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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Thank you, Ian, for leading me to the "Internet Archive"!  Great website with a great collection!  I found a "Lincoln Songster" from the 1860 election with a lot of pro-Lincoln songs to be sung to popular melodies, many from the minstrel shows.  I expect to find a lot more from that site.  My only regret is that they don't list the date of publication with the inventory.

Scott and others--Since the vast majority of the music we're interested in is written for the A/E tuning, why doesn't somebody transpose Briggs into A/E?  That way no one need waste their time learning the The Briggs notation which is not useful for anything else.--Rob

It is useful for some of the Winners Books ( not that they are entirely useful themselves ).

Only other thing is.....if you do fiddle music, much of it is useful to read that way if you are in D or G and choose to use the thumbstring in such a manner. But I'm sure I'm in the minority of people that do that....

I appreciate that you do.  Not because you have gently pushed me into reacquainting myself with the fiddle but even before that....I enjoyed going through other mid-19th C sheet music and transposing and applying it to the banjo.  It would be interesting to know (perhaps impossible) to what extent actual 19th C banjoists (other than the professionals) stuck to the music in banjo tutorials and to what extent they were inclined to search out and apply other music to their instrument.

Tim--I understand.  For fiddle music I mostly just play by ear.  I've learned to do it in "open" or "closed" tunings.  For my purposes, forgetting about Briggs notation simplifies things enormously.--Rob

Rob, To transpose the Briggs book to A/E would fill such a small niche as to be impracticable. The Briggs book has for the most part been tabbed out by a number of people and it is fairly east to get access to the tabs. To actually transpose the Briggs book takes a lot of work, and who is really going to benefit other than a few people who might be interested, but already have learned the stuff from tabs.  

When people start playing this new minstrel banjo stuff they are often come from other banjo styles and are more interested  in learning to  play using skills they already have ( tab reading) and having to learn a new way of reading music would probably be to much for them.  For a lot of people the Briggs book is as far as they want to get. It's fun to lean some tunes, but their main thing may still be clawhammer and other old time music.

If you are going to learn to read music for minstrel banjo A/E seems the place to start. Almost everything past Briggs is written that way.  If you get good at reading in A/E you can probably make the switch to other keys without to much effort. But you have to start someplace. 

I started this thread to get some thoughts on how I am looking at notation and to see if it made sense to anyone but me. Hopefully it has, but it is great to get other peoples input on how they look at notation and how they handle it. It's kind of fun when Tim or someone posts a video of one of the tunes in the other books and you can just go to the book and try it and not have to wait or hunt around for a tabbed version of it.

Scott--I know Briggs is available in tablature.  For some reason, for me, and apparently also for Ian, switching from reading A/E  notation to G/D notation is difficult.  My point is just what you said--start with the A/E.  The effort spent learning Briggs in tab could be used in playing Briggs in A/E.--Rob


So long as you are playing banjos, that is OK.  The problem comes in when you want to play with people playing other instruments.  If you are tuned to Briggs tuning, and you are sharing scores with other musicians, then you will need to be able to read the music in Briggs tuning.  The alternative is to tune your banjo to A/E and play reading A/E.  I think the problem that you are going to find is that there is a whole host of other instruments out there that deal better with D/G tuning like Briggs, than they do with A/E tuning.  A lot of the music from the time period, with the exception of piano music and band music was also published in D/G.  That is why Elaine and I published our book in D/G tuning.  Being able to transpose on the fly is a necessary discipline when you play with a variety of other instruments from a variety of scores.  It is admittedly a major pain in the backside.

Rob, You are exactly right. Not only is it hard to read in G/D for you and Ian, but for me too. It would be nice to have Briggs in A/E, and it probably would help, but i think it depends on what your goals are.  For me, reading music is a tool to help learning new songs, along with listening, watching videos and tab.  If my goal was like John does, playing period music from original scores, I would probably try to learn other keys,

  At this point the thought of trying to read other keys makes me shudder. it's kind of like finally learning to read music in the key of "C" with no sharps or flats, and someone hands you a piece in "E flat" and you think "How am I supposed to remember where all those flatted note are".  I don't know how those jazz musicians do it, playing everything in B flat and E flat. I suppose you got used to it. When I was in middle school band I I used to think, why can't they write everything in C, it would make my life so much easier.

Remember, What I'm doing is a bit of mental trickery. Associating the bottom three lines of the music staff with the top three strings of the banjo. So I am looking at the music notation the same way I look at tabs. I don't care what the name of the note is, just where it fall on the lines. I think I could adapt it to other keys, but at this point I will have to play with it some more and get better at it before I could give a real opinion about it.  I've only been doing this for about a month now and it seems to be working for me. As I get more experience maybe I will have a different opinion, but for now I'll work with what I’ve got. Who knows maybe someone will come up with some improvements, or an easier way to look at it.


Most of the wind instruments played in Jazz have an open scale of Bb.  They are accustomed to reading stuff in flats.  That's how they manage.  Try getting a brass player to play in something with sharps and you will get dirty looks, unless they are fairly accomplished.  That being said, what you are doing is a great way to get started. 

I play in a worship band every week with a variety of different instruments, mostly guitars.  All that a guitarist needs to do is to use their capo, and they can adjust to which ever vocalist is singing.  I've had to learn to transpose so that I could keep up with that capo.  I also have to help Elaine out, she reads her whistle music in keys of D and G, and switches to different whistles when there are key changes involved.  Sometimes in the middle of a piece of music she'll ask me for a note in the key of D when we are playing in something like Bb.  Being able to transpose like that has kept my wife very happy, which is another reason I'm grateful I've learned how to transpose...   ;-) 

If it were ever formally established somewhere....( ha ha..in the inner halls of banjo correctness ) perhaps it would be understood that we read in one key, but produce a different resulting pitch, much like they accomodate band instruments.

Bb instruments such as trumpets and clarinets play a written C to produce a Bb

C instruments play a written Bb  produce a Bb

Perhaps we need the habit of saying "Concert D" when reading in Rice tuning if we have our instruments tuned to Briggs "D". Some folks will get this , I know. Others will be saying "wtf"????




How true. Fortunately I know just enough music theory to understand what you are talking about ( or just enough to make me dangerous )

If you want to screw with a bunch of jazz players tell them you are going to start playing in D sharp (same as E flat) or give them a piece of music written in A sharp ( equivalent to B flat). You'll all have a good laugh after you get out of the hospital. (a bunch of pissed off jazz players can get real ornery)

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