Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

.....here goes, anyway.

I'm just starting out with a minstrel-style banjo (a Terry Bell "Boucher") that arrived a week ago.  Using information from Briggs I have been working on the basic stroke techniques using the index finger (down-picked) and thumb, and have worked on "Juba" using the free video that's available on-line.  So far, so good - and BTW, this is tough for someone who has been a 3-finger player (98% Bluegrass) since 1956.

*BUT* - and here's the "blasphemy" part - as I have gotten into the rhythm of the very basic stroke style I have started to experiment with actual songs "in my head" (i.e., not from any tablature).  So far I've been working up versions of "Shortnin' Bread" and "Camptown Races" (both in open G - well, tuned much lower, of course, but you know what I mean) and have also started experimenting with "Jimmy Crack Corn" in C tuning.  In essence, I am trying to use the basic "stroke" method in a sort of "free form" approach to my own arrangements of songs I like.

I am a stickler for following the basic rule of downward stroke with index finger, thumb on 5th or other strings as needed, other fingers curled like I'm holding the TV remote (this is hard, I sometimes catch myself opening my fingers unconsciously), etc.  I'm just not beating myself up trying to *ONLY* follow the tab in the books.

I ask for a little patience from the "purists" in the style, because I'm actually having a lot of fun with this - and I've *ALWAYS* played the banjo for fun!   ;-)

Paul Bock, Hamilton, VA


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Keep it up.  Don't get boxed in by how someone else played a specific tune -- the tabs are interpretations, not law.  As far as that is concerned, the standard notation versions fall into the same category.  The only "true" versions are those that someone actually played -- we can't hear them -- and I doubt that anyone ever played them the same way twice.  I think it's more important to master the peculiarities of stroke style (vs clawhammer or Bluegrass, for example) and figure out how to apply them to a tune YOUR way.

Most of all, have fun with it

I will add this:  I tried - admittedly not very hard - to learn clawhammer several years ago and was unsuccessful because I just didn't put much time into learning before moving on to classic finger-style, which I also enjoy working on (besides, I'd already been playing some "up-picking" folk style occasionally since the 1960s and I think the transition to clawhammer hit a "mental block").  So, I had some trepidation about tackling stroke style but what I'm finding is that, for whatever reason, I can master the rudiments of it with reasonable practice.  I also find it fun to play & experiment.  The fact that the Terry Bell "Boucher" sounds so great certainly contributes to that enjoyment!

I want to get back into trying to learn clawhammer at some point - making a more serious effort - but for the present I'll stick to stroke style.  "Mixing" the two seems to me akin to trying to learn to play Scruggs' style and melodic style at the same time, and I've always believed that one should fairly master one style before moving on to something else, especially when one is a sort of "foundation" for the second. 



If you can get stroke style down then I think you will have no problem with clawhammer tunes. As someone who is starting out myself, and trying playing both stroke and clawhammer, I find stroke style more challenging and interesting.  Stroke style has some very interesting rhythms and syncopation along with using the thumb in different ways than clawhammer. 

As far a learning different styles at the same time, that is a personal thing. When i play stroke style, I work on stroke style, and vise versa.  while sometimes it is fun to mix things up, you need to get reasonably good at the tunes in whatever style you are playing before you start mixing them up.  While the tunes in the tutors are great as written, George Wunderlich made a great comment in an interview he did with Pat Costello Sr. that one way to look at the tunes in the  tutors is as finger exercises.  That way once you understand the style you can apply them to other songs. 

But anyway, have fun with your new banjo. who knows, maybe you can do some real "blasphemy" and try playing Scruggs style on that boucher banjo.

You made me laugh, Scott!  I will say that a fretless banjo certainly allows for some interesting "slide" dynamics in a song and one could probably do some funky things with that in a Bluegrass tune, LOL!   Hmmm, wonder if I can play the "tuner" part to "Earl's Breakdown" by sliding on the 3rd string of a fretless..........OK, just tried it, not enough sustain.   ;-) 

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