Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

How did we all end up playing in G/D and why do we do it????

Is this a "pot roast"??

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I think a good percentage of the tunes in Ryans had been carried over from the pre-CW era and in the same keys they appear there.  I think the genre of most of Ryan's tunes are simply not conducive to minstrel banjo style, the way some minstrel banjo tunes are not particularly conducive to fiddle.  I've not often heard popular fiddle tunes such as 'Flowers of Edinburgh' or 'Temperance Reel' (standards among fiddlers) played on minstrel banjo.  There are popular tunes commonly played by minstrel banjoists in 'D/E' that fiddlers would prefer to play in 'A' ...'Money Musk' & 'Devil's Dream', for example.

Howe's Musical Companion, part 1:

Key     # Tunes

Ab          1

Eb           8

Bb           37

F              41

C             45

G             80

D             85

A              9

John, I am losing the point you are trying to make.

You suggested we look at the keys in collections of music, so I'm trying to do that.  Here is the 1863 Howes New Violin Without a Master.  This is a book specifically geared at fiddle. Granted, Howe tended to recycle his music, but what I find interesting is the number of tunes in F and Bb.  We tend to restrict the numbers of keys we play in, yet as someone else pointed out Converse made sure to push us through a number of different keys in his green 1865. 

Key    # tunes

Eb       9

Bb      68

F       63

C       41

G      151

D      131

A        19

E        9

I do agree, a lot of the tunes in these collections are not conducive to playing on banjo, so, what can we conclude?

The banjo is the "little brother" of the fiddle, so to speak. Anybody concur? Many good banjo players were also fiddlers. It was a source of melody. That does not mean the written record made their performances coincide. Rather, it opened the door for the banjo to play diatonic melodies. They seem best when the open string is tonic or the 5th. 

I agree with your observation about the 5th string. Do you think that makes the banjo more of a folk instrument than a concert instrument? Is that something that brought about the use of the tenor banjo in the jazz groups of the 1920s, the lack of the 5th string?

It seems to me that whether one plays with the Briggs (dGDF#A) or the Rice (eAEG#B) can be a matter of personal taste and wouldn't be supprised it that were so back in the day.  I have noticed with my own banjo, which as far as I know is not a copy of any one particular brand, but a repro of a "typical" instrument of the mid 19th century, that the music sounds "brighter" when tuned ala Rice.  However I do enjoy the "growly" notes of the Briggs tuning.  So I wind up using them interchaneably as the mood or the tune strikes me.  By the way, I am by no means anywhere close to a "professional" musician.  I just like playing this old style music for my personal enjoyment.  If I can brighten anyone else's day with it, so much the better.

I also noticed that Scott's version of the Calabash Dance he posted for the tune of the month sounds great in his gCGBD tuning.  So, play on folks in what ever tuning strikes your fancy.

I forgot where I read this, but an early practice was simply to bring the tension to the point it would bear. But, I'm sure that at some point, there was an obvious need to codify the chaos.

The tenor banjo was a creation of the hands of out of work mandolin players.  As far as current research goes, it was not a "banjo" in that it did not come from the minds of five string banjoist (as did the plectrum-- but for other reasons).

Musical tastes change with the generations.  It could be that Converse and his generation just took to a brighter tone.  They were using clad "silver rim" banjos by 1855.  It just went up from there.  The concept that brighter and higher pitch "carried" better was also often repeated.

I have no doubt that Whitlock, Briggs, Horn, etc. were using G.  But somewhere between 1855 and 58 there was a change.

By the 1870s they were using B flat.  They were tuning to the brass instruments as that (and piano) was in fashion for accompaniment.  The changes in pitch were fairly slow considering how fast the banjo exploded in the late 1870s.  As a fad it was extremely long lived-- fads usually only last a "season" but this one had a life of nearly 30 years.

For the later third/fourth generation banjoists concert work the fifth string actually aids in brilliant velocity.  It helps position changes run seamlessly.  They even called it "concert style" playing.

Five string banjoists started teaching mandolin (and later tenor banjo) to pay the bills.  Thomas Armstrong is a good example of this.  You diversify and change with the times or go hungry.

I will stand fast to my statement that demand dictates supply on banjos- this has always been true when dealing with manufactured goods.  People are willing to buy the wild (different) looking early banjos.  So people like Terry Bell and James Hartel build them.

John Masciale said:

I agree with your observation about the 5th string. Do you think that makes the banjo more of a folk instrument than a concert instrument? Is that something that brought about the use of the tenor banjo in the jazz groups of the 1920s, the lack of the 5th string?

I keep hearing the term "folk instrument" in this discussion.  I'd like to know how you all define the term and how it's decided whether something is a 'folk' instrument....?

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