Banjo Picking,

and a Brief History of the Banjo

With thanks to Jerry Clark for the tintype.

        I'm lucky enough to own a 100 year old, reconditioned, 5 string banjo.  This is open backed, with a velum covered drum.  It's the 'Premier' model made by A. O. Windsor, Birmingham, England.
        After being made redundant a few years ago I decided I could at last take up something I had often thought of, banjo picking, the idea was when proficient it would blend in very nicely with my ACW re-enacting.  Good idea son shame I'm never going to be that good.
        Now trying only to be part time self employed my hobbies take up a lot of my time.  Due to this I don't put in the amount of practice I should.  Mind you I had time to research the banjo's history.
        Sadly I'm having trouble finding ACW, and late 19th century period 'bluegrass', Scruggs or melodic, tabs.  Not only that they mustn't be to difficult.  I have found tabs by Phil Mann & Alan Munde, but am desperate to obtain others.  I don't even have a decent copy of 'Dixie'. Can you help me?

The 'Early' period.
The banjo is an instrument many hundreds of years old with its original origins lost in time, and not as some people believe an instrument which originated in America.  The banjo belongs to the class of instrument that were drums with strings stretched over them. These strings were played with a bow or plucked.
        Early banjos spread throughout countries that were engaged in the slave trade and it is quite possible that the Arabs brought it into the West African Coast.  It was imported into America along with the Negro slaves.  The best mention of its importation into America is that by Thomas Jefferson, in his 'Notes on America' 1781.  "The the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa."   In its early period it was know by many names including the aforementioned banjar as well as bangie, bangoe, banjil, banshaw, and banza.
        I have recently read an article in the 'Banjo News Letter' , written by Ken Perlman, called 'The Origin of the Banjo & Clawhammer, Revisted' which ends 'The akonting may well have been one of the major prototypes for the North American banjo.  Among the many indications are (1) Gambia was the region from which slaves bound for North America were first drawn, (2) the style of construction is close in many details to that of early North American banjos, (3) the neck of the akonting is made of a local kind of bamboo known as bangoc (pronounced "ban-joo"), and (4) the capitol of Gambia (built on an island where this plant is found in great abundance) is known as Banjul! '  
     It could be that the original instrument had three strings but after its introduction into America it entered a period of experimentation.  In the late 1850's metal strings were added, although they were not widely available until the 1890's.  The first frets appeared about 1878. Banjos with up to 10 strings were also available.  Joe Sweeney, born 1810, is credited with adding a little fifth string running half way up the neck.  A painting, painted between1777-1800 shows this to be incorrect.
The 'Minstrel' period.
By the early part of the 19th century groups of players joined together and with blackened faces toured the country.  A prominent group was the Sweeney Minstrels, led by the aforementioned Joe.  Another prominent group was the Virginia Minstrels of whom Dan Emmett, possibly erroneously credited with writing Dixie, was a member.  During this period the banjo became very popular as people spread west.
The 'Parlour' period.

        At the turn of the 19th century the five string fell out of favour for the four stringed tenor banjo.  This was used with heavier strings.  Bands of anything up to 30 peoples played together.  With concert virtuosos taking it out of the minstrel shows.  By the 1920's the tenor had had its day. During this period the five string was kept alive in the back country, especially the south.
The 'Bluegrass' period.
In 1945 a young man named Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys.  As a teenager Earl had worked out a highly syncopated three fingered style using the thumb, index, and middle fingers.  Within a short period this style took off and ever since has led the banjo revival.  In the 60's the banjo was once again given a boost with the 'Folk Revival', led by such groups as The Weavers and the Kingston Trio.
        Since then 'bluegrass' has continued be popular never more so than in the year 2004.  Due to this it is nice to see that the old style 'mountain' banjo is also alive and kicking.  America leads the way, as always, but in England the banjo is everywhere, with the rest of Europe not far behind.  Manufacturers inundate us with new models all the time.