popular music including stage Minstrel music, but to play from that source exclusively is not very authentic. There was much other material (folk chanteys and spirituals and published hymnals, shape-note books, violin and piano tutors and sheet music etc.) that were in very much wider circulation and use, not to mention soldier's songs specifically.

Even more controversial is the likelihood more soldier-players did not learn from banjo tutors but picked up technique in the folk tradition, from other soldiers and from southern slaves directly and from watching Minstrel shows. This means technique was likely much less formal than that shown in the banjo tutors, if authenticity of your impression is important to you. That is, unless you are portraying Sam Sweeney or another professional Minstrel who donned the uniform.



Dan Wykes

Yeah, I dunno-- several issues Dan'l has with the Ning Minstrel group seem a little...specious, perhaps? I'm not wanting to argue with Dan'l. I'm way over that. He has his right to his opinion. But since he brought it up again, I'll offer a counter opinion based on my experiences with many of the group here.

First, the old notion that people who base their playing on the tutors "exclusively is not very authentic."

I'm not sure who Dan'l is referring to here, but each and every player I've met at the Gatherings had repertoire material outside of the tutors. Who are these stick-in-the-mud tutor-only obsessives? We need names.

Seriously, come to a Gathering and see for yourself. I always come home with new tunes, and am amazed at the groovy material that people have discovered.

Second, this notion that "soldier-players did not learn from tutors but picked up technique in the folk tradition...technique was much less formal...if authenticity is important..." unless you are portraying Sam Sweeney.

That leaves out any soldier or civilian who ever took a lesson from Frank Converse, or any of the other hundreds of banjo teachers at the time. Charles Mattison, for example, was a Confederate soldier who took an "extended course of instruction" from Frank Converse before the war. Converse and others made a living teaching banjo, so formally educated, music reading banjo player did exist at the time. I realize there were other who played by ear and learned in the "folk idiom," just like people do today, and if that's your thing then more power to ya, but to imply that formal tutor-based training is somehow less authentic seems a little disrespectful towards all the hard work Tim and Greg have done, work which is bearing fruit right now with several newcomers on the board.


Carl Anderton said:


Dan'l said:
Daniel -

The banjo tutor material consists of versions (not the originals) of some popular music including stage Minstrel music, but to play from that source exclusively is not very authentic. There was much other material (folk chanteys and spirituals and published hymnals, shape-note books, violin and piano tutors and sheet music etc.) that were in very much wider circulation and use, not to mention soldier's songs specifically.

Even more controversial is the likelihood more soldier-players did not learn from banjo tutors but picked up technique in the folk tradition, from other soldiers and from southern slaves directly and from watching Minstrel shows. This means technique was likely much less formal than that shown in the banjo tutors, if authenticity of your impression is important to you. That is, unless you are portraying Sam Sweeney or another professional Minstrel who donned the uniform.



Dan Wykes

Yeah, I dunno-- several issues Dan'l has with the Ning Minstrel group seem a little...specious, perhaps? I'm not wanting to argue with Dan'l. I'm way over that. He has his right to his opinion. But since he brought it up again, I'll offer a counter opinion based on my experiences with many of the group here.

First, the old notion that people who base their playing on the tutors "exclusively is not very authentic."

I'm not sure who Dan'l is referring to here, but each and every player I've met at the Gatherings had repertoire material outside of the tutors. Who are these stick-in-the-mud tutor-only obsessives? We need names.

Seriously, come to a Gathering and see for yourself. I always come home with new tunes, and am amazed at the groovy material that people have discovered.

Second, this notion that "soldier-players did not learn from tutors but picked up technique in the folk tradition...technique was much less formal...if authenticity is important..." unless you are portraying Sam Sweeney.

That leaves out any soldier or civilian who ever took a lesson from Frank Converse, or any of the other hundreds of banjo teachers at the time. Charles Mattison, for example, was a Confederate soldier who took an "extended course of instruction" from Frank Converse before the war. Converse and others made a living teaching banjo, so formally educated, music reading banjo player did exist at the time. I realize there were other who played by ear and learned in the "folk idiom," just like people do today, and if that's your thing then more power to ya, but to imply that formal tutor-based training is somehow less authentic seems a little disrespectful towards all the hard work Tim and Greg have done, work which is bearing fruit right now with several newcomers on the board.

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