Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Something of interest may be to create a list of "repro qualifiers"...traits that ensure some standard of what we look for in our little corner of the world. What makes a Minstrel Banjo "fit in"...? Is it some combination of materials, crafmanship, dimensions, and ..sound quality? Might be fun to agree on certain important qualities with a point given for each one, and some agreement that "8 out of 10" or whatever makes this an acceptable instrument for public representation of early banjo playing. Not that there will be "Minstrel police" out there, but it might create some cohesive set of values for our craft. At least talking about it may bring some surprising issues to light.    

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I'll quote myself... ; )


"Dan'l will be the loophole expert, (we should wait for his "RE:" post), but I think as a rule what they had (at this point what we are aware of, that could change with more research) is what what we should use appropriate to the era we portray."


Clearly your banjo qualifies.  Besides, it's a peach of a 'jo.


I will follow up (for the newer folks here) with the fact that "patent guitar machines" were by far the exception.  There is also a reason why they did not become standard, expense and availability had nothing to do with it.


I've got a great Idea-  I'll get Jim to build me a fretted Ashborn neck with patent tuners, and mate it with a Henry Dobson closed back rim.  To complete my new improvement, I'll replace a few strings with telegraph wire and top it off with a James Buckley split 2d fret.

I think it will be "all the rage" in England in 20 or 30 years.



Trapdoor2 said:

So...I have to leave my Ashborn at home, 'cause it has machine tuners?
Why Joel, if they could have, they would have - wouldn't they?

Joel Hooks said:

I've got a great Idea-  I'll get Jim to build me a fretted Ashborn neck with patent tuners, and mate it with a Henry Dobson closed back rim.  To complete my new improvement, I'll replace a few strings with telegraph wire and top it off with a James Buckley split 2d fret.

I think it will be "all the rage" in England in 20 or 30 years.



Having a time reference helps.  I commenced learning minstrel banjo as an off shoot of my civil war reenacting.  So, my time frame is 1865 and earlier.  Fortunately for me, this captures the lion's share of the total minstrel period. 


My tackhead is something I made which I can also take into the field.  Neck is a Boucher style scroll.  Violin pegs.  Calf skin head.  Bent hoop.  Tail piece is a from a belt buckle known as a "Georgia frame buckle."  This buckle gives a real soldier's feel to the banjo and is noticed by other reenactors. 


As for strings, nothing but gut will suffice.  Nylon isn't perid.  There may be a similar sound, but if you're the one playing it and you're the one representing that this is the authentic sound, plastic strings are farb.  (It's like wearing period style underwear.  No one else my know your drawers are wool and go down to your ankles, but you do.)  It's not unusual to be asked by spectators at events if my strings are nylon.  They seem surprised that they're gut.  Then, they seem more drawn to the sound the strings make.  Once the realize they're in the presence of something authentic and different, they want to hear that sound on songs they may not have heard before and performed in a finger style they've not seen.   



I've had a similar response from the public.  They often look to find modern components, and when they realize that the banjo has all authentic components, they are drawn in, and want to hear more.   

Boy, I don't don't know Marc. That Ashborn had a lot of innovations not typical of the time...hmm. Even the non-geared pegs were special with their different diameters. Then there is that way the hardware is mounted to not interefere with the player or his clothes. Perhaps that was the first "modern" banjo. Or, does the instrument bear the label it has because of the type of music associated with it?

Trapdoor2 said:

So...I have to leave my Ashborn at home, 'cause it has machine tuners?
Are we discussing reenacting, or correctly interpreting and playing 19th Century Banjo music?

Minstrel music and CW reenacting are circles on a Venn diagram.  Sometimes the circles overlap.  Sometimes they don't.  If one emphasizes how styles had changed by the time of Converse's Analytical Method as well as the types of banjos then being used commonly, then CW reenacting doesn't much matter.  However, when you consider how many instructors/manuals were introduced between 1855 and 1860, you've got reenacting overlap.


Reenacting does offer useful questions.  What are you trying to portray?  How are you trying to portray it?  Is it what was done then or are you incorporating methods, instruments, tools and et cetera from a later period?  Is it common or unusual?  Are you taking shortcuts?  Should you be taking shortcuts? 


When I hear someone at a CW event with a modern banjo or modern guitar playing some tune from outside the period, I cringe.  Wrong time, place and manner. 

Silas, that may be a good way to illustrate it. Sort out what specific elements are independant of one another, and then again the other way around. I just don't feel that they always have to be in bed together. It seems that much more attention is given to the appearance of an instrument than the execution of it's music and the finer details that actually separate this music from other styles of play.

I may regret jumping in here but I can't resist. 


As most of you know, I try and make mine as close to the original as possible. I am better now than years ago when my skills were more limited so some of my early stuff is kind of embarrassing as I look back on it.  


My tier 1  answer would be, make it as close as possible to the original.  My Boucher has gotten there as has Jim's Ashborn.   When this fails, use a period photo and copy that as best you can using your knowledge of period construction (thin pot, period hardware, period material, period finishes, 3" pot + in size, ) for those parts you can's see.  This should ensure a good period sound as well as a good period appearance.  You can use the banjo data base that Greg developed for a good start here.  Jim Bollman's book is another great resource.  This answer is for the living historian and or museum work.  Frets, machine heads and other work is perfectly OK IF the original had it. An Ashborn from the Buckley book cover is great if you copy the exact original from the Szego collection.  


My tier 2 answer is for non-museum/living history work.  Anything close in sound an appearance is OK but not proffered.   Nylon here is fine (IMO) non-period hardware is also OK if the sound is right.  This is best ensured by rolled thin hoops, skin heads and nylon or gut.  


What about made-up banjos?  As long as they are not outlandishly outside of the design architecture of the period and they retain 19th century detail sensibilities then I am not against them.  This, however, required a certain degree of immersion in the material culture and banjo design culture of the period.  It just takes research and a level head.  


What about plastic heads and nylon?  I understand that these are problematic at events outdoors.  My personal take on these has always been i they had problems and survived, then I can too.  I have played in all weather short of rain and with a nice fire nearby my banjo always did well.  I have lost some expensive strings and that does hurt.  I gues my ultimate answer is, what is your goal?  If you really want to give the best possible "feel" of this music to an audience, why not go "all the way" .  We can always argue about the music (tutors) but the instruments are well documented.  We don't need to skimp there,  they are readily copied.  


On the music side, I barely read music and with strong ADD is is very hard.  I play be ear and use period technique to interpret period piano music that I can hear on my computer.  I rarely match the tutors.   With Tim and Greg and their most excellent work, I think we can expand music far beyond the tutors in a very well reasoned and historically accurate way.  Their method of going beyond the tutor is truly revolutionary and helpful.  

What George said.  I whole heartedly agree with his statement about plastic heads and nylon strings : If you really want to give the best possible "feel" of his music to an audience, why not go "all the way"?  Yeah?  Why not?


It's not that much of a burden to use natural heads and strings.  By substituting natural with artificial, the player commences to be that many more steps from the authentic or genuine sound.  Informing people that the head or strings doesn't even the playing field.  It deprives the player of credibility.  If either or both things are bogus, what else is bogus?  The period term for bogus works really well here : a humbug.  Not too many people want to be called a humbug.  It's such a dark, Dickensonian word. 

Relatively speaking, the Minstrel (or Early) banjo developed and changed rapidly, both in style and construction. We are left to pick up the pieces quite some time later. Like our brothers in the guitar world, let's consider what it is like to chase the full development of an instrument, and an art form. The instrument (guitar) continued to evolve to meet the needs. There is still respect for the period performer, but that leaves no room for condemnation for innovators (and he is also called  the opposite) like Andres Segovia. He continued a pure art form, but also inspired innovation with the tools to express it. But perhaps we say, "the banjo is a folk instrument", of lower expectations. The same was said of the guitar.    

Dan'l, I think our English colleagues might get a bit huffy regarding your 5th iteration. In England, the 5-string banjo survived into the present as a - what is now called - classic banjo. You are hopefully aware of the compositions of the great Joe Morley? Well, he wasn't the last of the line. It didn't die out in England, and does not need recreating.

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