Oh dear, I hate to admit it but I'm running a parallel path at the moment:

--Classic banjo picking

--Robert Johnson-style blues banjo

Both fascinate me, and both seems to work well on my old Stewart.

Please feel to either commiserate with me, or rail against this ridiculous rail I'm balancing on. Oh, I'm also learning old time music on a banjo mandolin. 

This feels vaguely like a confession. Perhaps Ian will write me and ask me to confine all future remarks of mine to Banjo Hangout. :-)

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Patrick, I think Robert Johnson's blues guitar style is very banjo- like. I play Last Fair Deal on the banjo. Lots of us here play other music and other instruments, Ian is a bell ringer. Marc D plays pedal steel and other things. Alabama Marc plays clawhammer.  I also participate in an oud forum (the only other well-mannered internet music forum I know of). I play all sorts of music and several instruments. I just don't talk about it much here because it's off topic.

re banjo mandolin: I have found some ways for this horrible noise maker to become a musical instrument. One is to tune it a step low and/or string it very very light. Another is to use single courses instead of double.  Another is to find the ideal bridge. Also a small bit of rag stuffed between the dowel and the head helps subdue the racket. That's something I would never do on a five-string banjo. Forget about converting your banjo to a boat anchor with cement. Stuffing socks behind a banjo head, fashionable though it is, is an easy way to convert a Weaver into Korean starter "tub". 

Thanks for all the advice, Jody. The Orpheum b-mando actually has a wonderful tone as-is, and I'd never modify her. I've put steel strings on it, and really have no objections whatsoever to the output. But I recognize I'm lucky as so many of these do cause one to cover one's ears.

Sure, if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Patrick Garner said:

Thanks for all the advice, Jody. The Orpheum b-mando actually has a wonderful tone as-is, and I'd never modify her. I've put steel strings on it, and really have no objections whatsoever to the output. But I recognize I'm lucky as so many of these do cause one to cover one's ears.

There's a lovely tune in the classic tradition called "Languid Blues" I think. Can anyone remember who it's by?

Edmund Casselli

Patrick would love to hear some Robert Johnson on the banjo! I am a guitarist first and have been a blues attemptist for over 20 yrs. have tried over and over to put delta blues to the banjo but never felt i got it right. haven't really found good blues played on the banjo? Dink Roberts is as close as i ever found


This book has only just come out - it's good...


The Sokolow book came out in 2014. There's a "Robert Johnson for Banjo" book that is even newer. Both have TAB, and concentrate on blues riffs and licks. The Johnson book actually has a dozen key songs that break his recordings down note by note for a 5 string. It's an amazing effort and has been a small revelation for me. 

I bought Fred Sokolow's 1980's book on "Ragtime, Blues & Jazz for Banjo" way back in the late 1980's...has some good basic stuff in it. Not deep...but a good start.

Who wrote the RJ book? I see it advertised quite a bit but haven't been able to find out who the actual author is.

i WAS QUITE  disappointed in this book although I have only read reviews and looked at promotional material, because it is essentially an effort to transform methods used in playing blues on the guitar to the banjo rather than an examination of historical ways the blues was played on the banjo.

It has absolutely no reference to the most commercially recorded African American banjoist in history,  Gus Cannon who made 33 commercial recordings for three different record companies, with most recordings being blues and ragtime.     I spent 3 or 4 years researching Cannon for a chapter in Bob Winans forthcoming book on banjo history.  Cannon played the banjo a number of different ways including frailing and old time 2-finger, and confessed to having once owned a tenor but decided he could not do anything with a tenor he couldn't do with a five string. 

However the predominant style he used on all of these recordings except 1 (the sole old time tune whose approach we cannot figure out whether it is frailing or two finger style) is played in the guitar-banjo style (the term I use after Converse since Classic denotes a certain approach within the guitar-banjo approach). 

All but two (the old time tune and his famous slide banjo "poor boy" blues) are played in the drop C tuning, although on two recording he was obviously out of tune two steps down and two others he may have used a capo or tuned his banjo a few steps up.,   

Cannon used four fingers and added the fifth finger to make a tremolo.  LOL when I visited Memphis in 2010 to interview Memphis Bobby Bostick a studio guitarist, banjoist, and bassist who approached Cannon for lessons in the 1950s, I began a video interview by asking Bostick to explain how Cannon played.  Bostick said "Just like Clarke Beuhling) the GREAT BEUHLING had just done a workshop and performance weekend then.

Probably7 other Black banjoists played blues  in the pre WWI period  especially the more show business blues styles with a banjo using the guitar banjo style.  This was the predominant style in the world and I have uncovered lots of information about Black banjoists who played in this style both in ragtime and as part of the BMG movement that included African American clubs.

The fundamental problem Cannon found, and other black five-string banjoists, was the pitch and singing problem.  For his blues and ragtime vocal efforts (he recorded no instrumentals save a harmonica solo piece featuring his brilliant harp player Noah Lewis) he needed the bass sustain and support of both a jug or bass and a guitar.  In his band, he rejected the services of the brilliant lead guitarist he began with Ashley Thompson for the chord rhythms of two older guitarists and guitar banjoists who played either chord rhythm or bass runs.

The vocal style used by black people for the blues and the banjo's pitch collide, especially in the guitar banjo style aimed at utilizing the solid treble of a post David Day Banjo (Cannon used a Van Eps Recording banjo with steel strings, those banjos are overkill even with nylon or gut).   Bass or guitar became absolutely necessary to provide the bottom to support both singing and the slow drag dancing that came in with the blues.   So you really needed a band if you were a banjoist like Cannon playing the blues.  He never worked solo and even in medicine shows and sometimes performed with as many as 2 or 3 guitarists.

In the classic tradition in the medicine shows he worked in after the Great War, Cannon often billed himself as  "The Champion Banjo Pugilist of the World" and offered 1000 dollars to anyone who could out play him, a clear reference to the age of Pugilism, that some like Stewart detested.  Indeed the theme of my chapter in Bob's book is how Cannon like other black banjoists were not separate from the world of banjo playing of the late 19th and early 20th century, but a part of it.  Folkies and other victims of bad thinking ignore the realities of banjo history in which commercial, parlor, and even art banjo playing intermingingled with what some now try to claim is folk banjo

Blues playing is pretty easy with a five string banjo because so much of the guitar playing now popular in "country" blues and even among sophisticated urban reading blues musicians like Lonnie Johnson--the most recorded blues musician of the 1920s and 30s and one Robert Johnson thought was the best--was done in the open G tuning, similar to open G on the banjo but with more strings.  This was an exceptionally common tuning for the kind of popular music and parlor Guitar playing that was the parallel to the "classic" or guitar banjo method, in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In fact, Older African American players and folks I have met of a generation now passed on refer to this tuning as "Spanish" based on the "Spanish Fandango" a song was often the last piece in a 19th century parlor guitar instructor.  Likewise the D tuning or Sebastopol tuning, based on the "Seige of Sebastopol" also a set piece in 19th century open tuning parlor guitar instructors.

But the real problem of playing blues in the black south was that an musician with a banjo needed a band to play blues in a juke joint or country supper dance for the bottom for the rhythm, wheras a solo guitarist could had that with her or his guitar.

A very large number of the first generation of blues guitarists and even then some played banjo but with the exception of Cannon--born in 1883 and of an older generation)--both Black banjoists I have discussed or followed on this issue, and blues guitarists usually see the banjo as an instrument for old time music or at most ragtime, while the guitar is for the blues.   These issues are discussed in my chapter in Duke University Press's  Hidden in the Mix and will be further explored in my chapter in Bob's book (as yet the title is in flux) forthcoming from U of Illinois Press


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