Where to start with Frank Buchanan Converse? He was the prime composer, publisher and performer of the second half of the 19th Century, responsible for not only codifying the old thimble technique, but also for developing and promoting the “guitar” style – fingerpicking – with the most musical and advanced repertoire of the period.
Born in Elvira in 1837, he lived through the first great era of the American banjo, dying in 1903. He wrote a number of banjo books [see details on Joel Hook’s site] the greatest of which is his Analytical Banjo Method of 1886. I was lucky enough to find a very well preserved original copy, the pride of my small collection of 19th-century editions. Thanks to my cyber friend, Marc Smith, the entire book is now viewable as a pdf [see previous link].
Converse married a remarkable woman, Harriet Maxwell Converse. Read her extraordinary biography HERE.
I include a number of Converse’s pieces in tablature and modern notation in my Mel Bay edition, Early American Classics for Banjo [more info] but nothing compares to reading the original. From that book’s Introduction:
Frank B. Converse’s Analytical Banjo Method, 1887
Converse’s major work is a summation of thought and practice by one of the true heavyweights of the 19th-century banjo. It includes a thorough discussion of the stroke style, which by the late 1880s was increasingly regarded as being old-fashioned. Despite this, Converse’s detailed description of right-hand finger movements remains the most valuable resource for modern stroke players, with questions only over how retrospectively this technique could be applied — the ‘Hammer’ stroke, for instance, being unrecorded elsewhere.
For the present essay, it is Converse’s repertoire and discussion of technique in the ‘guitar’ style that is of prime importance. On the positioning of the right hand:
“The right fore-arm should rest upon the edge of the rim in an easy manner, ̄ a little higher than in the banjo style, and extend only far enough to permit the fingers to reach the strings.
The fingers should be held partially curved and separated. The elbow should be separated from the side, and the wrist arched outward to sustain the hand, which should be held in an easy manner, and in line with the fore-arm. The fingers in action are drawn in a natural manner toward the palm of the hand: the strings should not be lifted or pulled up, but drawn obliquely; the thumb is extended, and should not pass under or within the fore-finger.”
The contentious use of resting the little finger on the skin is dealt with in comparison to its non-use by ‘Guitar Authorities’:
“In the execution of some peculiar passage, it may be desirable to ̄ temporarily ̄ support the hand by resting the little finger on the drum, but in general practice this tendency should be avoided for reasons before mentioned, and furthermore, that it is opposed by many Guitar Authorities.”
When only the first three strings are employed, the thumb plays the third string, the index the second, the middle the first. When the first four strings are employed, the annular finger is used on the first string. And there are times when ‘Chords of five notes are often more effectively played by employing the five fingers ̄ the first finger upon the fourth string’.
Generally each finger is designated its own string, however…
“A succession of single notes occurring on one string ̄ with or without an accompanying bass ̄ are played with the first and second fingers alternatively, and often with the third finger added.”
The tremolo technique made popular by guitarists and mandolinists also receives detailed discussion, but curiously the technique outlined by Converse is quite different to that detailed in guitar tutors:
“The lower notes are played with the thumb, while the forefinger produces the tremolo by being moved rapidly forward and backward across the string.”
To give support to this finger, the others are allowed to rest on the skin, although once mastered, could be played ‘without the supporting hand’.
Chords could also be played tremolo:
“When the thumb plays single bass notes, the tremolo on two, or three strings may be sustained with separate fingers on each, in which case the fingers are held closely together at their tips, and the hand is supported by the fore-arm resting on the rim.”
The full chromatic scale can be played in harmonics by use of the right-hand technique of resting the index or middle finger twelve frets above the left-hand fingered note, and then plucking with the thumb.
Chords are used for accompaniment; and after a brief outline of right-hand options – unison, bass then chord, arpeggios – Converse supplies no less than ‘408 Diagrams Of The Fingerboard, Illustrating The Formulas, And The Positions Of All The Chords Belonging To Each Key’. In other words, a chord dictionary for the banjo, with chord box diagrams below the notated notes. The chords also appear in ‘arrangements’ or cadences. The ‘First Arrangement’ outlines chords I, IV, I, V7, I, while the ‘Second Arrangement’ outlines I, V7, I, IV, #IVb7, I, V7, I. Such cadential passages can be found in guitar tutors by the likes of Horetski, Giuliani and many others, and were designed to teach the student typical chord movement, good voice leading, and could be used for improvising short cadenzas.
There follows a section on ‘Cadences In The Different Major Keys With Modulations To Their Dominants, And Relative Minors’, a thorough study of which would lead the student to harmonic mastery of the instrument, and equip him or her with the ability to compose or improvise preludes, cadential passages or complete pieces. This is an area of 19th-century performance practice rarely discussed, yet extensively practiced.
After a few more technical exercises in scales and arpeggios, barré exercises and ‘Reading Melody And Bass’, Converse commences seventy-nine pieces in the guitar style, with several tunes marked ‘original’ or ‘arranged for this work’. Many of the pieces still include technical advice regarding grace notes and slurs and pull-offs, among other things. Of this section, Converse explains that the pieces have been:
composed and arranged expressly with a view to careful and practical advancement, – both in the introduction of keys and in execution, and it will be generally found advantageous to pursue the study as arranged. Frequently, upon the repetition of a movement or passage, the fingering has been varied or changed, thereby suggesting a choice, as well as enlarging the variety of exercises.
Included in this section are arrangements from Il Trovatore, ‘Melody from Oberon’, Nanki Poo and Ko-Ko’s duet from the Mikado, as well as many waltzes, mazurkas, schottisches, polkas and jigs. Although executed with guitar technique, Converse introduces aspects of the banjo style, as in ‘The Happy Darkie’s Dance’ and ‘Foster’s Jig (A-La Banjo)’, confirming once more that the stroke-style repertoire could effectively be played with guitar technique.
More tremolo exercises follow, as well as arpeggios, slurs, slides (including ‘Slides commencing with one finger and terminating with another’), and more modulations, including the cycle of fifths. There are also exercises in both left- and right-hand harmonics. Suddenly the guitar style breaks off as Converse provides a detailed description of the stroke technique.
A further fifty-two pieces form the final ‘Miscellaneous’ section, with most of them either obviously in the guitar style, or marked as such. The first two pieces illustrate the difference. ‘La Luna Waltz’ could only be played guitar style as there are notes on non- adjacent strings to be plucked at the same time. The next item, ‘Silver Heel Hornpipe’, looks similar to much of the stroke style repertoire, almost exclusively in single notes to a jaunty ‘characteristic’ rhythm, yet is marked ‘Guitar Style’. Highlights include ‘Boquet Mazurka’, ‘The Dream. Mazurka’, and the extensive variations on ‘Home Sweet Home’, and reveal Converse to be a master of the early Romantic-period composition, as well as someone thoroughly schooled in the folk tradition.
Here are some of my videos of compositions of, or arranged by, Frank Converse:
The Bag Pipes:
Dell Schottische and Bouquet Mazurka:
La Espana Waltz: