Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I thought it would be interesting to hear what each other is working on right now, minstrel/earlybanjo-wise. 

Building or buying something?  Learning a new tune or working on new technique?  Playing with others, or preparing for a minstrel era band gig?  Reading a good book or listening to some good audio?  Going on an earlybanjo-related adventure? 

What are YOU up to this week?- we're nosy and we wanna know!    =8-)

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Finishing up some rims. I'm looking forward to getting a big shipment of Pennsylvania Curly Maple for necks - mostly Boucher style.

Terry-that sounds good to me!

I'm currently working on learning to play three new-to-me minstrel tunes - Silver Lake Waltz, Hobson's Jig, and Pompey Ran Away.  All three of these tunes present techniques that are relatively new to me as an old stubborn clawhammer player, one who additionally has never played guitar. 

Now I 'could' play these tunes more easily by just clawhammering/clodhoppering my comfortable familiar way through them and ignoring the little stroke style fingering delicacies, I've certainly seen that done enough.  Clawhammer is awfully close to stroke style, and in fact some minstrel tunes don't seem to present much difference at all.  But there are differences, and since I really want to add to my stroke playing technical skills (such as they are) by working through them as indicated, I struggle along willingly.  Each tune serves me as more than just learning a new melody to play- it becomes for me a lesson to practice over and over.  I do like having new things to work on.   :)   I know that as time goes on and as I get more comfortable with the various stroke techniques, new tunes will present themselves less often as lessons and they'll be easier to just play.

I'd like to share what each of those tunes is teaching me to do right now, and why it often takes me weeks to learn to play a new tune in stroke style, at least in this stage of my progress.  I sometimes wonder if others suspect there's something 'wrong' with me, taking sooo long to play just basic tunes.  Alas, if I were younger and/or less set in my playing ways, I might indeed pick up this stuff faster. 

In any case, I think little playing/fingering challenges like this must surely be common to everyone just learning, and are perhaps useful to share and discuss specifically ...or maybe just good to commiserate! (lol).

Let me just start with:

Silver Lake Waltz -

I've never played waltzes much...the oldtime fiddle session circles I usually play in seem to play very few of them.  (from what i observe, waltzes seem to be more common in the Northern repertoire and of course in contra musician circles)  So first up, just the 3/4 time takes a bit of getting used to. I think it's mostly just a mindset thing, since there is no rhythmic strumming involved in this tune.  The drop thumbs on open strings (as in the third measure) really help me stay on track and grounded, and I'm totally grateful for them in this piece.  ;) 

Then, as i find with most stroke style tunes, the thumb gets put into use in more unexpected places than i would be using it in clawhammer (CH)- starting right off in the two open middle string notes of the second measure.  I suspect that non-CH players don't think about this much, but for some old drop-thumb CH geezers it's awkward and new, and something I've been trying to get used to for over a year now.  My thumb hesitates for just that split second, wanting to go to its cozy familiar places ...and then sometimes comes down to the wrong string, even after countless repetitions.  My urge is to simply play those notes with my index finger, but I know that as I begin to play more complex stroke style tunes I'd only be slowing myself down by avoiding it.  This has been a big thing for me- the using of the thumb to play so many melody notes in stroke style.  I'm still tripping up on it and my hand keeps objecting...but I keep pushing on, knowing it will come around eventually.  This thumb thing slows me down a lot.

Then there are the triplets.  I've always avoided tripletts like the plague in CH.  I even avoided them during my brief foray into mandolin playing long ago.  Never had much use for them in my traditional dulcimer playing either.  I don't normally gravitate towards Irish repertoire, which uses a lot of triplets.  Now I find I can no longer get away with pretending they don't exist.   =8-*    What's more, the triplets in Silver Lake Waltz also call for the thumb to be used in that decidedly unclawhammerly manner.  DOUBLE DAMN!   lol  So there I go, sitting and playing that triplett over and over and over until it's sounding good.  Then I get to that point in the tune where it is, and the triplet falls apart again.  grrrrr....   I must be a glutton for punishment because I go back for more and keep playing the thing over and over.  Apparently I'm also now a closet masochist.

The last little tricky thing in Silver Lake Waltz that challenges me is the left hand 'semi-contortionist stacked chord' of the third measure of the B part, followed by a repeat with a slight change.  Again, not something I've typically done much of in clawhammer, though some CH players do play full chords like this. Sounds so 'classical' to me.  And on a fretless the fingertips have to be fairly accurately placed- you can't just throw your fingertip down anywhere between two frets and get a good note.  Ugh, I keep muting or buzzing one or another essential note of this phrase with some 'mystery part' of some other finger.  Gotta also remember to keep that hand arched up high.  This little phrase is arguably the prettiest moment in the entire tune, so buzzing my way through it with poor intonation is simply unacceptable to my aural feng shui sanity.  That crucial phrase cannot really be changed or the fingering altered, so nothing to be done but continue to tackle it head on.  

It's all both a blessing and a curse.  Am I overly concerned with details?  Perhaps, but the alternative is worse- doomed to keep bumbling awkwardly through tunes that I'd like to be playing with at least some amount of grace and ease.  Is it all worth all the struggle?  Of course!    =8-)

Good variety. Those are distinctly different tunes.

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