Can anyone tell me when the classic banjo style was defined and what event, book, or musician marks that event.   Did the 6 and 7 string banjo predate the style, was it ever an accepted part of the style or was it part of the minstrel style?

The seven string does not seem to have been a big part of American banjo history although Dobson  was making 7 string banjo by 1877 (Rob Mackillop) and I have a Dobson 7 string flush fret which has a seven string tailpiece patented 1881 imported by Hays London. Did Dobson  produce them specifically for the UK market.

Are there any tutors for 7  string banjo earlier than Ellis.


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Comment by thereallyniceman on May 20, 2013 at 22:32

Hey Last man,

You ask a very difficult question regarding when "Classic Style" actually became Classic Style. Almost certainly it was not  known as classic style when it was being played in the early 1900s. Early references (including music scores) indicate it was known as guitar style or fingerstyle banjo.

In the UK, BMG magazines still referred to the style as "fingerstyle" up to the early 1970s. It is believed, but I have no reference to this, that the American ABF coined the "Classic Banjo" name in the 1970s. I was taught in the early 1970s and it was described to me as Classic Style then.

I hope that others can clarify this, as it would be good to know where the name originated. I believe that there is even more confusion now in that early bluegrass is being called "classic bluegrass style" by some... just to confuse matters!

I am quite happy with fingerstyle banjo... but Classic Fingerstyle sounds better ;-)

Comment by Mike Moss on May 21, 2013 at 9:58

Ditto. I think the ABF coined the term in the 1950s, though I have seen the term "classic" used, very rarely, in early publications (c. 1900). There has been some confusion in terminology and it still is known under a number of monikers, including "parlour banjo" and "classical banjo", which I especially dislike. There has been some debate on the subject but I believe Classic Banjo was chosen for a good reason -- it's the least bad option. Most other options are often downright incorrect (parlour music is earlier than a lot of the stuff we play; we don't play much classical music at all; we don't play "guitar style" because guitar playing technique is completely different, etc.)

Re: 6 and 7 string banjos, I think it definitely was a part of the "style" during the heady days of the 1880s, when the banjo craze was just taking off -- Joe Morley started out on one of those, and a fretless one at that -- but it was rapidly superseded by the five-stringer as the more versatile and practical instrument. The music evolved to suit. Most music published for the six and seven-strung banjos takes the form of simple vamps and accompaniments to songs, and only a few solo pieces.

Marc Dalmasso, a great player and a member of this forum, owns a six-stringer (not a guitar-banjo) which he often uses for arrangements of his own, to great effect. Sometimes he tunes the extra bass to G, and sometimes to C an octave below.

Comment by Brown Dog Banjos on May 22, 2013 at 15:57

Hello RNM

Where does melodic banjo fit in the scheme this appears to be something that is American but not bluegrass, old time or minstrel, is it clasic or something distinct.

I can see this nomecleture is tricky there is a (three) fingerstyle in old tyme which  gave rise to blue grass a 3 fingerstyle.

Leaving aside name when would you say the style was developed to more or less what you you regard now as classic banjo as heard in the early 1900 recording. The Briggs tutor is for a down stroke tutor, so called minstrel style and was prusumably an attempt to formalise the teaching of existing clawhammer/frailing style adopted from afro players? At this stage did classic banjo   exist as a defined style ? Was the 7/6 string banjo in use by players using early techniques
 As a frailer I can see that having C D available obviates the need retune the fourth string when moving between the keys of C G having the low G would add breadth to accompanyment when using drop thumb technique especially when playing mainly in open positions as frailers end to.

Sorry  another set of tricky and possibly unanswerable queastions. LMJ

Comment by Jody Stecher on May 22, 2013 at 16:49

The so-called "melodic" technique consists of using the same open strings that would be used in first position (on the first frets near the nut) while obtaining notes on closed strings on lower string higher up the fingerboard and combining this with right hand patterns. This technique has existed ever since there were string instruments.  The banjo compositions of Joe Morley, who was English, have passages using this technique as early as 1900 or so.  That doesn't mean he invented it, or that he didn't, or that he learned it from Americans, or that Americans in 1960s "stole" it. "Melodic" technique was independently developed by several players in the USA. Mostly it was in the context of a bluegrass band. Bill Keith playing in Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys made it more widely known. 

6 and 7 string banjo were not used for "drop thumb" Appalachian mountain music. As others have said here, it was used mostly simple song accompaniment and the songs were of the pop variety. Pop of the times. Of course it *can be* used for old-time mountain music and other american southern country vernacular music but it creates as many problems as it solves. The bass courses change the sound utterly. the overtones cause sonic chaos. Unless one has a very broad fingerboard and a wide bridge, the strings are close together and the player tends to sound an unintended bass string when aiming for another. 

Another part of the answer to your questions lies in the social structure and class system of the times. Different demographics played different music to some extent. There was also some difference between town and country music. Also there was the question of commerce and advertising and teachers/students plus performers/audience. There were different pattens in the UK and in the USA. Banjo manufacture and banjo performance in the states was aimed mostly at everyman. In the UK much of it was aimed at upper classes. This is the broad picture to which there were notable exceptions. 

Comment by Brown Dog Banjos on May 22, 2013 at 17:15

Mike Moss

One of the key parts of classic style is the use of the whole finger board. Was the devlopement up the neck playing which gives you a three octave range on a 5 string the reason for dopping the extra strings .

From the  low G  to the b on the D string of the 7 string gives a range ideal for playing pre  Italian technique fiddle dance tunes an octave down from fiddle and therefore accompanying fiddle playing for dancing.

My interest in banjo stems from my interest in English fiddle playing I have evidence of the banjo use in dance music in England from round 1850,  William Winters Quantocks Tune  Book  published by Halsway Manor Manor. I am trying to establish what type of instrumennt was available and what sort of techique might  have been in use.

Are there uk banjo tutors for 6/7 string, I have Ellis's

When did Morley publish his first composition, were there publication for up the neck banjo music before that, here or in te US.

Thanks to all for your replies. LMJ

Comment by Brown Dog Banjos on May 22, 2013 at 21:14

Hello Jody

My interest is in what happened in to banjo in vanacular music in the UK and in England in particular.

Since the 6/7 banjo does not appear to be part of  American banjo culture till recently I was not suggesting  that Appalachan players used a drop thumb technique on it. I see no reason why a similar technique would not of been used in UK and used "drop thumb" as short hand to describe it. I am trying to establish when the style descibed  now as classic banjo started to developed and to find out if the seven string banjo, which seems to be a peculiar to the British banjo developement, pre dated the developement of the style .

I have seen quite a number of British and  some American 6 and 7 strings, why would they have been be made in numbers if they were unplayable.

When working on banjos British and American there seems to be a difference in where the Bridge is placed, on American banjos they tend to be at least 1/3 across the head on British banjos they tend to be nearer 1/4 that is a general observation not an absolute. Could that difference have developed to have releave some of the harmonic chaos you have observed.

Although I enjoy classic banjo I do not see it as a vanacular style.  What were the riff raff doing.

Have  a look a the springer sisters site in the museum section you will see a  wooden bodied instrument with 5 strings including a drone which is date at 1820s which suggests if the date is correct we had the 5 sting banjo or something very like it before mr sweeney added the 5th string.

I have seen the term melodic banjo used as if  describing a style of playing rather than the technique you describe.

Regards LMJ

Comment by Jody Stecher on May 22, 2013 at 22:51

Please let us know what you do find out about the use of banjo (of any number of strings) in playing with the fiddle for vernacular English dance music. 

Comment by Jody Stecher on May 23, 2013 at 6:15

The 6 and 7 string banjos are not unplayable for oompah accompaniment and they are ok for simple melodies using "up-picking" techniques. They cannot easily be used for drop thumb technique because there is usually no room for the thumb to get between the strings and dig in as it needs to for that technique.

I have also noted the bridge placement differences but do not feel qualified to speculate on the reasons. Your suggestion makes sense to me for 6 and 7 string banjos, but since that placement was also found on 5 string banjos from the same period I'm not sure that is the reason after all. 

There seem to have been very few 6 and 7 string banjos made. If you have seen 50 you may have seen them all.

The fifth string that Sweeney added (*if* he added anything) seems to have been a long string. In other words he is said to have added a long string to an instrument that had 3 long strings and one short one. There is evidence in the form of instruments and depictions of instruments that suggest that banjos with short drone strings existed before Sweeney's alleged change.  Maybe even ones with 4 long strings and one short one. It’s been awhile since I read Bob Carlin’s book on Sweeney so I’m fuzzy on this point.

The technique I described has been universally called "the melodic style" since at least 1970. The banjo players most associated with it are Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, Carroll Best, Bob Black, and later Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck. Steve Arkin was an early emulator of the technique of Keith and Thompson and it was he who —somewhat reluctantly —gave it the name "melodic" as a corrective to the inappropriate name "chromatic" which was in circulation in the 60s.  I know this through personal association and direct communication with most of these people including being a band-mate of several.  Can you give an example of a player who uses a different technique and calls it "melodic"? 

Comment by Mike Moss on May 23, 2013 at 8:39

Hi Jack,

to answer your questions:

One of the key parts of classic style is the use of the whole finger board. Was the devlopement up the neck playing which gives you a three octave range on a 5 string the reason for dopping the extra strings .

I don't think the three-octave range had anything to do with it. The six and seven-string banjos were already "old hat" by the time the three-octave (fretted) neck became common. As for using the whole fingerboard being a key part of classic style, well, yes and no. Classic banjo is a blanket term for a large amount of music and styles that range from being very simple to very technical. It would be fair to say that a lot of Classic banjo music does not reach all that high up the neck. I only play a handful of pieces that go up to the 22nd fret, and they all fall in the "difficult" category. Morley did a lot of position playing in his later style (post-ragtime) but he seems to have owned a banjo with 19 frets, less than 3 octaves, and I don't think I've seen any of his compositions reach the 22nd.

Are there uk banjo tutors for 6/7 string, I have Ellis's

You should ask David Wade, he's our resident expert on 6 and 7 string stuff. There's another tutor book called "Sinclair's Self-Instructor for the Banjo", for a 6-string instrument. It includes the usual banjo fare, minstrel-style stuff and so on.

When did Morley publish his first composition, were there publication for up the neck banjo music before that, here or in te US.

Joe Morley was a bit late to the party. Clifford Essex met him in 1891 in Sandown, when Joe Morley was still playing a smooth-arm 7-string banjo. At the time Joe mostly played minstrel-type music (but with technique that would be considered Classic banjo technique -- note the overlap between genres/styles). His first compositions were published in 1894. There are two things worth pointing out here:

- There was already a lot of "up the neck" music published for the banjo by that time, both in the US and the UK

- Morley didn't play "up the neck" much, owing to the fact that he played a smooth-arm (fretless) banjo. His playing style evolved when he got a fretted five-string banjo later on. Here is an example of one of his early compositions, In the Moonlight.

Note that both Joe Morley's early style and his later "ragtime style" are both Classic banjo, even though they are very different, the former venturing very little up the neck, and the latter relying heavily on barres and positions up the neck.

As for your question to Jody:

Although I enjoy classic banjo I do not see it as a vanacular style.  What were the riff raff doing.

I don't think this holds up to scrutiny. I don't see this as an opposition of elite vs. riff raff; the "classic style" (lato sensu) was pretty much "the" way of playing the banjo with all social classes. What they chose to play is a different matter, but the majority of classic banjo numbers are actually "low" popular music and some of them are decidedly vulgar.

Presumably the Windsor factory (and others) didn't turn out hundreds of thousands of "el cheapo" zither-banjos if they were just meant for upper-class toffs?

Comment by Brown Dog Banjos on May 23, 2013 at 12:47


I know nothing of melodic banjo at all, I found the term used in a blog on the banjo hangout. I searched 6 and 7 string banjo it was in one of the blogs on page 1. I will make an effort to find  out more about it.

I have it in my head that the African instrument was 3 long strings + a  short drone it had several names some similar to banjo, banjar, banjaz, I believe it is still played in Senagal but I do not know how reliable that information is or its source.

When a myths like the Sweeney's extra string take hold they are amazingly difficult to displace I believe it is a myth, is it?.

Your comment about the numbers of 6/7 strings made tends to confirms my comment that they were peculiar to English banjo. They may be uncommon in the USA  but in the UK they are fairly common among pre WW1 instruments. On the instuments I have set up I do not think they would not present problem of string separation you envisage. What separation is considered is ideal for drop thumb playing. I have a Daniels, a british maker producing 6 string  till end of his working life, my 3rd,  one of which  was dated 1904. Daniels  patented an all metal pot made of nickel plated brass (not aluminium as you see in the british makes list) I have a Temlett fretless 6 string, a Dobson 7 string and a dulcet  7 string fretless neck without its pot and I am in the middle of renovating and British 7 string flush fret which appear to have been home made. I have renovated and sold a number of others and I regularly see them in auctions.

Evidence of banjo in vanacular bands I have a book "Victorian and Edwardian Surrey from old photographs" Edited Martin Goff which contains 2 Photos including musician. For one date given is 1898 it has 4 men, the caption says they are colleagues from a brickworks, there are two banjos, a fiddle and a concertina.  The men look as if they are related  one banjo looks modern for the period the other is older and I think was a six string but appears to strung as a five string when the photograph was taken  as there does not appear to have a peg in the central peg hole. In the second picture there are three musician with a British 5 string zither banjo,  fiddle and a harmonium, accompanying a works outing in a horse drawn bus (a Charabanc or charabang) pulled up for lunch at a public house at Betchworth Surrey.

I have a recently published book of tunes from William Winter's tune book dated 1848 and 1850 which contains tunes which are from the banjo and minstrel repetoire, i.e. the niger quadrilles (sic). WWinters was a Sommerset fiddler and church musician similar to Thomas Hardy's father and grand father. Church musicians accompanied the the chior in a gallery at the West End of the church and  the congregation had to turn and "face the music"  a phrase  still use in England. The same musicians often provided  provided music for local  harvest homes, weddings, funerals and for the balls at the big house. I think it is likely that Winters was playing with a banjo player to have these tunes but have no proof. The Village Music Project holds over a hundred of these tune books you can find it on the net.

I cannot put the banjoist pic on this site as I do not own copyright but if you send me a private a email via the banjo hangout I will send copies.

Regards LMJ

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