Hello.  New member from Philadelphia in the US.  I've written numerous books of guitar history, am a columnist for Vintage Guitar Magazine, and am a presenter at the annual Banjo Gathering.  If you don't know of the latter, it is a 25-year-old meeting of banjo enthusiasts that moves mostly up and down the East Coast of the US.  There is always a display room for dealers and collectors, but the main activities are historical presentations, a field trip (this year we met in Williamsburg, VA, and were given an up close and personal viewing of The Old Plantation, which is not on display otherwise), and lots of good fellowship and conversation among good people.  Virtually all of the recent books on banjo history have been written by Banjo Gathering members.  My presentation this year was on how banjos (and guitars) got wire strings.

For next year I will be speaking on the 1890s running argument between American banjoists and English banjoists over notation.  Banjos evolved from being tuned in F around 1850 to being tuned in C by around 1885.  When banjos hit A tuning around 1865 they had become enormously popular and music publishers began publishing tutors and sheet music written in the key of A.  Out of stubbornness (and built up inventory), when banjos rose further to the key of C, the music continued to be notated in A, continuing up until the 1920s.  When C banjos came to England, English musicians said, "What the heck is this?  The banjo's tuned in C, but the music is in A.  No way, Jose."  And music became C Notation in England.  Hence the ongoing skirmishes seen in the banjo press of the time.

So, what I'm interested to learn is if you can steer me to any good sources on the history of banjo in the UK.  I know the Virginia Minstrels came over in 1843 and that blackface minstrelsy became popular, but beyond that I know very little.  The subject is rarely much addressed in American books on the banjo.  I don't intend to focus on that story, but I have to paint some background of how there came to be any English banjoists at all, much less how the C Notation controversy came about on that end.

Thanks in advance if you can be of help!

Michael

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When the photo was taken Mackney was apparently making regular appearances as one of a company of vocalists at the Canterbury Hall in Westminster, accompanied by Cecil Hicks on the pianoforte. 

I sort of spaced on the obvious about the Dobigny method.  "English Method" likely means the same as "English System" which refers to C notation. Opposed to the American System of A notation. 

Here is a clear explanation of "English Method" as a description for notating the banjo in the key of C or C notation.

All I can find in reference to "English Method" is in the context of notation systems.  Mike, are you able to provide other examples that are clear in context of playing styles?

Hi guys!  So I actually started this thread a year ago when I was thinking of doing a presentation on the controversy between A Notation in America and C Notation in Great Britain.  My presentation later morphed into an exposition of the historical contexts of Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1781 commentary on the 4-string “banjar,” which I’ll be giving in a few weeks.

One of Jefferson’s assertions is that “its [the banjo’s] chords [strings] being precisely the same as the lower 4 chords of the guitar [closest to the floor, not basses].”  What he means, and what I present an elaborate proof of, is that the 4 strings of the banjo are the same as the first 4 strings of the English guittar, at least in terms of intervals, which they are, with the exception of 4 on the banjo being an octave higher than the English guittar, but with the same interval relationship (4th).  Jefferson was a trained, skilled violinist.

The English guittar was at the height of its popularity in the 1780s when Jefferson was writing and the Spanish guitar was just being born, so he was not referencing the Spanish guitar.  The English guittar was played fingerstyle.

At the time the “argument” between American and British banjoists heated up, the banjo in both the U.S. and England was tuned in C, but Americans stubbornly held on to A Notation, mainly because older players had learned on A-tuned banjos.

It may be possible that English or C Notation and the English Method (fingerstyle) may both be also related to a memory of the English guittar.  By this time the first 3 strings of the banjo would still have been tuned the same as the English guittar (which had been tuned in open C).  The English guittar had ceased being popular in the early 1800s, but it likely would still be remembered.

I guess what I’m saying is that there may not actually be much of a distinction between English C Notation and English Method fingerstyle and that the English guittar may have had an influence, at least.

 

The tuning of the English guitar that Jefferson reported being the same as banjo  may have been in fourths as you say.  One tuning of its four highest courses I found on the internet (which is often wrong) is a major chord represented as G c e g.  This is the same as the open G tuning of bluegrass or the "elevated bass" tuning of classic banjo transposed to C.  If this particular banjo was an octave above English guitar then it would be up a 4th from present day Open G tuning rather than  down a 5th. . Also the English guitar had the 4 highest courses doubled. So it had 8 double strings and 2 single bass strings.  

I think it's unlikely  that in Jefferson's day there was only one banjo tuning and only one type of banjo. It seems that one type of 4 string banjo had 3 long strings and 1 short one. But he can't have been talking about that kind of 4 string banjo. But if he was talking about actual strings as opposed to double courses then the tuning of the banjo Jefferson refers to would be cc gg. 

So my question is "how do you know what he meant?"

Michael Wright said:

Hi guys!  So I actually started this thread a year ago when I was thinking of doing a presentation on the controversy between A Notation in America and C Notation in Great Britain.  My presentation later morphed into an exposition of the historical contexts of Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1781 commentary on the 4-string “banjar,” which I’ll be giving in a few weeks.

One of Jefferson’s assertions is that “its [the banjo’s] chords [strings] being precisely the same as the lower 4 chords of the guitar [closest to the floor, not basses].”  What he means, and what I present an elaborate proof of, is that the 4 strings of the banjo are the same as the first 4 strings of the English guittar, at least in terms of intervals, which they are, with the exception of 4 on the banjo being an octave higher than the English guittar, but with the same interval relationship (4th).  Jefferson was a trained, skilled violinist.

The English guittar was at the height of its popularity in the 1780s when Jefferson was writing and the Spanish guitar was just being born, so he was not referencing the Spanish guitar.  The English guittar was played fingerstyle.

At the time the “argument” between American and British banjoists heated up, the banjo in both the U.S. and England was tuned in C, but Americans stubbornly held on to A Notation, mainly because older players had learned on A-tuned banjos.

It may be possible that English or C Notation and the English Method (fingerstyle) may both be also related to a memory of the English guittar.  By this time the first 3 strings of the banjo would still have been tuned the same as the English guittar (which had been tuned in open C).  The English guittar had ceased being popular in the early 1800s, but it likely would still be remembered.

I guess what I’m saying is that there may not actually be much of a distinction between English C Notation and English Method fingerstyle and that the English guittar may have had an influence, at least.

 

The full tuning of the 6-course English guittar was C E GG cc ee gg, with intervals of M3rd, m3rd, 4th, M3rd, m3rd, from 6 to 1.  (There were some 5-course versions, I believe.) Jefferson’s term is “chords,” not “strings,” which it is fair to interpret as “courses.”  In my experience “tuning” is taken to mean the intervals between courses, not between the strings within a course, which are, by necessity, tuned either in unison or octaves to avoid chaos.  The earliest known evidence for banjo tuning is in Gumbo Chaff’s Compleat Preceptor published by Elias Howe in 1848.  I’m not aware of anything earlier.  This is c F C E G, with intervals of a 4th, 5th, M3rd, m3rd, 5 to 1.  You can see already that the first 3 courses are the same intervals as the English guitar (c e g, M3rd/m3rd).  This intervallic relationship was maintained until the 5-string banjo fell out of favor around 1910 or so, although the pitch continued to rise from F all the way up to D by the end of the 19th Century.  (When the 5-string banjo was revived and popularized after WWII, largely thanks to Pete Seeger, Seeger reversed the intervals between 5-4 and 4-3 to a 5th and 4th, respectively, ironically making the modern banjo tuning identical to the English guittar!)

While we don’t know the tuning, the first known image of a banjo comes from Sir Hans Sloane’s A Voyage to Jamaica published in 1707, recounting his visit to the West Indies between 1687-1689.  This had 3 strings, with one being a short thumb string.  We know from music published in Sloane that the music played was greatly influenced by European music by this time.  (A Haitian banza fitting the same description was recently discovered in the basement of a French museum, so far the earliest known physical banjo.)  Sometime between 1689 and the 1768 installment of Diderot’s Encyclopedia, the banjo acquired a 4th string, still with the short thumb string. 

Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, where his banjo discussion is found, was written in 1781 and published in many editions after 1787.  The only known contemporary banjo image is John Rose’s The Old Plantation, painted between 1785 and 1795, usually given as 1790.  This still has 4 strings.  There are no other known variations on the banjo that I’m aware of.  Banjo historians usually attribute the addition of the 5th string, actually the 4th or bass string, to the 1830s.

Jefferson is explicit that his banjo had 4 courses (“chords”), and it’s reasonable to assume that he’s referring to a banjo in the form of John Rose’s painting which comes from the very same time.  Since the 5th string didn’t arrive until 50 years later, we must remove the 4th or bass string that was added in the 1830s.  This leaves us with 2 choices for the thumb string: keep the pitch (c) or keep the interval (4th).  Tuning the thumb string to c gives the interval of c-C or an octave/unison, which is not how thumb strings sound (tuning would be c C E G).  Tuning it to a 4th makes it sound just like the thumb string usually sounds (g C E G).  A quick comparison to Kanjanka akonting (d G F) and Gambian akonting (c F E) tunings (both with short thumb strings) reveals an interval of a 4th between the thumb string and the next string.

If we assume that the intervals found on Gumbo Chaff’s banjo (and all subsequent 19th Century banjos) were traditional and reflected earlier tunings, then going through this exercise gives the tuning of Jefferson’s/John Rose’s banjo at g C E G (4th, M3rd, m3rd), compared to Jefferson’s “lower 4 chords of the [English] guitar” at G C E G (4th, M3red, m3rd), or exactly the same.  I realize actual pitch on plantation banjos probably varied by player, but it’s the intervals that count.  I think that Jefferson, who was an expert violinist who played music all his life, knew what he was talking about and I don’t see how any other conclusion could be reached. 

OK, now we've got two Americans ( I presume) divided by a common language.!   Mike W had written "What he means, and what I present an elaborate proof of, is that the 4 strings of the banjo are the same as the first 4 strings of the English guittar, at least in terms of intervals, which they are, with the exception of 4 on the banjo being an octave higher than the English guittar, but with the same interval relationship (4th).  Jefferson was a trained, skilled violinist."

He is in fact saying exactly what he means. But I misunderstood the phrase "4 on the banjo".  He meant the drone string. the high short string. I thought he meant  the four strings of the banjo.... all of them. And since DGBD does not have the intervalic relationship of a 4th I was confused.  Now I am un-confused.

However:  Pete Seeger did not invent gDGBD and he did not cause a societal shift from gCGBD. In his instruction book he presents gCGBD as the basic tuning. It's on Page 9 of the red cover version.

When playing American traditional music on the 5-string banjo I have regularly used about 20 tunings, most of which I learned from observing the playing of traditional musicians who were born in the 19th century. Others I created myself.

I do not believe there was only one banjo tuning in Jefferson's day. I'm talking about intervals, not absolute pitch. I am sure Jefferson is accurately describing the tuning he found on the banjr he examined. But people are creative and resourceful in their music making.  In Jefferson's time there was more than one violin tuning just as there is now. This was not just amongst vernacular musicians. There is composed European music in various violin tunings.  The attitude of "The Music Conservatory" with its pathological obsession with rules and obedience labeled all violin tunings other than GDAE "scordatura", meaning "falsely tuned".  But AEAC#  (for instance) is not false it simply different.

The Complete Preceptor for the banjo was published in 1851.  While I am happy to let y'all have the discussion on English guitars and banjo tuning, The Complete Preceptor is a Complete pile of nothing useful.  "Gumbo Chaff" aka music publisher Elias Howe might not have even had a banjo when he published that waste of paper and ink. 

The music in it is all recycled generic treble clef pieces that Ditson printed in other books.  The "F" pitch (I don't like to use "tuning" as it confuses people accustom to "old time" scordatura) does not match the notation as none of the pieces are in the key of F.  While there are pieces in the key of C, all other documentable banjo works use the 4th string as the natural key, then expand to others.  This book does not do that.

I personally believe that the CPFTB is nothing more than a quick cash grab by Ditson, likely by people who had never seen a banjo in person before that was not held on a stage.

We would have to wait another 4 years before Frank Converse gave us the Briggs' Banjo Instructor. Even then the pitch from Briggs was almost immediately abandoned for A.  

Jody, Scordatura means discord or mistuning not "false tuning".  I know you don't care for that term but it is correct when applied to a banjo tradition of using a "standard" set of intervals, a tradition that we have documentation of from 1855 on.

"Scordatura" does not take anything away from the system of "old time" alternate tunings.

I've never studied at a conservatory (or had any formal musical education) and do not know what their obsessions are.

Apologies: it is "Complete".  Published in 1848 by Howe.  In 1850 Howe sold his plates and copyrights to Ditson, who changed the publisher's marks but reproduced Howe's book otherwise identically, along with the rest of Howe's catalog.  "Gumbo Chaff" was a fictional character in Christy's Minstrels acts and the name became a kind of generic name associated with Minstrelsy.  That the material is probably a hodge-podge kluged together is probably true, and there's precious little "instruction" in it, as I recall, just a collection of popular songs.

Surely "discord" is as bad as False Tuning. Surely "mistuning" is worse than false tuning. It condemns the use and user of such tunings just as "misbehaving" condemns the behavior and behaver to whom the epithet is applied.  "False tuning" is the translation I have seen in print most often. It literally means out-of-tune. You, Joel, did not create the terminology and are using it to mean "alternate tuning" but context of origins suggests what the term was originally intended to mean.. The term originates from an Italian root meaning to disagree but it carries cultural baggage. It means "wrong". Anyway this is a small side issue. The main one for me, in the context of this lively discussion, is whether or not there was one and only one tuning of the banjo in America in Jefferson's lifetime. To my way of thinking, based on what I have observed about musicians of virtually all cultures and continents, it is close to impossible that there would be only one way.


Joel Hooks said:

Jody, Scordatura means discord or mistuning not "false tuning".  I know you don't care for that term but it is correct when applied to a banjo tradition of using a "standard" set of intervals, a tradition that we have documentation of from 1855 on.

"Scordatura" does not take anything away from the system of "old time" alternate tunings.

I've never studied at a conservatory (or had any formal musical education) and do not know what their obsessions are.

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