Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

looking carefully to many videos from different players i noticed that people use 2 different major approach to left hand fingering in minstrel banjo at the first position. The majority use the third finger for the second fret and the fourth finger for the third fret on the first string. This is probably an attitude of people coming from the old time clawhammer and has the advantage of making the second finger free for other eventual figures. Other players use instead what is prescribed by the briggs instructor which is second finger for the second fret and third finger for the third fret on the first string. This difference to me is basically related to the different interval of the fourth string which in minstrel is less used than in old time and probably reflect the fact that in the very begininnig the fourh string was not that much used (before sweeny probably didn't even exist) and most of the melody was played on the first second and partially third string. For this reason there was probably not much interest in the early banjo to have a second finger free to press the fourth string . I' m just curious to know your opinion about this topic and what is your preference and why. Thanks to everybody for the discussion


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Ps: i have used the word "fret" which  in fretless instruments is not accurate only to indicate the position on the fingerboard. So for second "fret"according to briggs i mean a B and for third "fret" i mean a C on the first string. 

Granted, I learned to keep the 2nd finger free from Pete Seeger's book and watching him on "Rainbow Quest".  I haven't been playing minstrel banjo much since Tim asked me to play fiddle but keeping the 2nd finger free still makes sense to me.  It offers the ease of hammering on the 2nd fret of the 3rd string which Pete often used.  I don't hear it much in minstrel banjo, but I think having the 2nd finger free makes for an easier and smoother chord change (from G or D) to C, D, D7, D6, Em, G, A7, B7, etc.  From the G chord, it minimizes the need to lift the fingers from the G chord to form the other chords listed, thus, it's not only less work but you can begin to form the next chord while playing the previous, for a smoother transition.

It always seemed irrelevant as long as you could properly intonate the note.

I use 3rd finger on 2nd fret because it makes pull-offs easier (for me). 

Well, Tim, I'm more accustomed to razzing each other than disagreeing!  ....and who am I to argue with your banjo playing?!?  But wouldn't it make sense that proper intonation would be easier if one were not picking up fingers to form a new chord?  The first and third finger G chord (with a free second finger) allows one to do that easier and works kinda as a template for other chords.

I guess if you are a beginner getting good habits is advisable. I came to banjo late in the game. Fingers were already working.

I use the third finger as well.  In part it was because of Mike Seeger's instruction videos on claw hammer, and in part I agree with Paul Draper, I find pull offs easier with the third finger.  It is also more comfortable to me.  Clark Buehling saw me playing like that and told me that I learned from a modern teacher, and pointed out that the instructors call for using the second finger (which he does).  I agree with Tim, however you get the right note and can get to the next note is what matters.

Tim, I think I asked you about your approach in the past.  If I recall correctly, you said that you use both methods.  If so, how do you decide from one tune/song to another?  Paul and John, do you ever hammer on with the 2nd finger on the 2nd "fret" of the 3rd string?  I can't say I hear that in minstrel music but Pete did that constantly, and I guess I did, too, before minstrel music came into my life.  Maybe, if I picked up a banjo, I still would just from habit......not sure.  I'd have to try it but then I wouldn't be playing without thinking about it.

I'm just not even concious of it.

Al - yes, frequently esp. when playing out of low-bass tuning for "old-time" tunes. 

...but I can't say that the occasion arises often with the minstrel tunes. I'll have to pay closer attention...

Thanks guys for your contributions. My sense is that John is right when he says that index ring  is a more modern approach and index middle a more traditional approach. I'm interested in the historical reason for this shift over the time and my personal impression is that nowadays, for a beginner, it is more easy to come in contact with old time music for banjo simply because there is more knowledge about it and because it is a more "popular" kind of music to play on jam and so on. So you develop a style which is clawhammer in which the second finger is important to be free to do a lot of stuff on the third and fourth strings. Then going deep in the study of the banjo, you may get in contact with minstrel music and you may decide to apprach it. At that time you already have some fingering set up and you just keep it. Most of the attention is at that point focused on the stroke style of the right hand, and the left fingering appear to be less important as long as you can take the note. Personally i can play both ways and i practise both. I admit that index ring is more practical and i prefer it when i play  but index middle is from a stylistic prospective probably more autentic. 

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