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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I finished my gourd banjo for under $100, all parts and materials.  I bought the gourd, the piece of walnut for the neck, the calfskin head (from Elderly Instruments), tacks, glue, strings, Violin pegs, and a bone nut.  There is a real sense of satisfaction when you string the thing up the first time and play it.


I am using white maple because it is cheap and since I am still in the learning stage didn't want to pony up for walnut, though If I recall correctly it carves beautifully. Maybe my next one will probably use a goard out of curiosity and later take on a banjo with an adjustable skin.. The hardware on some of the early ones is fairly simple and I should be able to do it even with my minimal skills in metal work.... I hope.


I find the head and neck shapes fascinating on these early banjos. On the headstock in particular they seemed to allow their imagination to go wild and create real sculptural works of art. But then that was the era when even industrial machinery was sculpted and viewed as works of art..

Well, I guess my little hoax was not convincing enough.  Just a couple of takers.  I thought I could have a little more fun with it.  Oh well.

No more lame than the "what's authentic" discussion.


Dude, if there was any money to be made in this line, someone like Gold Tone would have already done it.


They could call it their "Older-Tone" line.

Its lame when you get someones hopes up.
It's lame when you get someone's hopes up. 
You would have to sell a whole bunch of 300 dollar Bouchers to recoup your tooling, production and set up costs by the way. About 10,000 of them. Good luck with that pipe dream.

Sorry, I was only going for initial shock value.  Moschella wrote...

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? Doyou keep bringing this up because you don't feel 100% about something?


Well I went back and looked at all of my former posts to see If I "keep bringing this up."  My previous posts were in direct response to inquires about banjos in living history events.  Those questions were not posted by me.


So spoofing the concept of unbelievable low priced replica banjos, I thought, would cause a quick shock, then logic would set in concerning the ridiculous idea of making new Dobson closed back banjos.  I mean, who would what to do that? ...Closed back banjos... really?


Honestly, this is such a small market, that I doubt it even gets noticed by companies like Gold Tone.


Additionally, the variety of different banjos that we play, production banjos would not make sense, not to mention they would never be done right.


In the great big picture, a grand or two really is not that much money for as much satisfaction one gets. Cancel cable TV for a couple of years.  It will also help out one of our own and not encourage forced labor.


Now back to Gibson Mastertones in the ACW!


John Masciale said:

It's lame when you get someone's hopes up. 
I think we find topics that keep coming up...different discussions provide new frameworks. Perhaps somebody was not involved in a previous discussion, or somebody just feels like talking about it in light of a new post. I am here because I like to discuss, listen, and respond. I don't really enjoy being preached to, nor hearing what is considered to be somebody's conclusive opinion that should suffice as an end to a subject's discussion.

Scott House said:

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.





George Wunderlich announce here on the forum that he would not be accepting new orders. 

That is very unfortunate. George is one of the best.

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