Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I’m not great at reading music. That is to say, I can stare at a staff and slowly puzzle all of the notes out and painstakingly map them to the fingerboard, but I haven’t put in enough time for it to become second-nature. And transposing down two half steps on the fly with all the later tutors? I’m just not there yet.

So, music software is my friend. It’s helpful to be able to put in a melody and play it back at slower tempos and/or transpose melodies to G or D for Briggs tuning. Over the years I’ve tried a few different packages. Tabledit is like an old friend; it’s been around for years and has good support for creating tabs specifically for five string banjo (and numerous other instruments.) MuseScore is more notation-oriented and quite impressive for being free, as is Noteflight (Noteflight is web-based, which is pretty handy.). But in all of those programs, I eventually find myself frustrated by quirks in user interface and how cumbersome it can be to actually enter notes; because for every note you enter you have to specify at least two properties at once; the note and the duration.

Yesterday I spent some time fooling around with LilyPond, which is another free package that describes itself as a “Music engraving program.” I think I’ve found my new go-to solution. It renders beautiful notation and can output midi - it’s also quite different from all of the others in that you enter music as plain text instead of by clicking and dragging notes and other notation around a graphic staff. So this:

e4 d c d e e e2 d4 d d2 e4 e e2

Becomes this:

Full disclosure: I’m a computer programmer by day, so reducing music to a concise set of patterns and instructions seems to be a good fit with the way my brain works. It’s the same reason that I vastly prefer the LaTeX typesetting system to a visual word processor like MS Word for writing documentation; you spend your time working on your content, not fighting with formatting. I’ve heard it described as “WYSIYM” (What You See Is What You Meant) vs. “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get.)

In both cases, once you’ve entered your source information, you can render it into multiple formats, usually with just a couple of instructions and without changing the core information.

For example, transposition! I managed to get ‘Power of Music’ from the Rice 1858 instructor into LilyPond format, and all I had to do to get an arrangement for Briggs tuning was add one instruction to transpose from A to G:

\transpose a g { ...original melody in A goes here... }


And you get this:
I’ve attached the LilyPond source file (which is probably full of newbie mistakes), resulting PDF, and MIDI file for anyone who's curious. (I also tried adding the fingering hints from the original source, which may contain an error or two.) There’s definitely a learning curve, but for me I think that it’s eventually going to be a much faster way to arrange music digitally than pointing and clicking. It does support rendering tablature as well (and supports custom tunings along with a number of built-in instruments), but I haven’t wrapped my head around that yet.

(The '.ly' file is plain text, so you can open it in any simple text editor.)

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Thanks Brian,

can you give me a .ly file where it is used ?

I pasted it in the macro section but the pdf cannot be generated.

Thank you 

Here is a short one where I used it to put 3 measures on a line. Give this a go.

Musieu Bainjo


Here is Kemo Kimo, which might be simpler since it does not have the lyrics included.

These .ly files put out three different scores, e.g.

1 Standard notation - KeemoKimo.pdf

2. Tab notation - KeemoKimo-1.pdf

3. Midi file - KeemoKimo-2.midi

It takes a while to get all the magic in place so that Lily will compile it. It is a complex tool.


Thanks a lot Brian!

It seems it takes a programmer to work with lilypond. ;-)

It will take some time to study your files. Much appreciated!

Manfred Kilian said:

Thanks a lot Brian!

It seems it takes a programmer to work with lilypond. ;-)

The files contain code that is not necessarily used in every tune. As I figure things out I have been building up some templates with a general library of items I might need, such as the chord definitions. For example, if I want to add chord diagrams above the staff, I can add "c8.^\cmajorchord" etc. I don't use all of the items in all of the tunes. I didn't use the chord diagrams in the files I uploaded.

I have uploaded a Minstrel Banjo template that contains some pre-defined tunings that I use. It is based on my setting of the tune Old Joe. The Old Joe tune itself just uses #minstrel-high-d-tuning, but the others are there for when I set a different tune. I copy the template, rename the new file, then change the content to be a different tune.

There are still some mysteries. For example, I have not been able to suppress the string numbers on the standard notation output when I force a string on the tab version even though I told it to leave them out, e.g.

"\new Staff \with { \omit StringNumber  }"

After I retire, I might spend some more time studying the Lilypond language to see if I can get some cleaner output. I might even be able to figure out what a "grob" is and how to use it.


Hi Manfred,

Thank you for posting  Briggs Girl with blue dress on.ly as it is banjo music, the process of learning is much more easier for a banjo player.  So I learnt a lot following your file that in a first time I adopted it as is, then adapted it to fit my own needs.

That made me an unconditional Lilypond user.

I'm actually compiling a lot of personal arrangements on mainly triple meter and syncopated music in clawhammer style. For this job, Lilypond is the tool of choice for standard notation and tab with the huge musical and technic documentation that comes with it.

In your tab setting I like very much the way you use the "\override Beam.damping" and "\override Beam.positions" commands that makes all beams level and I would like to know how to do the same for stems. I spent a lot of time to find in LP docs the way to do the same with stems with no or mediocre results. As far as I can understand stems and beams are not managed by the same engraver. Do you know a way to make stems and beams level? Hope you do…  Thanks.

Jean Louis

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