Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I have a Bell Boucher arriving this week. It will be my first fretless
Is there a picture or diagram that explains how to use the curves on the side of the neck as reference points for the various "fret" positions?

Any help appreciated
Ron H

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I can help.  Since you said it is your first fretless banjo I infer you also have a fretted banjo.  

  1. That being the case, go to any drugstore and buy some Crayola brand Children's washable paint (couple of bucks, its cheap) and a fine tip paint brush (cheapest plastic one you see . . . 99 cents)  If you can't find a little paint brush substitute with a Q-Tip.
  2. Measure the distance from the nut to the bridge on your fretted banjo.  If it is a Gibson or Gibson-clone, it will be 26.375 inches.  If it is a modern open back it is probably 25.5 inches.  So for practicality, set the bridge of your new Boucher the same distance.
  3. Now measure the distance from the nut to each fret on your fretted banjo.  Write these down.
  4. Place a small dot of paint on the side of the neck of your Boucher where each fret would be (to match your fretted banjo).  The size of match head is plenty big enough.  You will then be able to see the dots as you play, and your audience will not be able to see them.  And if you ever want to get rid of the dots, or change their location, they wash right off with a Q-Tip dipped in warm water!
  5. The Ogee (the curvy bits) will then assist you.  You will get used to where the curves line up with the dots.
  6. Now . . . since you have been playing with frets, your impulse will be to play between the dots just as you would play between the frets.  But that will not work.  You must play exactly ON the dots . . . and you will find out that being off by only a small distance sounds very bad!  But practice makes perfect and the slides . . . Oh the slides! . . . you will be in Heaven!  
  7. NOTE:  Your Boucher will no doubt have a 12 inch diameter rim and the above instructions will place your bridge close to mid point on the head of your Boucher.  That is just fine.  It will sound good and "mid-point" is where many of the banjo players in the 1800s placed their bridges as you will see in the old photos.  But, you will also see some placed it closer to the tailpiece and some even forward of mid-point.  Later after you have gotten used to playing with out frets, then you can place the bridge where ever you like . . . but my advice above is to get you going as quickly as possible . . . playing in tune without frets and having a good time!  Best Wishes, Tom

Thank you kindly Sir for this valuable information

It is clear and understandable. It will be a big help.

I'm ready now so...bring on the banjo!!

Ron H

Cushing Oklahoma

The pleasure is all mine Ron!  I am happy to be of help.  And, I forget to address something I am sure you will be wondering.  "Will the "Crayola Washable Kid's Paint" react  badly with the finish on my new Boucher Banjo?"  Well, not knowing exactly what the finish is I cannot answer with 100% certainty, but I have never found it to leave a permanent mark.  To guard against this from being a possibility, rub a little wee bit of wax-furniture-polish over the area where you will paint the dots.  It will put a little wax barrier between the washable paint and the finish on the neck of the wood.  It is doubtful that the dots will rub off because your thumb will likely not be passing over that part of the neck.  And if they do happen to rub off, well, no big deal, just touch em' up!  Let us know how it works out for you!

Here is a photo of one of my banjos.  If you zoom in you can see the little dots on the side of my neck: 

Another thing to do is to use a tuner and watch the accuracy of your pitches. Usually you find a landmark on the neck to mark the important ones....like 5 and 7. The others will take care of themselves. But, watch your pitch...sometimes it does not sound like you think it does.

Thank you very much. I have a clip on tuner...i will do this. I want to train my ears as well as my eyes. This is a good suggestion
What you propose is the BEST solution! - and then you can place the bridge wherever you like and where the tone is best. For myself, I also play fretted banjos and they all have 26 and 3/8th inch scales, so for consistency I set all my banjos to 26 and 3/8ths. And they all sound good! I have one original flush fret in my collection circa early 1860s (unsigned) and interestingly it's flush frets are also set to 26 and 3/8th. It has a 11 and 1/8th inch diameter head.

I'm sure you are going to love your new Boucher! Best Wishes, Tom

This is really good advice for all players new to minstrel banjo.  Even helps those of us who are not quite new, I think I will go back and check out my banjo's set up to make sure it sounds right.  Thanks.

I have mapped out some of the significant landmarks on the Boucher double ogee neck on some photographs of the neck of the banjo I built. It has a Boucher double ogee on it, even though the peghead was designed by me.

The web page also discusses how I tune the banjo without using a tuner. It is done entirely by chiming the strings, so there is no estimated fretting required and no electronic gadgetry.


I do bring the banjo up to its initial pitch using an electronic tuner, but after that I prefer to use relative tuning. It's a lot quicker.

I don't know if your Bell will map out the same way as my home-spun banjo, but this can be a starting point where you can begin looking. It is an adventure.

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