I thought to introduce myself, since I have been hanging around and reading. I’m Jack, from Wyoming, new to the banjo, but already enjoying it. After playing mandolin for several years, fourths and thirds are something my brain is slowly getting used to. I’m alternating between bare fingers and a flatpick, as I get used to my instrument. I will probably pursue the bluegrass style in the long-run, but after listening to Fred J. Bacon, I’m intrigued with the idea of the banjo as a more generalized instrument.

Current favorite banjo player, Rhiannon Giddens (playing in a tuning that has notes lower than open G’s lowest).

General question. I see my banjo is tuned in bluegrass style G D G B D. Is there an advantage to learning a different another tuning for the music I see on this site, or will openG work for now?

Finally, I have a mania to research and write Wikipedia articles (your sympathy please...)  Examples of recent articles: American Banjo MuseumFred J. Bacon (not finished or tested for accuracy). I’m always open to suggestions and outright criticism. 

I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,

Jack

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Welcome, Jack!

Rhiannon is a great player, most of what I've seen her play is from the Minstrel Era (1850's-1870s)...and is in a style called "Stroke Style". Very different than fingerpicking...and a lot of fun.

Tuning: generically for Classic Banjo, the base tuning is gCGBD...because much of the music has a low C...which you can't get in gDGBD. However, there are many, many Classic banjo tunes that use what we term as "raised" or "elevated" tuning of gDGBD. Having that low C isn't so much of an advantage as a necessity.

Thank you. I was beginning to wonder about the necessity for a different tuning  as I looked through music. So, here’s dumb question: what should I look for in strings?  I have an  easy-to-play, cheap banjo (Oscar Schmidt OB-5) in which the resonator will come off. It’s strung with steel strings. I’m assuming nylon strings are made for gCGBD. Should I look for light/medium/heavy? Or, is an instrument like that designed for mean strings only? 

Thanks again!

Totally depends on your perspective and where you wish to go in this genre.

The music doesn't care and neither does the instrument. Steel strings were not the norm during this period of banjo playing, so here on Classic Banjo, we prefer to use nylon, nylgut or true gut. However, if you are not concerned about having the experience of playing on an instrument that is emulating the period correct format, it doesn't matter. Most of us here are about the whole feel, the idea of hearing what our forefathers (and mothers) heard.

The bass string of any set (steel, nylon, etc.) will work just fine for either tuning (and a variety of others...although we don't use them here). You needn't worry about being that specialized on strings.

So, string recommendations vary considerably. Recent discoveries by folks here on the forum have led to a set of strings which are equivalent to "original" sizes. These are very light and you have to order them individually. If you're strongly driven to learn on strings that get as close to the guys back in the 1890s, that's the set to get. The sizes to pick are listed on another thread here...I don't have them offhand (I don't use them).

OTOH, just starting out, you might be better off with a prepackaged set. LaBella sells a set, their #17 ($5.95 @ JustStrings.com). I haven't used them (I'm currently playing on gut strings...which are very expensive and fairly hard to find). But they ought to be a good start.

The Oscar Schmidt is a typical beginners instrument. It will be fine if properly set-up. Your average banjo tech will not understand how to set it up for nylon strings...but there are many good folks here who can lead you down the right path for that. With your new strings, you'll want a very lightweight maple bridge. Your typical bluegrass bridge is too massive. It won't keep the banjo from playing...but a period correct bridge will bring out the sound much better. When you get around to doing your set-up, go here for bridges: https://www.banjothimble.com/shop/historical-banjo-bridges.html 
Do root around Joel's site...a wealth of info there!


Jack said:

Thank you. I was beginning to wonder about the necessity for a different tuning  as I looked through music. So, here’s dumb question: what should I look for in strings?  I have an  easy-to-play, cheap banjo (Oscar Schmidt OB-5) in which the resonator will come off. It’s strung with steel strings. I’m assuming nylon strings are made for gCGBD. Should I look for light/medium/heavy? Or, is an instrument like that designed for mean strings only? 

Thanks again!

I really appreciate your advice on the strings and the link to the bridges. Looking at the music, I think I’m aiming at music that requires the C string. When I picked up the banjo, I really hadn’t realized the number of ways it could be played. I think that classic banjo music I’ve seen here fits into what I’m trying to do with my mandolin as well, explore earlier generations of music. Thank you!

Hi Jack,  I just read the Bacon Wiki.  I'm not sure how I feel-- it is extremely abridged.  You don't even scratch the surface on his compositions.  You don't mention his instruction books (in their various editions). 

You don't mention his obsession with mediums and spiritualism (which came out in his music).

You don't cover his work with wild west shows or his trick shooting act.

You don't mention the many articles he wrote for various magazines.

You did not cover how he had many profitable inventions that had nothing to do with banjos.

You don't include a discography of his recordings. 

I am NO expert and these are things I only know in passing.  There are people who know MUCH more than myself (and from which I learned the little that I did).

Your article links "classic banjo" to a section on your other article titled "Classical Era" quoted below...

"By the 1880s there was a movement to make the banjo a classical music instrument, to legitimize it and make it "new and sophisticated".[21] The socially elite felt the banjo was a "musically feeble gadget of the lower classes" but were also fascinated by it.[14][21] Educators brought in playing techniques and a sheet-music repertoire from the classical guitar, moving way from the banjo's traditional clawhammer stroke.[21][14] Banjo clubs arose in college and universities, and the banjo was now seen as being suitable for members of the upper and middle classes to play.[14][21] The American Banjo Museum’s collections of banjos from the classical era include examples by S.S. Stewart, Fairbanks and Cole, Bacon, Washburn (Lyon and Healy, Chicago) and J.B. Schall (Chicago)."

I am afraid that this is filled with recycled and obsolete information written from an presentist academic bias.  There is some fact but it continues to contain a slant that is incorrect.  It is purely presentisim. 

To start with there was no "movement" to make the banjo a "classical music instrument"-- one has to read past the hipster jargon of the era.  The music was popular and very little of it was "classical"-- I will be happy to send you (digitally) hundreds of pieces of sheet music published in the US between 1879 and 1900 and you can see for yourself that it was largely not "classical."

The sheet music was not "from the classical guitar repertoire" it was mostly composed by banjoists for banjo.  There were many arrangements from popular music for banjo published as well.  Those were made by banjoists for banjoists.  Some banjoists played guitar, that is true. This statement declares that the banjo was a shallow imitation of the guitar. 

While they talked a big game about how superior and high their music was-- much of it was quite lame and simple.  Many jigs and short two part pieces mixed with marches, schottisches and polkas. Schottisches and waltzes dominated and they pretty much were all the same (and pretty simple in structure). 

The so called "movement" of "elevation" was an advertising gimmick that was grasped so tightly by folk era academics that it became an obsession constantly repeated ad nauseam.  All kinds of sinister plot-lines have been attributed to that little bit of popular culture nonsense. The fact is that for the twenty year olds growing up during the industrial aftermath of the American Civil War "science" and "scientific" was the cool thing to do.  Reading music was cool and in style.  Tailored suits were the torn jeans and leather jackets of the coolest musicians.  It is hard to understand but "elevating the banjo" is no different than the advertising used to sell iPhones today. 

The biggest problem with all of the post WW2 written "history of the banjo" is that most of the people writing it were/are musically illiterate (at least as far as banjo music goes).  They knew there was sheet music, and the banjoists wore evening wear during concerts, so it must be classical music.  They were wrong.

Why people will study a culture and not learn that culture's language is beyond me.

Obviously there were exceptions, namely Alfred Farland.  But he struggled to fill seats.  And when he did people just wanted to hear him play variations on Stephen Foster tunes.

George Gregory was another who went the "classical" route. While he composed one of the greatest banjo marches and arranged several popular classical pieces for banjo he tragically developed focal dystonia and took his own life. 

Bacon did play some classical music.  Do keep in mind that he was mostly active during the age of pick playing and his 5 string playing was by then old fashioned. Timelines are important with this stuff.

The American Banjo Museum knows a lot about Shakey's Pizza era plectrum playing but they sadly have poor representation and knowledge on the classic era.  I would not use their signs for any references. 

Was there a "movement" to make the banjo "respectable?"-- sure, they shouted about it.  But one could say that continues today.  Endless discussions on the banjo hangout still go on about the banjo's association with post Jim Crow era "hillbilly" stereotypes. 

The so called "movement"  of "elevation" was people tired of the association with blackface minstrelsy-- something I don't blame them for wanting. 

You have to be very careful of banjo "histories".  Much of it was written by people who found the banjo through "folk music."  For some reason they decided that the "classic era" was the personification of "capitalism" and stood for everything that they were against politically.  This has skewed much that has been written with a derogatory tone. 

Luckily most of the research materials you need are now available online with no travel (a luxury that previous generations did not have).  Please take advantage of this gift from science.

Sorry about going off-- It was a noble attempt and more than I have done.  I congratulate the first draft.  But I would scrap it and revisit it after much more research has been completed.  We have been gaining ground with the truth and reality about the classic banjo era but bad information is still abound and we need less of it.

I also noticed some errors with your dates. For example, your dates and timeframes for the various Bacon banjo company locations are not accurate. 

Hi Joel, sorry it took so long to write after your post. I got busy with family and needed to think.

First, Thank you! It has been extremely rare for me to receive any feedback about articles I've written. I decided it was time to apply the Field of Dream model of building it first and improving it. If the article has major problems with accuracy, I do have an option of returning it to a draft. However, if it can be acceptably improved, I would rather take that route.

It looks like you may be writing about two separate articles. Your message touches on a reason that I am here, to fully understand the classic banjo idea so as not to put wrong information into the articles I am currently writing. Your comments touched on two articles...actually three...1) "Frederick J. Bacon", 2) the classical (now classic) section of "American Banjo Museum", and 3) the similar section in the "Banjo" article.

Frederick Bacon: here's what I can do. I can easily take any mention of classical music from the Frederick Bacon article, except the mention of his standard playlist to play at concerts. That would llet me address some of the things you would like to see in the article: instruction books that he wrote, his obsessions with mediums and spiritualism, his work on wild west shows (I really tried to find more on this one), articles written for various magazines, profitable inventions having nothing to do with music (I have started on this one, with horseshoes and lawn mowers), and a complete discography of recordings (this one I have just started on). All of these give me a plan of things to add to the article, and they can be added in sections and expanded as new material shows up. I would like to take you up on your offer of the sheet music; you could probably just point me to material in the library on this site. I have only begun to explore that.

The classic section of  "American Banjo Museum" and "Banjo". I am concerned about what you said. If what I wrote is not accurate, then I feel that material needs to be corrected quickly, before I get on to adding to the Frederic Bacon article. I think I will need your help (in the form of just what you did today above).

I am very interested in exploring the presentist ideas which you talk about. I am partially guilty of that myself I think, for overgeneralizing the importance of music history books from 1910 that idolized classical music over popular music. Summarizing the problems with the classic section from above that need to be addressed in the articles soon: there wasn't a movement to make the banjo a classical musical instrument, rather the musical movement was popular; the banjo didn't take the classical guitar's repertoire (but what about the change from stroke to fingerstyle--was that from the guitar?); the banjo is not a shallow imitation of the guitar but an instrument with its own traditions; the classical music that was pushed onto the banjo was mainly marches, schottisches and waltzes and polkas; banjo music of the classic tradition was written by banjoists for other banjoists.  

I hope I got those right. I appreciate your taking the time to write down what you saw. It makes you a much better editor than those that call themselves editors elsewhere. As for scrapping the draft. Do you think the Bacon article can stand as is for a couple of weeks while I address the classic banjo material in the other articles?

Thanks, Jack


Joel Hooks said:

Hi Jack,  I just read the Bacon Wiki.  I'm not sure how I feel-- it is extremely abridged.  You don't even scratch the surface on his compositions.  You don't mention his instruction books (in their various editions). 

You don't mention his obsession with mediums and spiritualism (which came out in his music).

You don't cover his work with wild west shows or his trick shooting act.

You don't mention the many articles he wrote for various magazines.

You did not cover how he had many profitable inventions that had nothing to do with banjos.

You don't include a discography of his recordings. 

I am NO expert and these are things I only know in passing.  There are people who know MUCH more than myself (and from which I learned the little that I did).

Your article links "classic banjo" to a section on your other article titled "Classical Era" quoted below...

"By the 1880s there was a movement to make the banjo a classical music instrument, to legitimize it and make it "new and sophisticated".[21] The socially elite felt the banjo was a "musically feeble gadget of the lower classes" but were also fascinated by it.[14][21] Educators brought in playing techniques and a sheet-music repertoire from the classical guitar, moving way from the banjo's traditional clawhammer stroke.[21][14] Banjo clubs arose in college and universities, and the banjo was now seen as being suitable for members of the upper and middle classes to play.[14][21] The American Banjo Museum’s collections of banjos from the classical era include examples by S.S. Stewart, Fairbanks and Cole, Bacon, Washburn (Lyon and Healy, Chicago) and J.B. Schall (Chicago)."

I am afraid that this is filled with recycled and obsolete information written from an presentist academic bias.  There is some fact but it continues to contain a slant that is incorrect.  It is purely presentisim. 

To start with there was no "movement" to make the banjo a "classical music instrument"-- one has to read past the hipster jargon of the era.  The music was popular and very little of it was "classical"-- I will be happy to send you (digitally) hundreds of pieces of sheet music published in the US between 1879 and 1900 and you can see for yourself that it was largely not "classical."

The sheet music was not "from the classical guitar repertoire" it was mostly composed by banjoists for banjo.  There were many arrangements from popular music for banjo published as well.  Those were made by banjoists for banjoists.  Some banjoists played guitar, that is true. This statement declares that the banjo was a shallow imitation of the guitar. 

While they talked a big game about how superior and high their music was-- much of it was quite lame and simple.  Many jigs and short two part pieces mixed with marches, schottisches and polkas. Schottisches and waltzes dominated and they pretty much were all the same (and pretty simple in structure). 

The so called "movement" of "elevation" was an advertising gimmick that was grasped so tightly by folk era academics that it became an obsession constantly repeated ad nauseam.  All kinds of sinister plot-lines have been attributed to that little bit of popular culture nonsense. The fact is that for the twenty year olds growing up during the industrial aftermath of the American Civil War "science" and "scientific" was the cool thing to do.  Reading music was cool and in style.  Tailored suits were the torn jeans and leather jackets of the coolest musicians.  It is hard to understand but "elevating the banjo" is no different than the advertising used to sell iPhones today. 

The biggest problem with all of the post WW2 written "history of the banjo" is that most of the people writing it were/are musically illiterate (at least as far as banjo music goes).  They knew there was sheet music, and the banjoists wore evening wear during concerts, so it must be classical music.  They were wrong.

Why people will study a culture and not learn that culture's language is beyond me.

Obviously there were exceptions, namely Alfred Farland.  But he struggled to fill seats.  And when he did people just wanted to hear him play variations on Stephen Foster tunes.

George Gregory was another who went the "classical" route. While he composed one of the greatest banjo marches and arranged several popular classical pieces for banjo he tragically developed focal dystonia and took his own life. 

Bacon did play some classical music.  Do keep in mind that he was mostly active during the age of pick playing and his 5 string playing was by then old fashioned. Timelines are important with this stuff.

The American Banjo Museum knows a lot about Shakey's Pizza era plectrum playing but they sadly have poor representation and knowledge on the classic era.  I would not use their signs for any references. 

Was there a "movement" to make the banjo "respectable?"-- sure, they shouted about it.  But one could say that continues today.  Endless discussions on the banjo hangout still go on about the banjo's association with post Jim Crow era "hillbilly" stereotypes. 

The so called "movement"  of "elevation" was people tired of the association with blackface minstrelsy-- something I don't blame them for wanting. 

You have to be very careful of banjo "histories".  Much of it was written by people who found the banjo through "folk music."  For some reason they decided that the "classic era" was the personification of "capitalism" and stood for everything that they were against politically.  This has skewed much that has been written with a derogatory tone. 

Luckily most of the research materials you need are now available online with no travel (a luxury that previous generations did not have).  Please take advantage of this gift from science.

Sorry about going off-- It was a noble attempt and more than I have done.  I congratulate the first draft.  But I would scrap it and revisit it after much more research has been completed.  We have been gaining ground with the truth and reality about the classic banjo era but bad information is still abound and we need less of it.

Hi John,

I am very interested in what you know. I found contradictory dates everywhere I looked online and in print. I am basing most of my dates and timeframes off of newspaper articles, census records, patents, and city directories. I know there are records I haven't encountered yet. I haven't seen anything definitive, such as a biography, and am still digging for better sources. Do you know if anyone has compiled a bibliography? If you would like to talk, so would I. Maybe I found something new. Probably I have missed something.

John Cohen said:

I also noticed some errors with your dates. For example, your dates and timeframes for the various Bacon banjo company locations are not accurate. 

Hi Jack,

I have a lot of info I can share but am pressed for time at the moment (I'm in graduate school and have exams). I do want to say that the waltzes, marches, Schottisches, and polkas that you referred to as classical music were not - they were actually popular music in the late 19th century, and if you play then you'll quickly hear that. 

Hi John, That sounds fine. This is an ongoing exploration for me and when you have time I’ll have made myself better informed.

John Cohen said:

Hi Jack,

I have a lot of info I can share but am pressed for time at the moment (I'm in graduate school and have exams). I do want to say that the waltzes, marches, Schottisches, and polkas that you referred to as classical music were not - they were actually popular music in the late 19th century, and if you play then you'll quickly hear that. 

Feel free to email me whenever you have questions at johnncohen1992 "at" gmail.com. I'll be happy to try and help.

Jack said:

Hi John, That sounds fine. This is an ongoing exploration for me and when you have time I’ll have made myself better informed.

John Cohen said:

Hi Jack,

I have a lot of info I can share but am pressed for time at the moment (I'm in graduate school and have exams). I do want to say that the waltzes, marches, Schottisches, and polkas that you referred to as classical music were not - they were actually popular music in the late 19th century, and if you play then you'll quickly hear that. 

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