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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Sorry, but I don't think that would rattle a jazz player.

Well, I occasionally use my fretless, but I also am the keyboardist, so I have to transpose piano scores and chordcharts.  The chord charts are easy, transposing a full piano score is a lot more work.  I love it when I'm transposing one way for me and another way for Elaine, I think I'm burning up brain cells at those times...

I don't think jazz players really worry too much about key.  Of course, they can play wonderfully by ear.  I'm willing to be however that only the best of them can do blues riffs in 4-6 sharps.  I know I have to think twice about that.  Once you get it down a few times its not so bad.  The first time however....

For the most part, the banjo is a one trick pony. You play in a few simple keys that fit the instrument. Of course, skilled players can stretch that boundary, but it sounds best with the open sound of the strings, and the thumb string. Like having harps for different blues tunes....something instrinsic about the sound of the instrument when played in that simple manner.

And please know that I am speaking of the 5 string fretless

Tim, I completely agree.  However, how far do we take it?  To cover most of the keys on her whistles, Elaine has a D whistle, a C whistle, an E whistle, a B whistle and a Bb whistle. That covers the keys of Eb Bb F C G D E and A and B.  Maybe we should each have 5 banjos to handle different keys?

No...get the other people to play with us...ha ha.


I started out learning in A/E but soon found, like John M., that D/G opens up access to more of 19th century music. Besides, once you learn in Briggs, it is then very easy to transpose up one key. But let's all get gourds and play in C/F!

I keep a banjo in one pitch...Briggs D, and carry a guitar. Then I can play in any key.

John, That's the best excuse for buying more banjo's I've heard in a long time. One for every key. (just what my wife needs to hear)

Mark, are you saying that those of us who don't have a gourd banjo are out of (our) gourds??? (My wife thinks that about me anyway)

Nah. Just being silly. I like playing all kinds of banjo's myself - gourds, fretless minstrel's, fretted, modern. Good grief - I even have a resonator banjo for bluegrass! I just love the instrument. Though I will say this about string pitch - once you've been slack, it's hard to go back!

Tell me if I'm right or wrong.  Most songs end on the note of the key and usually start with the 1st, 3rd or 5th note of the scale.  Further the drone 5th string is written upright.  Most minstrel music (if not all) is written in low bass or high bass.  If the ending note is the same as the drone note it is high bass, otherwise in low bass or standard tuning.

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