Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

This past weekend I had the very good fortune of meeting and spending some time with Joe Ayers.  He gave a concert Saturday night in the Bennett Place Historical site auditorium in Durham, NC and a two and a half hour minstrel banjo workshop the next day.  Both events were organized under the auspices of Mark Weems, one of our very own members.  Thank you again, Mark.

 

For those of you who have never heard Joe's recordings from the banjo tutors, his playing style is absolutely unique.  I have never heard anyone else approach the clarity of tone and perfect articulation Joe can wrestle from a banjo.  And Joe was generous enough to share the method to his madness.  Simply put, he doesnt't play like anyone else I know.

 

Joe has developed his own method of playing with only one rule.  Let me say that again.  There is only one rule  witn very, very few exceptions.  Joe plays with a stict alternation between finger strike and thumb strike.  And that's it.  As simple as this sounds, in practice it is much harder to do than it sounds.  For instance, in tunes such as Circus Jig, Sugar Cane Dance, or the Modoc Reel, in the places where there are ascending arpeggios (broken chords in which the notes are played discretely rather than simultaneously) most of us mere mortals would play the first three strings by sliding one finger across the strings followed by the thumb. 

 

Joe, instead, adheres to his one rule of alternating finger strike followed by thumb.  In order to perform an ascending arpeggio with Joe's technique, after the first finger strike the thumb must "pass over" to the next string, followed by another finger strike, followed by another thumb and so on.  The result of this technique is a perfectly articulated musical figure.  That's one reason Joe's arpeggio's sound so beautiful.

 

To conclude, in reference to another of my personal eternal mysteries, the trill in "Luke West's Walkaround" is performed by Joe in the following manner:  Stop the second string at the third fret, creating a unison with the open first string.  Next strike the second and first strings consecutively as fast as you can, closely followed by the thumb on the stopped second string.  Repeat three times.  And yes, this is one of the very few exceptions to the strict alternation of finger and thumb.

 

P.S. Joe says the easiest way to learn this technique is to practice a lot.

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Thank you for the excellent summary Jay. It is still a great topic...on so many levels. This forum helps to shine light, and field points of view, from people that hold different perspectives as to what is important in playing this old music. In this forum, there is more weight  given to what an instrument is in a physical sense than how well it is played, as well it should be for hobbists. I am still solidly in the school of "skill over tool", but that's just me. I don't do living history events in the sense of a hard core presentation...rather, I am drawn to bring out the best performance of the music I  possibly can. That path begs experimentation. I have, and do, play a variety of combinations synthetic and natural components. The instrument itself evolved so quickly and changed, that it never totally defined itself as a final entity. We just get continual snapshots of a timeline in motion. After all, it is a folk instrument..never settling into a solid tradition, like Classical Guitar and the Torres design. To see a legend like Ayers, respected by all of us, playing that instrument, I found it interesting to bring it up ...and once again, inquire about what we actually hear, or rather what we see that we are hearing.  

Tim--

This is a great question.  I'm going to answer this in a somewhat indirect fashion, because I'm not very good at differentiating guitar style from banjo style.  Nonetheless I believe my respone will be illuminating.  I like to play "notey" tunes, played up the neck, such as "Jig Hornpipe," on one of my early fretted banjos.   The reason I use a fretted banjo is pimarily so I can utilize chord forms, which render fast, comlicated (for me) musical figures easier to perform with better intonation.   Joe, on the other hand, does not seem to use chord formations as much as most people, for sequential notes.  He adheres to his strict alernation of finger, thumb, finger, thumb.  I watched Joe jump from one string to another.  He still gains the benefit of the accurate intonation, but plays each note cleanly and discrtetely.  I was  fascinated to see Joe play "Jig Hornpipe" with the "Ayers Method." 

I would think a perusal of Joe's selections on his tutor tapes will give you a fairly accurate idea of his guitar style repertory, but I do believe most of his selections for the concert and workshop were in banjo style.Mark or others may have a more precise recollection.
Tim Twiss said:

What was some of the repertoire on the fretted banjo?

 

Thanks Rob...just wondering if he was breaking out new material...and what direction it was heading.


Tim Twiss said:
Thank you for the excellent summary Jay. It is still a great topic...on so many levels. This forum helps to shine light, and field points of view, from people that hold different perspectives as to what is important in playing this old music. In this forum, there is more weight  given to what an instrument is in a physical sense than how well it is played, as well it should be for hobbists. I am still solidly in the school of "skill over tool", but that's just me. I don't do living history events in the sense of a hard core presentation...rather, I am drawn to bring out the best performance of the music I  possibly can. That path begs experimentation. I have, and do, play a variety of combinations synthetic and natural components. The instrument itself evolved so quickly and changed, that it never totally defined itself as a final entity. We just get continual snapshots of a timeline in motion. After all, it is a folk instrument..never settling into a solid tradition, like Classical Guitar and the Torres design. To see a legend like Ayers, respected by all of us, playing that instrument, I found it interesting to bring it up ...and once again, inquire about what we actually hear, or rather what we see that we are hearing.  

That is a good question, I do constantly bring up the subject of authenticity when people ask about using banjos in living history settings.

 

I do have a agenda. I've been holding back, but in the wake of George's announcement I suppose I should come out with it.

 

Two years ago I began meeting with some investors, about a project.  With their help, and a substantial amount of my own, I was able to buy three very clean original examples of 19th century banjos.

 

I found a factory in China and began the long process of having them duplicated in numbers.  The prototypes I have received have tolerances within a few thousands of an inch to the originals.

 

The three models I am having manufactured are as follows.

 

Painted Boucher model.  Maple, single ogee This one has the color matched exact to the underlayer of the one I own.  The graining is painted on and it has the stenciling around the rim.  Hardware is japanned and the pegs are custom made to duplicate the original.

 

New York Model.  This one is a typical mid-late century style. Walnut neck, rosewood veneered oak rim etc..  It will come with a choice of brass shield or nickel plated hourglass brackets.

 

Dobson "Closed Back" (I'm the most proud of this one.)

This is a copy of an early patent model with iron stretcher band (not the wood one).  It has, per the original I own, wood marquetry inlaid in the neck and on the closed back.  This one will be offered with smooth fingerboard or raised frets.  My original has frets but they may have been added later.

 

Each banjo will come in a period black wood case with furniture hardware and skeleton key lock.  Also included is a wrench, two extra sets of gut strings, copy of the "green" book (I got these printed in Spain of all places.) With cloth over board bindings, and one of my thimbles (still made in Texas).

 

I'm shooting for MSRP of Boucher: $300US, New York: $450, and The Dobson: $600, $50 extra for raised frets.

My prototypes and originals are currently at the photographers for comparison photos, but I should have the photos soon soon.


Moschella Banjos said:

It seems to me that the folks that use plastic on their banjos tend to need some sort of reassurance that it is OK. It is only those folks who ask the sorts of questions that you are asking Tim.

So really it is up to you, and others who like plywood rims and plastic heads- how do you feel about it? Do you keep bringing it up because you don't feel 100%?

 


I don't know. I could be speaking out of turn here, but it seems possible that "some people" ask these questions because (at least on the internet) some other people vociferously insist on safeguarding notions of authenticity with a confrontational and quasi-religious zeal that has the direct effect of sapping nearly all noticeable sensations of joy from every discussion on the topic. This is the type of behavior that makes a lot of people defensive when they have no reason to be. Or, to be less accusatory, it's the type of thing that keeps a discussion going. And questions are part of any discussion.

Does discussing a topic that one knows to be subject to continued inquiry signify some sort of weird insecurity, or is it just a matter of good old-fashioned curiosity? How do you feel about it Joel? Do you keep bringing this up because you don't feel 100% about something?



Rob Morrison said

Tim --I agree with the fact that ablity and innovation outweigh tools in respect  to both performance and construction of the instrument.  However for bluegrass banjos, as opposed to open backs, there does seem to be a largely standardized final form that is based on the pre-war Gibson Granada,with the Mastertone tone ring.  This platonic ideal is, of course based on Earl Scruggs, his playing, sound, and his instrument.  Interesting difference. 
Tim Twiss said:

Thank you for the excellent summary Jay. It is still a great topic...on so many levels. This forum helps to shine light, and field points of view, from people that hold different perspectives as to what is important in playing this old music. In this forum, there is more weight  given to what an instrument is in a physical sense than how well it is played, as well it should be for hobbists. I am still solidly in the school of "skill over tool", but that's just me. I don't do living history events in the sense of a hard core presentation...rather, I am drawn to bring out the best performance of the music I  possibly can. That path begs experimentation. I have, and do, play a variety of combinations synthetic and natural components. The instrument itself evolved so quickly and changed, that it never totally defined itself as a final entity. We just get continual snapshots of a timeline in motion. After all, it is a folk instrument..never settling into a solid tradition, like Classical Guitar and the Torres design. To see a legend like Ayers, respected by all of us, playing that instrument, I found it interesting to bring it up ...and once again, inquire about what we actually hear, or rather what we see that we are hearing.  
Boucher banjos Hecho en Chine. Oh, brother! I am not sure how I feel about this.

One of the reasons I started making my own banjos was that I had kids in college, and couldn't at the time afford buying one.  I also didn't know whether this was something I wanted to pursue seriously, and didn't want to invest heavily to find out.

 

Considering that, and considering that back in the day we are talking about, there were cheap banjos, and better ones, I don't think some inexpensive banjos are a bad idea.  Ultimately we will likely get more people into the hobby, which I see as a good thing.  The question that every player has to consider, is what they can afford, and what will meet their needs.  I know that as I have played over time, my demands and needs for an instrument have grown as well.  When I ordered my last banjo from Jim Hartel, I was very specific about what I was looking for.

 

I am going to rework the neck on my first banjo, and I will have an instrument I won't be afraid to take to a reenactment, or get rained on.  Something I have noticed about banjo players,  very few of them own 1 instrument.

Interesting discussion so far..... I am building my own minstrel banjos for the same reason as John Masciale did... I am on very limited retirement income and cannot afford to buy new from a reputable builder... although I would really love to... But if I am going to have a good one (or ones) I have to do it myself. Certainly no individual builder could build a Boucher copy to sell for $300 since virtually every part has to be hand made. But to mass produce these instruments for such a limited market seems problematic... but we'll see... and that's called business... Might just work. More power to he who tries! and with a major minstrel builder going out of business the market opens up for competitors. But I think it is important to find a market beyond re-enactors as that market is by nature quite small. I believe one could sell gourd or tack head banjos for roughly $300 but no one is going to get rich doing so as an individual builder in the U.S.A. I have been impressed with those few tack head and gourd banjos I have heard and that would seem the way to go for low cost but funcional authentic style instruments.

 

As a builder/player myself I would enjoy hearing more discussion and seeing more images from those individuals building minstrel banjos. Frankly I am having just as much fun building them as playing them.

 

 

 

 

There are plenty of ways to get a compromised, but fully functional banjo for a reasonable price. One such as that should suffice until you can make a choice of a higher end model by one of the many fine makers out there today. I think more folks should share their sources of entry level banjos. I run into the same situation as a guitar teacher. Always steer somebody toward functional quality and a low price until you are actually able to play and feel committed toward continuing, where a good instrument will then make a difference.   


Bart McNeil said:

 and with a major minstrel builder going out of business the market opens up for competitors.

 

Who is going out of business? Inquiring minds want to know.

 

 

 

 

I received a partially finished neck, dowel stick and tuners as a gift last year. I put it together using an old tambourine as a pot. Though it is by no means a bonafide reproduction it is fun and got me interested in minstral banjos. If I recall correctly the total came to $75. I suspect I spent roughly ten hours completing it including messing with the tambourine pot to accept the dowel stick and reinforce where necessary. A funcioning old tambourine with good skin costs about $25 around here so the material costs of the instrument were roughly $100 plus my own labor.

 

If one had the manual skills (and inclination) to make one from scratch it could probably be done for less than $50. The skin,  tuners and strings being the most expensive parts. I got four necks our of a $7 white maple board.

 

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