Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I'm afraid this might end up being a stupid question but.....

I'm trying to put together a short paragraph history of the early development and mass popularity of the banjo.   Was Sweeney the first to make a banjo that was not a gourd? 

If minstrels were supposedly imitating slave life, what was the motivation to change the gourd "banjo" into the banjo constructed/played by Sweeney and other minstrels?   (perhaps volume?) 

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Al,  I've seen a lot of conjecture as to who added the fifth (bass) string, and who added the wooden hoop.  The real answer is that nobody is sure.  Most likely both happened some time around 1840.  By the time wooden hoops were being added banjos were starting to come into the main stream.  Everyone, including slaves would want the latest thing, 5 strings and a wooden hoop.  Look at the Sidney Mount painting of the banjo player. 

The wooden hoop is much more easily mass produced than having to custom fit gourds, so that might have something to do with it.  I think in the long run you can get more consistency out of a wooden hoop than out of a gourd.  I also would agree that you probably get more sound out of  hoop than you can out of a gourd, and the hoop banjo is easier to hold.


Don't forget that painting c. 1815.....it is a hoop.

I read somewhere that a cheese company started sending out their product in round cheese boxes, thicker boxes than the modern ones. The year was right - it seemed to coincide with this transition period. I think I read this in "African Echoes In Appalachian Banjo."

That painting is the only example I've seen with a wooden hoop before 1840.  I've heard debate as to whether it was actually painted in 1815.  It doesn't really matter too much.  The fact is that wooden hoops were not common on banjos from the evidence that I have seen until after 1840, regardless of whether there was one, or a small number with hoops.  From what I have seen in pictures and written text, the banjo was commonly considered to be made from a gourd in that time frame.

Also probably grain measure boxes.

Bell Banjos said:

I read somewhere that a cheese company started sending out their product in round cheese boxes, thicker boxes than the modern ones. The year was right - it seemed to coincide with this transition period. I think I read this in "African Echoes In Appalachian Banjo."

As far as we know, yes, Sweeney is the man. Pete Ross has stood in front of the actual 1815 painting in the Valentine Museum in Richmond and still could not tell if it was a gourd or a hoop. I believe Hans Nathan has somewhere that people continued to commonly play gourds throughout the 1840's. Sweeney's switch in 1840 or 41' sealing the deal on its popular form to 5 string frame.  Personally, I haven't found the frame to be any more consistent at all - my gourd is always playable in any weather, and to my tastes, its tone and sustain is superior to any minstrel model until the fretted Ashborne models of the late 50's. To my mind, the only real advantages of the frame would be, as others have already mentioned, their more solid construction, a bit more volume, and most importantly, the ability to hold onto the damn things, especially if you were standing up and performing. 

One interesting thing about many gourd banjos (not all, depending on how the opening is cut) is that although the body cavity can be large and very resonant, the actual cut face of the skinhead opening is often relatively smaller (mine is 8.5" across), which means it may be less suseptible to humidity changes than a large surfaced tackhead/hoop banjo with an open back.  I did notice last year that my gourd banjo skinhead seemed to not be effected by humidity much at all.  I did keep a taller bridge on hand, but I never needed to use it.  This in contrast to previously observed 12" skinhead openbacks I have, which were very much effected by humidity while camping.

Thanks for all this insight.  Another question might be.....when the popularity of the hoop banjo took hold, was there an overlap by which some of the gourd banjos were then being made with 5 strings and a flater fingerboard rather than the long stick and 4 ....or 3 strings as they had been?   I guess one question out of that might be...is my 5-string gourd banjo with a flat fingerboard representative of any historical period or...is it just so that I can say I have a "gourd banjo"?

Al, I would think one would sort of have to have a flattish fingerboard for any more than maybe two fretted strings...maybe I'm wrong but I can't imagine fretting three strings on a round stick unless it was really big. Has anyone seen African instruments such as the akonting with round stick necks being fretted with more than two strings?  See the familiar painting of the gourd with 3 fretted strings and 1 drone- it has a flat fingerboard already.  I suspect any fretted instrument with more than two fretted strings needs a somewhat flattened fingerboard.

Dan'l - my gourd banjo has never required heating or adjustment of any kind. It seems to be entirely consistent time after time.

Al - I'm sure that somewhere at sometime there existed a 5 string period gourd, but from my knowledge of actual evidence it would be completely anachronistic. Joe Ayers encouraged me early on that if I really wanted to increase my banjo skills and understand early banjo technique, I needed to get a four string gourd and get to work.  Here is just one example that I've discovered - sustain and clarity of tone are possible well above the 10th fret on a gourd when they really aren't on a Minstrel model, which makes playing in the same key but at a higher octave (which is representative of the fiddle tunes of the era) entirely possible and allows us to have more notes of the scale played on other strings besides the first, which in turn allows for smoother playing (without all those awkward jumps from say the 10th fret to the 2nd fret on the first string). Also, not having the bass string also pushes you up into the same positions. Many of the early fiddle tunes that are going to become the stock pieces of the early minstrel era, can be played entirely between the 5th and the 14th fret positions, most of them between the 7th and 12th fret. Since it was the 4 string gourd that was being played while European pieces were first being attempted on the instrument (a process culminating for our purposes in Sweeney) I think an understanding of 4 string gourd mechanics is fundamental to an understanding of possible early banjo technique prior to the tutors.

Mark, have you played on a 40 degree night with lots of humidity? On such a night I've needed to heat up the head on  both my hoop banjos and gourd banjos.

Mark, do you know anything about the scale length or the tuning intervals that were likely used on those early 4 string gourd banjos?   Is there any knowledge about whether they used for example a Briggs tuning simply without the bass string, or were they perhaps tuned in different intervals than we typically use for Briggs tuning? 

It doesn't make sense to me to make that big jump in Jim Along Josie, when it would be easier to just use the adjacent strings to get all the notes in that phrase without the long leaps up and down the fretboard...but what do I know. 

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