Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Can you use mall metal strings on my Bell banjo
The nylon really hurt. It seems you have to press
Very hard for the proper tone
The metal fourth string feels ok
I am a beginner and just start to learn

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You're only a few hours away from me (I'm in Amherst, MA).  If you keep having trouble, let's meet up and I can take a look at what you're doing in person, teach you a few tunes, etc.  Maybe we could find a place to meet in Connecticut or north of NYC.  I'm out of town through this weekend, but I'm free after that for the next three weeks.

I'm a bit closer, in Meriden, CT, and I'd also be happy to help.

thank you i will give it a try

Bell Banjos said:

Sand 1/8" off the bottom of the bridge. That should feel a lot better on your playing fingers. If there's no string buzz, sand a little more, like 1/16". If you go too far I'll send you a free bridge.

Yes you are right I want to play it like bluegrass And I bought the kit because I liked
The looks. I do know I like the banjo sound but probably need to build another banjo
It was a lot of fun building the Bell kit which looks great when finish.

John said:

Robert, what tone are you expecting to get?  Are you comparing this to other minstrel banjo recordings, or are you expecting this to sound like a modern clawhammer or bluegrass banjo?  


the minstrel banjo (and early banjo music in general) is very different from modern bluegrass banjo playing.  The banjos are downtuned to C, D, or E tuning and are strung with gut or nylgut strings.  They didn't have metal strings back in those days.  The banjos are played using a technique called stroke style, which is similar to modern clawhammer banjo.  Some music, especially from the 1860s and leading into the classic banjo era, were played fingerstyle, but classically- not as in bluegrass.  If bluegrass is what you're after, you definitely bought the wrong type of banjo.  That said, I encourage you to listen to some early banjo tunes and give this wonderful style of banjo playing a try.  

Dan'l, the heavy gauge wire strings that would be required for the C or D tuning would wear out a fretless fingerboard very quickly, and keep in mind these instruments had friction pegs, not geared tuners.  Just because piano wire existed doesn't mean plucked strings players tried them.  Like you said, we can't rule it out entirely, but I think it's wrong to try and equate piano strings to plucked instrument strings.  That's a big leap to make.

Dan'l, you bring up a good point about geared tuners- I completely blanked and forgot about those when posting. You are right that there is just so little known. I do keep an open mind, and you're right that steel strings may have been tried. I just personally think it is unlikely, and if it was tried it obviously didn't catch on in the early Minstrel era. You make some good points, though.

I agree with you about the forum. There isn't one correct interpretation of the history behind this music. We all do different research and take different approaches, and it is important that we discuss topics in depth, from our different viewpoints. If history could only be interpreted and discussed in a single way, historians would be out of business. I found it a little disturbing that thread was closed, with no warning to the participants of the discussion. There was nothing personal or inappropriate to warrant it.

Actually it did take only few years to catch on-- wire strings for banjo that is.

The few years leading up to and during the first world war.  I've previously posted documented trails for this and the shortage of gut strings that meant use wire or don't play.  For the few who clung to their five strings- the wire/gut debate continued into the 1920s or for as long as people cared.  But for "players" there was no debate. They still used gut/silk-- George Lansing, Tommy Armstrong, Vess Ossman, Fred Bacon, Fred Van Eps, etc., & etc., heck, Farland used a leather plectrum on gut strings after his hands failed him.  How's that for a holdout?  Real five string banjos continued to be sold with gut/silk into the 30s. By "real" I mean substantial instruments intended for use-- not as store stock.

Add to that the mandolin becoming more popular (wired, of course) and the newly popular "plectrum banjo" later tango/tenor banjos (wire works better when you are playing with a plectra).  By the time the war was over tastes changed and nobody cared about the five string except for a double handful of holdouts that continued to play on gut/silk strings.

The once famous composer A. J. Weidt "legitimized" wire use with the five string banjo.  At least his credibility as a player, teacher, composer and club leader was used in a Musical Trades article to say it was OK to use them (I'm attaching that article again for those that would like to read the source).

The aforementioned five string holdouts that were still living got together in the 1940s to form a Fred Van Eps fan club-- the ABF.  One of those members (who published a couple pieces for banjo) was Burton Gedney (died in 1966). HE WAS A STUDENT OF FRANK B. CONVERSE! There is no broken chain (take that "old time" crowd!).-- Really, join the ABF and take advantage of their huge library and unbroken chain of banjo history.  Much handwritten music as well.  It is worth the $10 a year.

Previous to WW1 wire was cheap goods as documented in catalogs.  Cheap goods so as to not lose a sale to someone who otherwise is not serious enough to buy a better quality instrument.  Walmart sells a lot of bicycles that are never ridden.  How many Chinese plywood ukeleles were sold in the last few years that are unplayable? People still buy them and place them safely in their closets never to be seriously played.  

In a late 19th century living history situation wire strings would be appropriate, provided that they were not being used by someone claiming any skill past a "banjo thumper."  The user would have the added luxury of fussing with friction pegs and calfskin to adjust the tuning (more fun with wire!).

Unfortunately, catalog evidence of wire strings for five string banjo from the 1880s is used to justify playing a modern old-time banjo, complete with planetary tuners, plastic head, "stuffing," 20s era ebony topped bridge and (these days) anachronistically "scooped."  All because modern ears like it.  Also, "if they had it they would have used it."  In this case they did-- but didn't

What is well documented and available as primary source information is that top players, or anyone wanting to play like them (the reason banjos were being sold by the trade), used gut strings.

So, if the question is about the existence of cheap trade versions of the real thing being priced to sell in the late 19th century (that is post 1880), then the answer is yes.

To me the question is how many accomplished (the ones to emulate) banjoists used wire strings?

Frank Converse- nope

Sam Pride- no

Lou Brimmer- no

Albert Baur- no (A note about Baur, he is one of the few banjoists that we know was a marching soldier in the ACW-even lost part of a foot in the war. Amazingly, he complained about the "sad state" that his banjo was in on the march and how difficult it was to get (gut) strings.  Yet, why did he not just use wire?-- do I have to answer that?  He also wrote that the Briggs' book was a good example of how the banjo was played during the ACW. Baur was meticulous in his filing, writing a date in the corner of every piece of paper he got or wrote on.  Much of his letters and manuscript music is still extant in private collections.  Even the handwritten sheet music he bought from Converse is accounted for.)

Dan Bryant- no

Horace Weston- nope

Tommy Armstrong- no

Nelse Seymore- no

James, Swain, etc., Buckley- nope

Lon Morris- nope

All the Dobsons- no

Sam Devere- nope

James Unsworth-no

Emory Hall- nope

E. W. Mackney (one of the few we can document with an Ashborn banjo BTW)- no

Shall I keep going?

For the new folks here, go to my home page and look at my photos.  I have posted a large number of famous banjoists (names with faces!- some with short bios).  These were the reason that people wanted to play the banjo and none of them wired their banjos.

Hi Dan'l!

Dan'l said:

John, Machined tuners were available by the middle third of the 19th century as well, and a few shop-made banjos used them. They were available from musical supply firms, as were wire strings. Both were in use, though as you imply not intended for banjos. Single strand piano wire was not specialized in a way that they weren't used for other stringed instruments as well.  It's just drawn wire.  (early 20th century Folk guitar blues artists used de-threaded and straightened screen wire in their lean times).

    Also, light gauge wires would not wear out a banjo fretboard any faster than they would the fretboard of a lute, mandolin, dulcimer etc. given the proper hardwood used for fretboards at the time. The wear is acceptable and repairs simple. Even I've repaired a few cowboy-chord ruts on one of my first banjos.

     As I've become more involved with history, it's clear to me there's not much about Antebellum America that can be "ruled out entirely."    In this case it's a rather small leap to suppose wire strings were tried early on. To whit: all of the materials were available, there was motive, and there was nothing to lose by trying. If you think about it, there's a proof of sorts in that wire strings eventually did become standard.  That didn't happen in one day, one week or even in one month, but by fits, starts and trials over several years (How early we can only speculate, and it that regard I understand your point).  I believe the strongest motive for wire strings only happened in the later Minstrel Eras, resulting from the higher pitches wanted. By that time the old longer-neck instruments were out of fashion.


        You may have figured out it's a bit dangerous here to discuss small topics like this in too much depth, because some lurkers here will jump you for the least little variance of explanation you may leave in your posts, and then, go figure, they will jump you if you correct the variance in a re-post.  Keep your inquisitive, open mind and throw the nay-sayers off like water on a duck's back. There's plenty of small topics to cover here yet, and folks have to have the safety of being allowed small variances in their posts.  This isn't a religion.


Thanks Joel.  You said what I had been trying to get across, but provided some great supporting information!  I had no idea about Burton Gedney.  Very cool!

Robert,  does your Bell banjo even have frets?  I would think it less than ideal to play bluegrass style on a fretless banjo, regardless of whether the strings were nylon or metal.

robert madey said:

Yes you are right I want to play it like bluegrass And I bought the kit because I liked
The looks. I do know I like the banjo sound but probably need to build another banjo
It was a lot of fun building the Bell kit which looks great when finish.

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