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4. Reflections on my first encounter with banjo

Posted by Rob MacKillop on Monday, September 8, 2008

Thought I'd cap my first week off with a few reflections. This is a whole new world to me, and there has been a lot of info going in one eye and ear and out the others. Some of it got caught and is being processed.

The photo on the left, my ID photo, is of the watch-key tuning machine of a so-called English Guitar - usually spelled 'guittar'. There is nothing particularly English about it. It came from Germany into Scotland and elsewhere in the 1750s. The first tutor for it was by Robert Bremner in Edinburgh, 1758, and is full of traditional tunes. It was tuned from the bass upwards cegc'e'g' - two C major triads. James Oswald, another Scot, published music for it in this tuning, but also in G Major - Gbdgb'd'. Robert Bremner's son, also called Robert, took these publications and instruments to New England, and then it spread elsewhere. I recorded some of this music on two CDs (www.rmguitar.info). The music was published in two styles - simple traditional style and what banjo historians might call the 'elevated' style. There was a push to make this instrument respectable. It has amused me this week to find out that the same is true of the banjo.

The social history and politcs of the emerging banjo in the 19th century is fascinating for me, not least because of the parallels with Scottish music. The Scots, as is well known, were heavily involved in slave plantations. Recently, one African-American music professor made a tv program backed up by talking tours across Scotland, on the connection between Gaelic Song as practiced in Hebridean islands to this day, and the development of Gospel singing in the States. Many blacks, he maintained, were schooled in this Scottish style of singing, where one guy sings a line and the congregation respond by singing it back but with lots of improvisation, everyone doing their own thing.

I've always imagined the Scottish 'guittar' to have also had an influence, and without any proof have privately entertained the idea that this guittar tuned in C or G influenced banjo and dobro tunings (the main dobro tuning is exactly the same as Oswald's tuning mentioned above). I read this week that no less a figure than Thomas Jefferson agrees with me (although various other tunings were also in place). It would be nice to play banjo and guittar together.

So, I find myself attracted to the minstrel stroke style, but also the development of the less elevated style as it emerged from Scots/Irish-ancestry folk players. I have a fretless Tradesman arriving in a week or so, and have placed an order for a Boucher with Bob Fleshman (due next July). In the meantime I am a complete beginner on the banjo. I've uploaded a video of my very poor rendition of Oh Susanna (you have to start somewhere, and what a better place to start - I love this tune!):


I can give a critique of my own playing from watching this video: playing too fast for my level, quite nice tone, thumb stroke not always clear, too stiff, technical problems upset rhythm, etc, etc. Feel free to offer advice - it will all be considered. No attempt at minstrel stoke has been made, just basic clawhammer style. I find downstrokes with the middle finger (or any other finger, for that matter) to be totally alien to me. I'll go back to the most basic excercises.


2 comments on “4. Reflections on my first encounter with banjo”

twayneking Says:
Monday, September 8, 2008 @1:55:00 PM

I saw your video earlier.  You have a nice soft touch that I like.  Good luck with it.  Hope to hear more as your skill grows.

Rob MacKillop Says:
Monday, September 8, 2008 @10:50:52 PM

'Nice soft touch' - hmm...is that a good thing?

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