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,


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I can help with the yellow converse. Sent you a friend request. Also I printed the green converse on a color printer. Much better that way for me.

It's about time I learned this too. I've been procrastinating because of the intimidation and arduous seeming task. I saw the green Converse recommended, so I'll start there I suppose.

Thank you Joel.  This is truly helpful.

-Scott Danneker

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...


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).

It's "ya'll" M'lou and I'm confused like you.

Scott  :)


I am going to transpose the Briggs' Book into A/E notation. It has always been a major source of confusion, especially for the newbee. Briggs' is the first book most encounter, but oddly enough, t is is only one of two or three written in the G/D tuning. If the the whole book is unalterted, but in the A/E tuning, it may encourage many more to take up reading notes. Here is the first one.....straight out of the 1855 book, but in the new "tuning". Of course, pitch your instrument in any key you wish, but refer to this staff and notation, where the thumb string is E and uses the upper stem. This will provide continuity to the Canon as we know it today. Ok....here is Mary Blane.

Briggs in A/E will be a wonderful.  We can add this to the list of gifts Tim has given us.  Tim, was it you who created a straight version of the Yellow converse in standard notation? I can't remember where I found the PDF, but I use it all the time.

Yes I did that. Thanks for digging this stuff

So, as I get complete pages done, they will be posted here http://www.timtwiss.com/free-print-downloads

for free downloads. I have one page completed. Feel free to advise me of errors. I am being pretty careful, but I will chug right along with this.

Thank you. 

Timothy Twiss said:

So, as I get complete pages done, they will be posted here http://www.timtwiss.com/free-print-downloads

for free downloads. I have one page completed. Feel free to advise me of errors. I am being pretty careful, but I will chug right along with this.

Tim, that first page is great. Thank you for doing this.

Okay, I found Tim Twiss’ yellow Converse, and I have printed it out to use easily. It is nice and clean and easy to read. I kind of know the tunes from the Weidlich book, so I am playing off the notes and working out my brain a bit to get in the groove of reading notation. Thanks, Tim! Green Converse will be next, because it has tunes I am not so familiar with, to challenge my note reading. A Briggs in A would be super nice to have, too!

     Thanks, everyone for responding to this discussion. It was a great start for me!

Play lots of banjo.....


It's flowing quite well now. Watch it expand. I am attempting to keep the format the same, but am using a portrait landscape which allows an extra song per page. All fingerings are "as is" from the original.

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