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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Rob Morrison said: I have a somewhat biased opinion on this matter,as I have lived in North Carolina for many years.  The banjo tradition here goes back well into the 19th century with tunes such as Santa Ana's Retreat  from Henry Reed via Quince Dillion going back all the way to the Mexican War.  The tradition here is decidedly aural and always has been.  Though played by white northerners and Englishmen in the minstrel shows, most of the material was undoubtedy inspired by folk tunes, whether of African or European traditions, or both.  The likelihood of southern banjo players learning the banjo from banjo teachers in Boston, New York, or Pennsylvaia seems rather remote, though I'm sure it did happen.

I have nothing against reading musical notaion.  It is a quick shortcut to tunes.  However, having said that, the abilty to improvise and play by ear are also wonderful gifts, and add greatly to the enjoyment of the musical experience.



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.

 

 Seems the old tutors IS the way to learn. How else can you kinda get in the minds of the guys playing the music? Who would decipher the stroke , double stroke etc. Im glad there are old books who instructed us. .    Im also glad there are folks who have taken the time to tab some out for us who cant YET read music.  This could be a totally lost form of music , were it not for the tutors , and the folks learning from them and keeping it alive. And then they sharing their knowledge with all who were intrested.     I know Im new to banjo , so my opinion may not mean much,, but Im not new to playing music.

 Steve

I agree that banjo players played a lot more music than what we see in some of the tutors.  However, looking at some of the later tutors available on line (post civil war, pre 1890), primarily Buckley's and Converse, you can see waltzes, polkas, national anthems, and a whole host of other material.  Not everything, even in the tutors was a jig.

 

I have been playing music for over 40 years (that makes me sound so OLD), and I am equally comfortable playing by ear or sight reading.  The danger of playing by ear is that it is very tempting to add modern riffs and styles.  You can see some of this in the recordings I have made, I love throwing quotes in there.  However, if you want to represent how music was played in the time period I feel strongly that you have to look at what the musicians of the time period documented.  I think that Dan Emmett's manuscripts in Hans Nathan's book give us an exceptional look at what to do, or not to do.

 

I also play a confederate reenactor.  The premier banjo player in the southern army (by reputation) was Sam Sweeney (Joel's brother).  He certainly would have learned to play from Joel, who taught a number of the other banjo players how to play. 

 

There were a number of minstrel troupes who toured the south before the war, including Christy's Minstrels (touring as the Original Virginia Minstrels), Buckley's New Orleans Serenaders, The Sable Harmonizers, The Harmoneans, Campbell's Minstrels (there were two troupes traveling by this name, causing all kinds of confusion), and S.S. Sanford.  It is very likely that southerners would have learned to play by hearing these groups, especially the Buckleys, who have well documented their view on how the banjo should be played.

With the Briggs tuning being D/G and the Rice tuning E/A, can I play Rice songs with the Briggs tuning and vise versa?

 

Thanks,

 

Daniel

 

 

John Masciale said:

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
Yes - the relative intervals between the strings are the same.

Daniel Pownall said:

With the Briggs tuning being D/G and the Rice tuning E/A, can I play Rice songs with the Briggs tuning and vise versa?

 

Thanks,

 

Daniel

 

 

John Masciale said:

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


Dan'l said:

 We can be optimistic that most soldier players would have formally learned banjo, or less optimistic that most learned without ever seeing a tutor or an instructor.

 

__________________

 

 

Why worry about how "most" soldiers (or citizens) learned to play the banjo? They learned by note, they learned by ear. It's all good. Let's get beyond labeling either way "more" or "less" authentic. There's too much great stuff happening in our vibrant little niche of a style to waste time with that old saw.

Dan'l, will you be joining us in June for a great weekend of music?  It'd be great to have you there.  
Carl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here Here Carl. 

 

Dan'l -  you ought to come out this year,  I think you would really enjoy it.

 

On a side note.  As a dyslexic ADD  sufferer, notation has always given me a great deal of trouble.  I learned by ear form two old pros: Joe Ayers and Bob Kilham.  My style is right even if the renditions are off from the books.  I can keep up with book learners on a tune I know and our differences seem to mesh well. 

 

I am not the only player like this, I have met others. We never played banjo before, never had a modern style to unlearn and came into stroke style banjo like our ancestors.  Despite my lack of notation, I have never felt cramped, itimidated ormade to feel  inferior by my notation colleagues.  I have been treated with respect and affection.  I hope all players here will come out to the gathering and experience the goup in person.  It is a truly uplifting experience. 

 


I'll second what George just said - One of my favorite parts of last year's weekend in the barn was trying to pick up tunes by ear at the jam sessions. They often turned out to be things I'd tried from the music but hadn't stuck with. Suddenly they made sense. Watching, listening to and playing with people who are  a bit further down this particular road really hangs the music up in a different part of your head.

 

 
George Wunderlich said:

Here Here Carl. 

 

Dan'l -  you ought to come out this year,  I think you would really enjoy it.

 

On a side note.  As a dyslexic ADD  sufferer, notation has always given me a great deal of trouble.  I learned by ear form two old pros: Joe Ayers and Bob Kilham.  My style is right even if the renditions are off from the books.  I can keep up with book learners on a tune I know and our differences seem to mesh well. 

 

I am not the only player like this, I have met others. We never played banjo before, never had a modern style to unlearn and came into stroke style banjo like our ancestors.  Despite my lack of notation, I have never felt cramped, itimidated ormade to feel  inferior by my notation colleagues.  I have been treated with respect and affection.  I hope all players here will come out to the gathering and experience the goup in person.  It is a truly uplifting experience. 

 

I am right there with George also. I can read the notations But it almost gives me vertigo to look at them. I have always played by ear (guitar, piano, banjo etc.) Tablature is my friend, but watching/hearing someone play is my best friend.

Ian Bell said:


I'll second what George just said - One of my favorite parts of last year's weekend in the barn was trying to pick up tunes by ear at the jam sessions. They often turned out to be things I'd tried from the music but hadn't stuck with. Suddenly they made sense. Watching, listening to and playing with people who are  a bit further down this particular road really hangs the music up in a different part of your head.

 

 
George Wunderlich said:

Here Here Carl. 

 

Dan'l -  you ought to come out this year,  I think you would really enjoy it.

 

On a side note.  As a dyslexic ADD  sufferer, notation has always given me a great deal of trouble.  I learned by ear form two old pros: Joe Ayers and Bob Kilham.  My style is right even if the renditions are off from the books.  I can keep up with book learners on a tune I know and our differences seem to mesh well. 

 

I am not the only player like this, I have met others. We never played banjo before, never had a modern style to unlearn and came into stroke style banjo like our ancestors.  Despite my lack of notation, I have never felt cramped, itimidated ormade to feel  inferior by my notation colleagues.  I have been treated with respect and affection.  I hope all players here will come out to the gathering and experience the goup in person.  It is a truly uplifting experience. 

 

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