Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Long time, no see!/ Banjo vs Fiddle: How did they play together in the Olden days?

Greetings all.  I had to take a little break from all my music-related extracurriculars last year, so I haven't been posting much (or playing any, sadly).

I posted this on the Banjo Hangout and Fiddle Hangout, but then it hit me that someone here would probably be much more knowledgeable:

I love music, and I love history.  I hope some of you more knowledgeable ladies and gentlemen might be able to educate me some.

I look at modern clawhammer/Old Time banjo: common tunings might include g, double c, sawmill, etc.  They might be capoed to play in A, D, etc. with a fiddle player.  Or they technically, could probably tune their strings up a whole step to get to D or A.

I look at the fiddle: Mine is tuned to EADG.  Some folks might cross tune.  The fiddle could transpose or retune.  The banjo could capo.  

There are ways of getting banjo and fiddle  tuned in such a way to play the same tune in the same key and make beautiful music together.

How did this work in the olden days?  I'm going to roughly kind of define "olden days" as the 19th century.

The banjo seems to have evolved a lot over the last 200 years, whereas the fiddle is still relatively the same (I think?).

I look at "minstrel banjos"(or "early banjos"  The fretless, animal skin topped, gut strung, friction peg tuned banjos common in the early, mid, and to some degree late 1800's).  Since these minstrel banjos were tuned lower, it looks like the common minstrel tunings could play in the same key as the fiddle pretty easily?  Or am I reading into this wrong?    Or were the songs arranged differently than they are now or in a different key than they are now?

How about in the latter 1800's, when the modern, fretted, steel strung banjo's came about.  I assume these were tuned higher like a modern banjo? Had capos been invented and entered into common use such that banjo players in the 1800s capoed up to play with fiddlers?  Or were the instruments tuned differently to a more fiddle friendly tuning? Or were the songs arranged differently or in a different key than they common are now?

I just threw out a bunch of questions, and I'm not really looking to have each one answered separately.  I just want a better understanding of how banjo and fiddlers in the old day overcame differences in key, tuning, fingering, etc. to be able to play together.


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Genford, I'm not responding with any knowledge or insight but simply to state that I will be anxious to read responses to your inquiries.  They are interesting questions!

At least one of the tunings (dGDF#A) puts you in the key of D. You could play with a fiddle or dulcimer in first position.

I believe this will put the banjo an octave lower than the standard fiddle tuning.

Take for example a fiddle tune in the key of G.  Whether the fiddler was in standard or cross tuning, they'd still be playing in the key of G either way- that's pretty much all that matters.

On a modern banjo in clawhammer style you'd likley tune gDGBD and play in G along with the fiddle.

On a minstrel banjo for early stroke style, you'd likely tune in "low bass"/Briggs type tuning of dGDF#A which would have you playing in the key of G...but sounding lower than the clawhammer banjo.  But...you'd be playing along with the fiddle in the key of G.  (Since your tuning is different than the usual clawhammer gDGBD, you'll be using different fingerings than you are used to in old-time playing.)  Raising your pitch up one step on all strings to eAEG#B in stroke style will have you playing in the key of A.

What this also means, is that if you are familiar with playing say Sandy Boys in G or A in oldtime sessions, you will be learning a slightly new way of fingering it if you are in the Briggs low bass tuning.  Sandy Boys (or The Sandy Boy or Uncle Gabriel, etc) is a very old tune/song that is seen in both modern clawhammer and early 1800s and minstrel repertoire.   You won't be able to stay in clawhammer tuning and merely lower your strings a whole octave to the low G and play in the key of G that way.  It's a new game!  I suggest you approach your stroke style tunes as a whole new thing, not trying to relate them to the clawhammer tunings.    :)  That's my two cents.

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