Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

So, I got my first fretless gourd and tackhead banjos.  It has been some years since I've played a fretless instrument.  Right now I am struggling just to keep it in tune, as the strings are still stretching and adjusting, so it is hard to really pin down the proper positions.  Right now it is a juggling act of constantly checking and retuning strings with a tuner and then trying to "fret" ( or "finger"?) a string and using the tuner to see how far off my position is.  Other than that, I am basically just repeatedly practicing scales, as I know how they are supposed to sound and can make adjustments by ear based on that.  I am considering investing in some small stickers to put in the side of the neck to mark fret positions.


Anybody have any hints for helping to memorize positions on the neck for a newbie? How did you go about learning them?



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I think everyone has their own way of doing this. 

Before I get into how I visualize frets, I'm going to agree with you that new strings can be a problem until they have been adequately stretched.  Another factor is the head itself.  High humidity will cause that head to sag which means that your strings will loosen.  The combination of the two can drive you nuts. 

Direct sunlight when playing in the daytime and heat source such as a stove or campfire at night will stiffen that head, decrease sagging and create more vibrant sound.

For frets, I think of anchors where my fingers are going to land when I'm playing.  The "first position" is my primary anchor.  This is the "C Chord" where the index finger of your fretting hand is on the second string and at the first fret while the middle finger is on the first string at the second fret.  Get the first position cemented into your head and fingers and you'll be fine as this will establish the location for these first two frets for all four strings.  Not many songs use the first fret for the first, third or fourth frets, but you'll regularly be using the second fret on the third and fourth strings.

Since I play in G/D, the third fret is easy.  Drop your ring finger a half inch or so up the neck from your middle finger.  There's your third fret.  Use your tuner to find it.

The fourth fret is somewhere between that third fret and your peg.  I often use the fourth fret instead of the third fret for songs I've tabbed which had been written in the higher keys of A/E. 

Next anchor is the fifth fret which ought to be the location of the drone string peg on your tackhead.  Knowing this fret is helpful for songs up the neck at frets seven, nine and ten as there are often combinations which are up there then have you playing on the second fret, first string.  Instead of flying down the neck to pick up that second fret, you can play second string fifth fret because it's the same note.  If you're in tune that is.

Next anchor is that seventh fret where you have that wonderful ridge just beyond the fifth string peg on your new tackhead.  Knowing this fret location for your first string is your primary concern.  Being able to play the second string at that fret means you don't have to jump down to the fourth fret first string.  You just barre chord it at the seventh fret. 

Between your fifth and seventh fret is sixth.  This is a good spot to know when playing up the neck as you can do the "C Chord" with middle finger on the first string seventh fret and index finger on the second string sixth fret to pick up the same note at the first string third fret.  

The positions are discussed in Briggs.  A scanned copy of the original can be found at timtwist.com.  A repop of Briggs with the notes done in tab is invaluable.  I think of the repop as "the red book."  You ought to just plunk down a few more dollars for "the blue book" and "the tan book" while you're at it.  Blue is Converse.  Tan is "Minstrel Banjo Style."  All three are from Joe Weidlich. 

That's a start and how I keep fret positions in my head.  Others opinions and methods will vary. 

I need to get dressed and go to work so I can get home and play banjo tonight.

Thanks so much, Silas!  That was immensely helpful.  I think I actually picked up most or all of those books already, but have just not gotten far into cracking them open.  I shall have to do so.

Anybody else have any advice on fretting or how you learned the positions?


Hey Genford, I play the fiddle as well so finding the notes was a little hard, my teacher at the time put the thinnest of tape strips on the neck in the first position. This is one option, now that being said by the time I got into this style of playing the banjo I had my own method. One thing that will start to happen is the muscle memory in you fingers and where to put them. It's funny one thing I do each time I tune up now IS I will go through the first few measures of Juba and that puts my fingers back in the general area. It is an organic process. A friend of mine used to play with Vassar Clements, heard of him? They would sometimes play two shows, and no matter what was going on Vassar would go and reacquaint himself with the neck and finger position. Said he had to, so it's an ongoing organic process, and atmosphere will always play a part, damp or hot. Silas is right, set it next to a heater or fire and she will tighten right up. Good luck!

For what its worth I agree with what Silas and Nicholas have posted. I'm going to be changing my main banjo from a relatively short scale banjo (at 25") to a new one with a longer scale (27") and will be going through this same process myself. Some of the new intervals feel a little awkward after 20 years on the old banjo and that's part of how I know I'm in the right place on the new. I also sometimes use an electronic tuner to quickly judge the accuracy after I have planted my fingertip. I strive for good intonation, it is a little difficult sometimes, especially up the neck, but I find the sound so much more pleasing that I think it is worth spending a lot of time trying to get it right. Dave Culgan

The great part of any longer scale (longer than say, 26") is that your 'touchdown' point is larger!! You're more apt to be in tune. You can feel this 'freedom' starting at around a 27 inch scale. My favorite, and my own banjo is 27.5. A 28 doesn't feel that much different and the tone and volume REALLY start to come out then. 29 is getttin' big.

This makes me glad you and I decided to go with the 27in one then!
Bell Banjos said:

The great part of any longer scale (longer than say, 26") is that your 'touchdown' point is larger!! You're more apt to be in tune. You can feel this 'freedom' starting at around a 27 inch scale. My favorite, and my own banjo is 27.5. A 28 doesn't feel that much different and the tone and volume REALLY start to come out then. 29 is getttin' big.

Thanks Terry for that explanation..all i knew was that I would be getting a longer sustain with the longer scale. So from the nut going down the neck, approximately what is the interval width of the finger spacing. It seems it variey slightly for the 4th string...or that could be me

I guess it depends on the banjo. My banjos specs are from the "Database." Once the nut width and neck width at the heel are cut out, the strings fall in place on a proper bridge (IF the rim / neck 'side to side' angle is true).

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