Comment by Ethan Schwartz on May 3, 2023 at 0:55

I'm a bit late to the discussion here, but as far as defining what is and isn't classic banjo, I'm mostly with Jody on this one. Classic banjo is -- or should be, at least in my opinion -- defined by its performance context; that is, composed music (whether written down or otherwise; not all composition happens on paper) for fingerstyle banjo as a lead/solo instrument. This definition is inclusive of virtually all of the historical repertoire, both American and British, while importantly also leaving open the possibility for newer works. It's also conveniently exclusive of every other major performance context (notice I deliberately avoid using "style" or "genre") for the instrument. Converse's later work certainly qualifies as classic banjo.

Comment by Rob MacKillop on May 3, 2023 at 6:00

Then there was composed music for a lead solo banjo but played with a plectrum:

Most of the early composers in this style were also fingerstyle players. Many method books for classic fingerstyle playing also had chapters on plectrum playing.

So can we include a certain performance context that uses a plectrum?

Comment by Richard William Ineson on May 3, 2023 at 7:00

Rob, it's so difficult pinning everything down satisfactorily. Bert Bassett, the composer of 'Lazy Rhythm' might have written this tune for the finger style banjo originally, but to cater for the growing numbers of banjoist who had moved on to plectrum playing (BB was well known as player of the plectrum banjo with one of the popular dance bands of the 1920s/30s) in the 1920s/30s he also arranged the tune (many of the finger style solos in the Essex catalogue were also made available in the plectrum style) for the plectrum banjo. Do we have to try to determine whether or not a banjo tune was originally composed as a finger style solo with a plectrum arrangement added later, for a banjo tune to be classified as being part of the Classic Banjo genre?  

Comment by Ethan Schwartz on May 3, 2023 at 8:36

Rob, I would consider turn-of-the-century plectrum playing on 5-string to be a special/extended technique within the broader performance context of classic banjo. For a time, fingerstyle remained the default technique against which plectrum playing was contextualized. As plectrum playing became the default technique, both the physical form of the instrument and its musical role underwent a transformation; it moved into a different performance context. 

Of course, the historical reality is always more complicated than "A became B over X period of time." Placing these kinds of 4-string plectrum/tenor solos in one category or another is difficult. Something like "Lazy Rhythm" is, to me, of quite a different nature than a Peabody-esque chord melody solo, even though they share the same instrument and technique. It's definitely parlor music, which more familiar music for 4-string banjo is not. My question would be, is it convenient/useful to categorize it as classic banjo, as a branch of plectrum/tenor banjo (which tends to be oriented toward ensemble playing), or as some other, third thing? Because ultimately, all these retroactively created categories exist for our convenience, for ease of communication. I'm perfectly happy thinking of it classic banjo, albeit not the usual "kind" of classic banjo. Other people may not be. We are so few in number here that differences of perspective can simply exist. 

Comment by Rob MacKillop on May 3, 2023 at 8:52

Plectrum playing by established classic-banjo player-composers is certainly an interesting offshoot, as the players tried to respond to the changing fashions. Grimshaw's arrangement of a Chopin Nocturne is another head scratcher. Then there's the like of Bud Cross's Flirtation, which was arranged by Frank Bradbury:

Likewise Walter Miles's Sparklets:

Grimshaw and Bradbury were well-embedded in the fingerstyle classic-banjo style, and seemed keen to show that plectrum playing could also be used for the same or similar. Perhaps that crossover (not happy with that term, but I'm in a rush) period did not live long enough, as the plectrum style soon became associated with the 4-string Plectrum Banjo, which in turn moved into the new jazz arena. 

I just find that 'crossover' period an interesting one, but wouldn't call it jazz in any way, shape or form. 

Comment by Jody Stecher on May 3, 2023 at 13:23

The biggest difference between early plectrum playing of banjo music in CGBD tuning on a long-scale banjo (not a tenor) and the Plectrum Banjo music that came later is, to my sensibilities, not the repertoire, but the sound. This was caused not just by steel strings, but the change from a natural vellum to a series of synthetic materials that got increasingly brighter sounding.  The prevailing Plectrum Banjo sound of the past 50 years has few lows or mids in its sonic spectrum.

Comment by Jody Stecher on May 3, 2023 at 13:23

 If Bert Bassettt's plectrum banjo music was played in the context of a dance band in what way is it "parlor music"?

Comment by Trapdoor2 on May 3, 2023 at 14:59

LOL. People danced in their parlors. This was a selling point for record-players of the period (Edison, Victor, etc). IOW, it was all "Parlor Music". ;-)

One of my pet theories is that public/social dancing drove out the "classic" 5-string banjo in performance. Dance bands needed a portable (loud) rhythm section...and the plectrum/tenor banjo jumped in with both feet.

I have a pile (about an inch thick) of "plectrum banjo arrangements" which appear to have been sold thru the mail. They're in a cut-down smaller format, pirated (no copyright...but the few I've checked match the Grimshaw arr. of the same tune), and perhaps were sized to fit in an envelope. I'm guessing 20's. The funny thing is that although there are a few for which tuning is noted (CGBD), they all retain their 5th string "G" flags.

Comment by Jody Stecher on May 3, 2023 at 15:44

Here is my post from June 12 2014 copied and pasted :

I have heard "parlor banjo" used many times. There is even a recent recording using that name.  It was when bluegrass banjo players in particular used the term that EK turned the tables and said "you don't call YOUR music parking lot banjo, do you?".  It is possible that the term arose from a misunderstanding. Early banjo manufacturers distinguished their louder upper models by calling them Concert banjos in contrast to humbler banjos intended for home which I vaguely recall having seen being described as for the parlor.  These days Deering makes a "parlor" model. And small 19th century guitars are often, and annoyingly, called "parlor guitars".  It's misleading because these little guitars, if properly set up,  are typically louder than the larger "concert" guitars, and "dreadnought" and "jumbo" models. The same mentality that calls little old guitars 'parlor guitars" also calls old banjos "parlor banjos", particularly when the banjo is engraved and inlaid.  The "reasoning" assumes that since, for instance, the music played on a bluegrass banjo is called "bluegrass banjo" the music played on a parlor banjo (which is usually a Concert Banjo) is also called parlor banjo.  

I think we should all change the name from Classic Banjo to Concert Banjo and then play only at home or in parking lots at music festivals. That'll really confuse em.

Comment by Michael Anthony Brown on May 3, 2023 at 16:05
  • This is a really interesting Comment as regards 'parlor' guitars.  I have a modern 'parlor' guitar. As we live in an apartment block, I have to play this guitar as quietly as I can so as not to annoy the neighbours!

Add a Comment

You need to be a member of Classic-Banjo to add comments!

Join Classic-Banjo

© 2024   Created by thereallyniceman.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service