Early Fingerstyle Banjo

“…the same piece in many cases may be performed in either style” George Dobson, 1871

[Many more videos and MP3 files at foot of page…]

It’s always interesting to see how far back you can trace a style of performance practice. The oft-assumed earliest date for the ‘guitar style’ of picking the strings upwards into the palm of the hand instead of striking downwards (sometimes refered to as ‘banjo style’) is the publication in 1865 of Frank B. Converse’s Banjo With Or Without A Master. Here Converse states that…

All of the fingers are used, and are held a little curved over, and touching the strings about three inches from the bridge. Pull the strings with the points of the fingers and particularly avoid touching them with the nails. To soften the sound move the hand forward, touching the strings almost directly over the rim.

This is clear enough. Yet there are earlier references still, such as (James) Buckley’s New Banjo Method, Boston 1860. Despite only mentioning stroke technique in his introduction, there is much in this book that is clearly for guitar technique, and one might claim it as the earliest source for guitar-technique solos. The first 16 bars of ‘Yankee Doodle’ contain single notes to be played in guitar style – where one might expect guitar technique to involve chords and moving parts.

Yankee Doodle: “Pick the first 16 Bars”
Bar 17 (to 32): “Strike this part”

When the stroke technique enters in bar 17, it is for the most rudimentary and characteristic minstrel clichés. The performer could quite justifiably approach this book as a source of early guitar-style solos, as much of the contents could be played as such, reserving the stroke technique for the deliberately antiquated moments. However, much of the same repertoire could indeed be played with the old stroke technique. At the early date of 1860, one would do well to mark the Dobson brothers’ comment of a decade later: “…the same piece in many cases may be performed in either style” [Modern Method, 1871].

Converse [The Cadenza, August 1901 issue, page 15] claims that George Swain Buckley played almost everything fingerstyle, and also used a fretted instrument as early as 1852!

In Briggs’ Banjo Instructor (Boston 1855) we have ‘meat and potatoes’ stroke-style solos. The sung songs, however, are a different matter. Briggs states that:

The performer, in playing the accompaniments of the Songs, can use either the Banjo fingering, or snap the first, second, and third strings with the first, second, and third fingers of the right hand, as in playing the Guitar.

In contrast to the banjo solos, the ‘guitar’ parts consist of mainly Alberti-bass figures. It is not impossible to play these figures with stroke technique, however, they fit very easily under the guitarist’s hand.

The question remains as to why Briggs would mention guitar technique for the songs. Many of them belong to the minstrel stage repertoire, while an equal number stem from the general music hall or even parlor repertoire, for example, ‘Annie Lawrie’. Is this early evidence for the desire to ‘elevate’ the banjo away from the standard minstrel-plantation fodder? Perhaps many guitarists were turning to the increasingly-popular banjo for employment opportunities? Briggs even mentions how to restring a guitar so that banjo solos could be played on it. Clearly from this early publication, stroke and guitar techniques were both known and practiced by many players.

Converse supplies a version of ‘Briggs’ Favorite Jig’ in ‘Guitar Fingering’ - unquestionably the clincher for any arguement over playing Briggs fingerstyle: [New And Complete Method For The Banjo With Or Without A Master, 1865] – click on image for full view…

Converse, late in life, recalled his first encounter with the banjo in the playing of a negro busker who often came to his village. This man played with his thumb and index finger only, but, crucially, the index finger picked the strings upwards into the palm, in other words NOT stroke style. The young Converse was so transfixed with his playing that towards the end of his own life he made an attempt to write down on paper what he heard. The score is below, edited by Jim Dalton (thanks to Jim for permission to include it here). But first, Converse:

“The first banjo I ever heard was in the hands of a colored man–a bright mulatto–whose name I have forgotten. He frequently visited Elmira and the neighboring villages, playing and singing and passing his hat for collections. His repertoire was not very extensive, but, with his comicalities, sufficed to gain him a living. I cannot say that I learned anything from his execution, which, though amusing, was limited to the thumb and first finger,–pulling or “picking” the strings with both. He was quite conceited as to his abilities (pardonable in banjo players, I believe), and to impress his listeners with a due appreciation of them, he would announce that such a trifling circumstance as the banjo being out of tune caused him no inconvenience and so, with a seemingly careless fumbling of the pegs, he would disarrange the tuning-”fro de banjo out a’ tune” he said–but merely pitching the second string a semitone higher…

…This manner of fingering–as I learned in later years when visiting Southern plantations–was characteristic of the early colored player.

The following morceaux, which I still recall, was his piece de resistance with the instrument fro’d out a’ tune, and thinking it may amuse your readers, I give it.” – “Banjo Reminiscences” for The Cadenza, July 1901.

EarlyBlackBanjo PDF Score

…and here is my performance using two-finger (thumb and index) technique:

The tuning is of great interest. To my knowledge it does not appear in any of the minstrel tutor books, but is known to 20th- and 21st-century folk banjoisits as Double C (in modern standard banjo pitch, gCGCD). The two-finger and three-finger picking styles are also in evidence in folk circles, most notably in the playing of Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, Bascom Lamar Lundsford, Charlie Pool, Gus Cannon, and even Doc Watson. The early Black banjo piece affords us an insight into an unwritten tradition which may have survived in its main features into our own time. It challenges the over-simplified assertion that Stroke style is the pure African or African American way, and, indeed, Akonting players of West Africa (the assumed source of direct ancestorship for the gourd banjo) are known to play both down and up picking.

Repertoire

The fact is that up-picking existed. There is a large repertoire of dedicated pieces, and also the possibility of expanding that repertoire by playing Stroke-style pieces with Fingerstyle technique. I propose that much of the early repertoire found in the publications of Briggs, Rice, Buckley, Converse, et al, could easily be adapted, often without changing a single note. As George Dobson said, “…the same piece in many cases may be performed in either style”

Here is a PDF of all the solo pieces from Briggs’ 1855 Instructor:

BriggsTab – all the solo pieces from Briggs in TAB

Briggs - all the solo pieces from Briggs in Standard Notation with TAB

It commences with five ‘Movements’ which, although designed to improve stroke technique, are also very good exercises for fingerstyle playing. If done with exclusively thumb and index, the thumb will sometimes have to move quickly from the fifth string to the second, as in the 4th movement. This is an excellent exercise, and should become part of your daily warm up routine. You might also try using a three-finger technique of thumb, index and middle fingers. The entire Briggs publication can be played mostly with two ‘fingers’ (thumb and index) or three (thumb, index, middle).

Mp3 Files of Briggs’ Instructor of 1855

Mary Blane
Old Dan Tucker
Dandy Jim
Jim Crow Polka
Dance, Boatman, Dance
Lucy Neal
Git Up In De Mornin
Rosa Lee
Old Johnny Boker
De Bones In De Yard
Carry Me Back To Old Virginny
Dearest Mae
Old Dinah’s Goin To Town
Old King Crow
O! Pray Goody
Briggs’ Reel
Ephraim’s Lament
Walk Along John
Circus Jig
Camptown Hornpipe
Ethiopian Cracovienne

Videos

Comments

Rob, thanks for all the work you’re doing on sharing tabs, videos, websites. I’m feeling inspired to learn some of these minstrel and classic styles. Dan N

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There will be many of us that will be thankful for your sharing of talent, playing, videos, and your effort of producing the tabs. Although a beginner I feel that I can handle some of the tabs…and look forward to getting my fingers acquainted with the Jim Crow Polka for starters. Never tire watching you play…you are in love with everynote. bhniko

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As I tell folks in my “history of the banjo” presentations, there are two “natural” ways the human hand interacts with stringed instruments: picking and striking. Greg Adams showed us that the Akonting was/is played both ways and I see no reason why the music can’t be interpreted as we see fit.

The early instructors focus on the stroke style for a reason…but when it comes down to it, some of the music therein just doesn’t suit the style. When I run across those tunes, I play ‘em ‘guitar style’.

As usual, well done Rob! Seriously, serendipity rules. Without exploration we might forever circle the flame. We will always need someone to dive in closer to see if it is indeed hot. Thanks for what you do, Rob!

Trapdoor2

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Wow! Really good stuff. chip arnold

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Incredible! What a great project…thanks so much for your generosity in passing it along gratis. I’ll be diving in directly.
Sean
http://2ftlbanjer.wordpress.com

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Though those pieces were written in down-stroke style, your finger-style renderings sound quite good. RD Luncford

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I think it is great Rob! As a musicologist (let me get on my high horse here! ) I am convinced that in any era, if there is a different way to be found, then musicians will and DID find it and do it!

Take for instance the Burwell Tutor of 1620 scolding players for playing behind their heads to entertain their drunken audiences in taverns. Move over Jimi . . . nothing new under the sun!

And this is like the thumb-under, thumb-over, nails, no-nails debate. (Rob knows what I’m talking about) Hooey! They did it all. Sure . . . some techniques are pervasive and dominant but they are not the ONLY freaking way.

I do think that stroke was more common in Briggs time and I do think the accents come out differently, but all I care about is MUSIC and you are playing music.

So . . . keep rockin!

Tom Berghan

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I echo all the comments above mine, and add that in many ways I prefer your finger-style renditions to stroke style…they seem to me to be more musically sensitive than most stroke style I’ve seen. Of course, maybe that’s just because of your personal musical sensitivity that comes through no matter what technique you are using. Mark Nerenberg

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Sounds to me like recognizably minstrel banjo but–this sounds weird–fuller. brokenstrings

2 responses to “Early Fingerstyle Banjo

  1. A mighty big thanks from me for all this valuable knowledge and research. I just started with the banjo last November and come from playing upright and electric bass, and some guitar. I’ve been working on clawhammer but I can’t seem to get that level of comfort necessary to start letting loose. Plucking comes so much more naturally to me (plus I set up my banjo with nylon strings), so your post is right up my alley. Thanks once again.

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