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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Joel, Bb makes a lot of sense, not just in dealing with brass instruments. Look at the number of Bb pieces in that fiddle book. Bb is the third most represented key.

I would actually prefer to travel with 2 instruments. I don't have 2 banjos right now ( yet..) so I use a guitar for my E/A repertoire.

Tim, you're welcome to use mine (your old Sweeney model) unless you're worried you'll start to have a shoulder problem again.  It might not be so good for going above the 10-12th fret, however.  I thought you had several banjos.  What about the one that's displayed in your store?

Thanks Al, but it won't be too much longer before I will be armed with my new Secret Weapon. Then I'll have two. 

Interesting. It is actually old thought, isn't it? 

I think we are ignoring some of the very important differences in method and result between banjo and violin re-tuning and keys.

I'm not a fiddler, so please correct me if I have any of this not quite right-

Go to any old-time tune session, switch from key of G to A, and watch 90% of the banjo players slap a capo on fret 2 and continue using their G fingerings for A tunes.  Meanwhile, the fiddlers who play in standard gdae violin tuning will not re-tune either... they'll start playing in A using A fingerings (which will be different than their G fingerings).  Fiddlers will learn their 'A tunes' in A fingerings, and 'G tunes' in G fingerings.  Ask them to play a G tune they know in A instead, and you'll get the o' Stink Eye, and rightly so.  If they commonly use cross tunings it can be less of an issue...cross tuners tend to be a little more laid back about re-tuning.  (lol)

On fretless minstrel banjo (which is problematic to capo), we usually just tune up our Briggs key of G tuning one whole step on every string to key of A, but essentially we're in the same tuning just higher up, and we'll continue to play the tunes using the same fingering whether in the key of A or G.  It's not like having to re-learn an additional fingering.  Compared to documented oldtime banjo recordings, minstrel banjo uses very few tunings.

Because fiddlers tend to remain in standard tuning and learn to play the different keys with different fingerings, and because they are not fretted in equal temperament, they have the ability to retain more of the 'mood' uniqueness of each key and scale- but this tends to happen more in fiddlers who have learned from traditional older 'source' fiddler recordings rather than classically trained violinists who learned to play with piano/orchestra/school and other equal temperament settings.  It's the slight variations in note-to-note distances/intervals in each scale/mode/key that give each key most of its unique 'mood', and these variations get largely removed when you play in equal temperament.  But equal temperament is standard in constructing keyboard or fretted instruments that can play in any key....or if you want a group of various instruments to sound 'sweet' together when playing with equal-tempered instruments.  Our modern ears have grown up listening to equal tempered music.

Actually, the different sounds for the different keys show up more in equal temperament because the true intervals are mistuned slightly in equal temperament in order to make the chromatic scale mathematically identical for all keys. The mistuned intervals show up in different places in the different keys on an equal tempered instrument. If a just tuned instrument is played exactly in tune, using the consonant small pitch ratios that we hear, the intervals are always the same regardless of the key they are played in. Only the pitch is different.

The mistuning of the equal tempered instrument is what drives violin players nuts when they have to play with a fretted instrument. They have to play their intervals slightly out of tune or they will be dissonant with the fretted instrument. If they play properly by ear on their own instrument they will be out of tune with the compromised instrument. Damned if you do; damned if you don't.


 Yes, but they 'show up' in the sense of sticking out like a sore thumb-because the effect is icky...as opposed to 'showing up' in an intentional sweet sounding way when played in their respective temperaments.  All this said, the effect is pretty subtle and many folks don't actually hear the difference anyway.  It's similar to the use of compensated (fretted banjo) bridges- some folks have no problem at all with non-compensated bridges, while others simply can't abide the sound.


Brian Kimerer said:

Actually, the different sounds for the different keys show up more in equal temperament because the true intervals are mistuned slightly in equal temperament in order to make the chromatic scale mathematically identical for all keys. 

I looked it up in Helmholtz, "On the Sensations of Tone" (1954 edition). He addressed the issue in great detail, but did not really come to any hard conclusions, e.g. (from Chapter XVI - The System of Keys). For example:

"But the question here mooted is, whether individual keys have an absolute character of their own, independently of their relation to any other key.

This is often asserted, but it is difficult to determine how much truth the assertion contains, or even what it precisely means, because probably a variety of different things are included under the term character, and perhaps the amount of effect due to the particular instrument employed has not been allowed for."

And then on he goes discussing the possible causes of the effect, including open versus stopped strings, the difference in the length of the white piano keys versus the black keys, and the detuning of the fifths on the pianoforte.

He even states "Musicians fully capable of forming a judgement have also admitted to me, that no difference in the character of the keys can be observed on the organ, for example. And Hauptmann, I think, is right when he makes the same assertion for singing voices with or without an organ accompaniment."

So I guess we have not made much progress on the issue since 1863 (publication date of the first edition). The jury is still out.

The organ is equal tempered, so I wouldn't expect to hear the differences on it.

The pianoforte is equal tempered as well, and he said that the effect was obvious on that instrument and "bowed instruments", which mostly are not.

So I am confused because I cannot hear any of it. I can barely play in tune on a good day, much less observe the subtleties of key moods. Can you actually hear the difference?

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