Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

First of all I want to thank Rob MacKillop for tabbing out the Briggs Instructor and making it available online. That along with Tim and Greg's post about "Getting Started" has been what has got me going with minstrel banjo playing.

However, while the Briggs instructor is written in the key of D just about everything past that is written in the (un)natural key of the banjo which is E (or A). So I have a choice, Either I can try and find tab for all the other stuff(not so easy sometimes) or I can try and learn to read music.

One of the things I noticed with Rice and the other tutors is that the bottom 3 lines of the staff correspond with the top three strings of the banjo and the fifth string is always flagged. Also the finger position numbers corresponded with the fret positions (for the most part).

So I found that in one sense I can treat it kind of like tabs by seeing that any note that falls on the staff lines correspond with the open string and using the numbers written above the note to figure out what fret position to use for notes between the lines.  It sounds kind of complicated but once you start to do it, it becomes pretty easy.

Here is an example of Where do you come from from Rice that I kind of re-did.


And here it is with lots of slight changes


I've taken these from the PDF files that are available online and kind of redone them to be easier to work with and get them all on one page.  If anyone is interested I've done some others and can post them in PDF format.  It is nice to print them out so you can write them and not have to worry about writing in your book if you have one.

I've started a blog post on my page that has this also if anyone wants to find the files also.

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Scott--This sounds like a wonderful idea.  The fact that most of the tutor stuff is in the "wrong" keys (E/A) has always driven me crazy.  What I usually do is just redo them with my own tab.  But please continue.  I'd love to figure out what you're doing there.--Rob 

Hi Scott, the "American Notation" has been a thorn for many trying to cipher this stuff.

Many English vs. American notation arguments went on.  S. S. Stewart even wrote about it in the 90s.

In fact, the American System of banjo notation lasted until 1907... actually March 21, 1907.  Even then, books and sheets in A notation were still being published into the 1940s.

For the early banjo stuff, there really are not that many notes to learn-- rhythm is the tricky part.  Clarke Buehling pointed out to me that after all the time I spend converting to tab etc... I could have just ran through the three scales of the banjo a few times and the read the source material.  It really only takes five minutes before you practice.

That made the most sense to me.  There is something great about picking up a book and sight reading with banjo in hand.

Take any of the books with the scales (I used the Eclipse guide you can get on my website but the "Green Book" would work perfectly), throw it open in the stand and work through them note for note.  Two or three times before a session, and you'll be sight reading in a month. 

Learn to read in "A,"  there is a life time of material available written in it.  And more is discovered everyday.

I'll admit, I've shied away from "non-Briggs" stuff that isn't tabbed out.  I'd put the work into tabbing stuff out but just don't have the time.  Plus I'm still picking away at perfecting ALL of Briggs.  I've learned a few from other sources and a few Tim's put up, having tabbed out.  Thanks for the work Scott!  I do need to put the effort into learning to sight read banjo music though, as Joel said, there's something about picking up a book and sight reading!  I know I'm jealous!

There are two things going on here.

First, I wanted the music on one page I could put in my binder. Some of the tutors have the tunes split between pages and explanations between the notation which is distracting. The Yellow Converse is terrible for this but has lots of really great tunes. I'll see if i can upload a couple of tunes that I have fixed.

Second, the way I'm looking at notation might be a bit weird but it is working for me.  I noticed when looking at the Banjo Rosetta Staff that the top 3 lines of the tab corresponds with the bottom 3 lines of the notation. IIt It is hard to explain, maybe I'll see if I can post a picture later.

Anyway, no matter how you learn, being able to read the tutors as written and not depending on tab just opens up all of the tutors in a new way. While I'm not great at it, I'm getting better.


There is an absolute freedom to play ANY tune you wish. Learning to read takes the time, but the same amount of effort to learn a piece of tabbed out music you would be half way there to picking up on the means of reading notation. Rhythm is the next part, and understanding the value of a notes for which your playing, then after a while when you see the notes stacked up a certain way you automatically understand the Rhythm of that phrase of music, etc... It's worth learning. 

Joel is right. The harmonic palate is limited.

Even then, rhythms are quite predictable and repetative. By the time you are ready to play the crazy syncopated stuff, chances are you will be reading the music.

I agree, Nicholas.  Not that I've yet conquered reading the tutors myself yet...lol!   But when i study them visually, there are golden moments when they make sense...and then POOF!  I get lost again.  but...the more I do that the less i will get lost.  I miss my brain from twenty years ago.  lol!

I think we have not mentioned the best tool of all yet- that of listening to the excellent recordings, both audio and video, that other folks have made of just about all the tutor tunes.  One can find them generously posted for free listening, and/or cough up a few modest dollars and buy the recordings and CDs that others have devoted their time and talent in recording.

Once you hear a tune about 6 or 10 times, you can read along in the tutor or in published tab books and you can start to actually SEE how the notes are falling on the page.  I feel this may help us 'speed learn' to read the tutors by sight.

Figuring out the rhythm is the easy part. That I remember from middle school band and church choir.  The hard part is trying to transpose the fingerings from 9th grade saxophone to fingerings on the banjo.  :>)

One of the nice things that Rob did with the Briggs instructor was do one with both tab and notation. While some may not like them both together. for me it made it easy to follow the rhythm with the notation while trying to figure the fingerings from the tabs.

One thing I've noticed is that you really have to force yourself to work from notation at first. I've been doing this for about the last month or so now and it is just starting to come together. It's easy to say screw it and just go back to tabs. Just like learning anything new it takes some time and perseverance.

Well, anybody can do this. You just have to decide that you want to.

Although I have yet to learn to play banjo tunes from notation, I agree that it's just like anything else..."you just have to decide that you want to", to quote Tim.  I have known fiddlers who avoid playing in flat keys because it's harder, but really... it's only harder because they avoid it!  it's a chicken/egg situation.

To me the advantage of reading the notes is that it brings you one step closer to the music you are playing.  Once there are notes, you can begin to see the structure of the music, to recognize chords that are there.  It allows you to start playing accompaniment to someone else's playing.  Carl Anderton is really good at this.  I've often been tempted to take all of the music in the instructors and add chords to them, it would make jamming on them a lot more fun. 


I've been playing piano for a long time, so reading notes was never an issue.  I learned to read tab when I first picked up a banjo, but have since abandoned this.  I loved playing Briggs because my banjo is tuned that way, and at first the E/A notation drove me nuts.  At this point I don't really care any more.  Al, I agree completely with you,  you have to decide that you want to do it, and then apply yourself.  That's how I dealt with reading the Rice and later stuff.

Scott--This may be radical, but for mere mortals like me (and I can read guitar music just fine), the best approach is probably to just learn the E/A notation and use tabs for Briggs.  It's always been the duality that's been the problem for me.  Or, in a pinch, just play by ear.--Rob

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