Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

I decided to learn musical notation for the banjo so I could study and learn from the period books now available. But WTF, they are all written with different tunings for the banjo! How am I supposed to learn what is where, when the G might be an open string, or maybe it's the A, or even something else? How can one learn this? I can read for singing, for flute, and for mandolin. But this has me uncertain as to how to proceed. Can anyone explain this to me?

I am into the 3 Weidlich books that I have, and also books by Bob Flesher, all with tab in low minstrel tuning. This reading music in different tunings has me confused, however.

   Do you-all read music with this instrument??? I never tried to learn it for Banjo because I was playing in g, c, mountain minor, and double c tunings anyhow. And I keep adding tunings to those, for clawhammer banjo.

Confused in Minnesota,

M'lou

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Hi M'lou,  Congratulations on taking the plunge to do it right.

Do a search here, on the Classic Banjo Ning site, as well as the Banjo Hangout for "A Notation" or "American Notation" or some combination and include my name.  I have been a broken record over the years repeating the same explanation over and over about the banjo as a "transposing instrument."

Basically, you will encounter two "systems" of notation.  Forget the term "tuning"-- it does not apply as the intervals between strings are almost always the same.  In other words, when one string gets raised, they all get raised equally.  The "old time" tradition of scordatura is fairly recent in the banjo world, only coming into general use after 1900 as far as is documented.  The one exception is "Bass Elevated," that is where the 4th is raised one step.

Standard "tuning" was/is what is now called "drop-C" for some reason.  This is "bluegrass G tuning" with the 4th string lowered one step.

The banjo was pitched with the 4th string to A starting just after the Briggs book was published and that continued on until the late 1870s where it was raised to B flat.  By the early to mind 1880s the banjo was commonly pitched to C-- current concert "drop C" tuning.

The hobby of "minstrel banjo," being filled with many reenactors, grabbed onto the early lower pitch given in Briggs as it was as far from "normal" as possible even though it would be more historically accurate to be pitched in A.  But that is what the hobby settled on so that is why we all read A notation and play in G (as opposed to playing in C and reading in A like was done 1884+).

At any rate, try not to think about it too much, toss the tab in the trash, and sit down with Converse's "Green" book from 1865.  I learned to read A notation using this book...

https://archive.org/details/CarlFischerTutor

but any A notation book will work.  That will cover just about everything written for the banjo in the US from after Briggs to around 1908 (though A notation continued to be published into the 1920s).

I played all the tabs books for a while but once I hit the converse yellow book I tuned up a step A/E an just learned to read and play anything with 3 or 4 sharps. If 1 or 2 sharps I play in G/D. I keep two banjos tuned to each because I am a lazy.

Most of the tutors have a basic break down of how the notes work at the beginning. I also find it is a bit slower to learn than tabs especially if you haven't heard it before as the dots pack a lot of info as far as timing goes. 

It's a bit tough at first but once you start doing it a bit it's a nice lil brain exercise. I like to find a tune I've never heard before and try playing it for a few days before I listen to it on YouTube or the Tim Twiss collection to see if I'm reading it right.



Joel Hooks said:

Hi M'lou,  Congratulations on taking the plunge to do it right.

Do a search here, on the Classic Banjo Ning site, as well as the Banjo Hangout for "A Notation" or "American Notation" or some combination and include my name.  I have been a broken record over the years repeating the same explanation over and over about the banjo as a "transposing instrument."

Basically, you will encounter two "systems" of notation.  Forget the term "tuning"-- it does not apply as the intervals between strings are almost always the same.  In other words, when one string gets raised, they all get raised equally.  The "old time" tradition of scordatura is fairly recent in the banjo world, only coming into general use after 1900 as far as is documented.  The one exception is "Bass Elevated," that is where the 4th is raised one step.

Standard "tuning" was/is what is now called "drop-C" for some reason.  This is "bluegrass G tuning" with the 4th string lowered one step.

The banjo was pitched with the 4th string to A starting just after the Briggs book was published and that continued on until the late 1870s where it was raised to B flat.  By the early to mind 1880s the banjo was commonly pitched to C-- current concert "drop C" tuning.

The hobby of "minstrel banjo," being filled with many reenactors, grabbed onto the early lower pitch given in Briggs as it was as far from "normal" as possible even though it would be more historically accurate to be pitched in A.  But that is what the hobby settled on so that is why we all read A notation and play in G (as opposed to playing in C and reading in A like was done 1884+).

At any rate, try not to think about it too much, toss the tab in the trash, and sit down with Converse's "Green" book from 1865.  I learned to read A notation using this book...

https://archive.org/details/CarlFischerTutor

but any A notation book will work.  That will cover just about everything written for the banjo in the US from after Briggs to around 1908 (though A notation continued to be published into the 1920s).

Thank you, Joel, for your speedy reply! I will check out your other writings on the subject, as well as the green Converse book, and see what I can do. I had started reading notation in Briggs, since I know a lot of the tunes. But I don 't want to learn it all in G and then have to turn my head around to learn to read in A. I just did a couple of sessions of this in the last two days, so not much harm was done, I guess. I was sort of catching on......in G, that is. Sigh. So here I go, forward to A. 

    My little short scale banjo is going to like being tuned up higher. The strings are too slack on it, with its 21-22” scale. I made it that way to adapt to my left hand's function being compromised after a serious wrist injury. I was considering trying to put together a set of strings that would play better than the Nylgut heavy Minstrel set which I have on it, but it may be better sounding and feeling at A tuning.

Thanks again,

M'lou

M'lou Brubaker said:



Joel Hooks said:

Hi M'lou,  Congratulations on taking the plunge to do it right.

Do a search here, on the Classic Banjo Ning site, as well as the Banjo Hangout for "A Notation" or "American Notation" or some combination and include my name.  I have been a broken record over the years repeating the same explanation over and over about the banjo as a "transposing instrument."

Basically, you will encounter two "systems" of notation.  Forget the term "tuning"-- it does not apply as the intervals between strings are almost always the same.  In other words, when one string gets raised, they all get raised equally.  The "old time" tradition of scordatura is fairly recent in the banjo world, only coming into general use after 1900 as far as is documented.  The one exception is "Bass Elevated," that is where the 4th is raised one step.

Standard "tuning" was/is what is now called "drop-C" for some reason.  This is "bluegrass G tuning" with the 4th string lowered one step.

The banjo was pitched with the 4th string to A starting just after the Briggs book was published and that continued on until the late 1870s where it was raised to B flat.  By the early to mind 1880s the banjo was commonly pitched to C-- current concert "drop C" tuning.

The hobby of "minstrel banjo," being filled with many reenactors, grabbed onto the early lower pitch given in Briggs as it was as far from "normal" as possible even though it would be more historically accurate to be pitched in A.  But that is what the hobby settled on so that is why we all read A notation and play in G (as opposed to playing in C and reading in A like was done 1884+).

At any rate, try not to think about it too much, toss the tab in the trash, and sit down with Converse's "Green" book from 1865.  I learned to read A notation using this book...

https://archive.org/details/CarlFischerTutor

but any A notation book will work.  That will cover just about everything written for the banjo in the US from after Briggs to around 1908 (though A notation continued to be published into the 1920s).

Dear Chris,

    I do need brain exercises, so this should fit the bill. You know, when I learned to read for flute some 50+ years ago, I learned that when all my left hand fingers were down on the pads and all my right hand fingers were up, that was a G. And that does not change. Now, if I understand correctly, I must re-learn what I was doing with studying Briggs, because the G Staff line note will no longer be played on the open 4th string. Right? Ok, so I am starting over. I am glad I asked!

I have found with mandolin that notation can be read a bit faster than tab. Is that your experience as well, on banjo?

Thank you for your quick reply to my question. I really appreciated hearing from both you and Joel.

Sincerely,

M'lou

Tabs are easier to process for me since it's just finger placement. And I've usually heard the tune before so I am generally aware of any timing. Very paint by numbers.

When I began reading notation I spent time memorizing the finger board diagrams to aid me in finger placement. But found myself doing a bit of work to not really read the notes. If that makes sense haha I was overcomplicating it in my quest to make it feel easier.

So I stopped doing that and after a while I began thinking of it in actual notes. So for example in tab mode I think first string second fret. In notation I think B string, C#.

So to answer the question about reading tabs vs notation I now read A notation almost as efficiently as I do tab. But I am still working on it and occasionally use tabs when I do performances or want to mindlessly play a bunch of tunes I already know.

Additionally I had a hard time reading the G/D notation. After a year of reading in A/E while being mindful of the notes relative to the string they are played on I was very much able to read in G/D.

Since we're on the subject, when the tutors talk about "guitar style", are they talking about up stroke with the pointer or both the pointer and middle, or strumming? Does this start the path to three finger Scruggs/bluegrass melodic style? Currently, I'm either bum ditty-ing or minstrel downstroke (finger and thumb). I'm trying to find the in between. 

They're talking about 3-finger (and sometimes 4-finger) picking, exactly like Scruggs (without Scruggs' own invention of "rolls" upon which he based his 'style').

Guitar style was simply fingerpicking. The basics are traceable back to the dawn of time. There are three major ways of playing a stringed instrument with human fingers. Striking (Stroke Style, Clawhammer), Picking (guitar style, fingerpicking) and strumming (which, being reasonably painful in long sessions, led to using a plectrum).

Rob Mohr said:

Since we're on the subject, when the tutors talk about "guitar style", are they talking about up stroke with the pointer or both the pointer and middle, or strumming? Does this start the path to three finger Scruggs/bluegrass melodic style? Currently, I'm either bum ditty-ing or minstrel downstroke (finger and thumb). I'm trying to find the in between. 

Great! Thanks! Kinda what I figured. I figured it made it's way to the banjo from the classical guitar style popular at the time.

Funnily (at least to me), guitar-style picking has two roots, European and African. There are ekonting players in Africa who use a finger-picking style. While the most likely source is indeed the European guitar/lute traditions, it is possible that it could have moved to the banjo via parallel paths. Of course, picking may have come from Euro influence in Africa as well. Tough nut to crack, history.

My personal belief: humans are inventive. Hand someone a stringed instrument and they'll figure out a method to make noise. Pick, stroke, strum...they're natural actions. 

Rob Mohr said:

Great! Thanks! Kinda what I figured. I figured it made it's way to the banjo from the classical guitar style popular at the time.

I learned to read A/E notation from the green Converse. The best music in early tutors (apart from Briggs and Winners) is in A/E. I never bothered to learn G/D because the entire Briggs book is burned into my memory anyway so I play those by ear and memory, with an occasional glance at the tab.  I could spend a few hours to learn to read G/D but life is short. Knowing how to read A/E was my main goal, and not at all hard to master, especially if you learned to read music as a kid.

So my advice is the same as what Joel Hooks said - start learning A/E notation from the green Converse. Begin with Juba. Converse sequences the tunes in order of difficulty, so if you patiently follow his instructions, you will learn to read the music in a few sessions.  Your banjo's tuning is irrelevant as long as the intervals are right. My banjo is always tuned G/D, but as Joel explained it doesn't matter. I always play alone anyway, and the lower key suits my voice better.

BTW I hate the way Converse lays out the tunes in the yellow book, but the music there is really good. Someone on this forum created a PDF of a straight notation version of the yellow Converse (the tunes are laid out like regular music rather than chopped into short segments). That's what I use for the yellow book.  

Last point is that learning to play by ear is IMO underemphasized in early banjo. Of course, the tutors are very cool and delving into them is fun. But I figure all the early professional and amateur players learned by ear and added improvised variations as they wished. I imagine many very competent amateurs of that era never saw a tutor. They just learned by watching others and using their ear. So I also suggest getting one the common tunes in your head (Mary Blane or Boatman, for example) and just playing it without looking at tab or notation. 

Thank you for your comments, Will. I plan to delete all the other Tutors from my overloaded iPad for the time being, and just carry around the green Converse to learn from for now. I think that learning a tune so I can sing it is a good idea. And I can ALMOST sight read to sing already. But I often forget which tune is which, or how to start one that I know I like.   

I have found that the tab keeps me honest when it comes to Minstrel technique, too, like when to be sure to drop that thumb into the melody strings, and not to pull off instead of doing that, as in clawhammer practice.

I wonder how I can find that consolidated Converse document. It sounds good!

 - M’lou 
Will Bickart said:

I learned to read A/E notation from the green Converse. The best music in early tutors (apart from Briggs and Winners) is in A/E. I never bothered to learn G/D because the entire Briggs book is burned into my memory anyway so I play those by ear and memory, with an occasional glance at the tab.  I could spend a few hours to learn to read G/D but life is short. Knowing how to read A/E was my main goal, and not at all hard to master, especially if you learned to read music as a kid.

So my advice is the same as what Joel Hooks said - start learning A/E notation from the green Converse. Begin with Juba. Converse sequences the tunes in order of difficulty, so if you patiently follow his instructions, you will learn to read the music in a few sessions.  Your banjo's tuning is irrelevant as long as the intervals are right. My banjo is always tuned G/D, but as Joel explained it doesn't matter. I always play alone anyway, and the lower key suits my voice better.

BTW I hate the way Converse lays out the tunes in the yellow book, but the music there is really good. Someone on this forum created a PDF of a straight notation version of the yellow Converse (the tunes are laid out like regular music rather than chopped into short segments). That's what I use for the yellow book.  

Last point is that learning to play by ear is IMO underemphasized in early banjo. Of course, the tutors are very cool and delving into them is fun. But I figure all the early professional and amateur players learned by ear and added improvised variations as they wished. I imagine many very competent amateurs of that era never saw a tutor. They just learned by watching others and using their ear. So I also suggest getting one the common tunes in your head (Mary Blane or Boatman, for example) and just playing it without looking at tab or notation. 

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