Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

So it would appear I am going to have to learn Anthony Street Reel in standard notation as opposed to tablature (a 1st for me, since I can't find the tab for this awesome tune anywhere).  I just want to make sure I am starting off in the right place.  Just to double check, what is the proper string tunings for this?  (I appreciate the patience with the newbie questions).  

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Another newbie  thinks it is  eBEG#B , as written on  page 102 of Converses Analytical Banjo.

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Hi Rick,  I recommend learning notation-- it is easy!  

There should be a "sticky" or something covering this subject as it can be confusing.

First, let's strike the word "tuning" from the discussion.  To a modern banjoist (esp. "old time") the word "tuning" refers to a set of intervals between the strings.  Because of the prevalence of scordatura with "old time" banjo playing I try to avoid the word when discussing pre 1920s banjo playing.

There was really only one "tuning for the banjo" but the pitch changed over time.

The set intervals correspond to what is now called "drop C" (dropsy?) or "G tuning" with the fourth string lowered one step.  That was (and is) home base for pretty much all banjo playing from known documented history until the nostalgia music of the 1920s developed a new banjo tradition.

The deviation was to raise the fourth string one step with a small percentage of music being written that way (and most of that music can still be played with the bass lowered).

The pitch that banjos were tuned to got higher with better strings, instruments, and different musical tastes.  In fact, construction of the banjo parallels the repertoire exactly with overwhelmingly documentable musical tastes.

The "hobby" choose the pitch noted in the Briggs' book of 1855.  I believe that this was subconsciously chosen because it is as far from the modern banjo sound as you can get.  The evidence shows that they were pitched higher by 1860 to A.

And the "A notation" set the standard for books and music until after 1908 in the US.  The banjo's pitch actually got higher before then.  By the 1870s, gone was A and most pros (who set the standards for amateurs) were pitched to B flat.  By the early 1880s (about 1882) most had gone to C, or modern banjo pitch.

All that time music and books were still being printed in A notation.  England got into banjos in the early 1880s and started publishing their music in C as how the banjo was pitched at the time (except one octave lower than shown on the treble clef).

As the string intervals are the same, the banjo can be pitched to any key and the music still read the same (the banjo being a "transposing instrument").

As to notation and being literate... How can one study a culture if they cannot read and speak their language.  All information will be second hand.  One has to take someone's word for it.

Learning to read unlocks hundreds of thousands of pieces of music written for the banjo, not including the 200+ instruction books all containing music.  These numbers jump significantly if you add C notation and learn to read both (also easy to do, heck I did it).

Tabs feed you for a day.  Reading is the key to endless music with no restrictions of translation, direct from the pens of the composers.

I actually know how to read music (many years playing the trumpet way back in the early school years).  So I guess half the battle is done.  Figuring out where those notes actually are on the banjo....that will take some work.  I should probably just bear down and do it though.  

In the meantime...thanks for the file Manfred!



Rick Cicciarelli said:

In the meantime...thanks for the file Manfred!

-----------

You're welcome!
I understand Joel's point of view, but maybe there are a couple of clawhammer players out there who cannot read music but tablature and are interested in minstrel banjo.

All it would take is 5 minutes when you start each practice session.  Run through the scales of the three "natural" keys of the banjo with the relative minors.  Learn the various banjo specific edits.

I'd say, since you already know notation, you will never have to look at tab again after a month.

I seem to remember it taking me about 6 months after I set my mind to it to drop tabs.  That was by teaching myself to read from scratch.

For A notation I used this book...

https://archive.org/stream/CarlFischerTutor/Carl%20Fischer%20Tutor#...

Believe it or not, this was still published in the 1950s!  It was also issued under other names.

It is a little later than the "minstrel era" as decided by "the hobby" but most of the the jigs, reels and short pieces in it play fine stroke style.

For fingerstyle I recommend the A. J. Weidt methods in 5 parts.  He gets in to some ragtime stuff but his RH fingering exercises are topnotch.  Those can be found in A notation (they were also published in C) here...

http://classic-banjo.ning.com/page/tutor-books

Rick Cicciarelli said:

I actually know how to read music (many years playing the trumpet way back in the early school years).  So I guess half the battle is done.  Figuring out where those notes actually are on the banjo....that will take some work.  I should probably just bear down and do it though.  

In the meantime...thanks for the file Manfred!

Joel

What do you mean by run through the scales ... and what are the banjo specific edits?

Thanks

Eric


Joel Hooks said:

All it would take is 5 minutes when you start each practice session.  Run through the scales of the three "natural" keys of the banjo with the relative minors.  Learn the various banjo specific edits.

I'd say, since you already know notation, you will never have to look at tab again after a month.

I seem to remember it taking me about 6 months after I set my mind to it to drop tabs.  That was by teaching myself to read from scratch.

For A notation I used this book...

https://archive.org/stream/CarlFischerTutor/Carl%20Fischer%20Tutor#...

Believe it or not, this was still published in the 1950s!  It was also issued under other names.

It is a little later than the "minstrel era" as decided by "the hobby" but most of the the jigs, reels and short pieces in it play fine stroke style.

For fingerstyle I recommend the A. J. Weidt methods in 5 parts.  He gets in to some ragtime stuff but his RH fingering exercises are topnotch.  Those can be found in A notation (they were also published in C) here...

http://classic-banjo.ning.com/page/tutor-books

Rick Cicciarelli said:

I actually know how to read music (many years playing the trumpet way back in the early school years).  So I guess half the battle is done.  Figuring out where those notes actually are on the banjo....that will take some work.  I should probably just bear down and do it though.  

In the meantime...thanks for the file Manfred!

I am a little unclear about your question.  Playing scales are the basis of playing music.  

The two works I linked to are instruction books on how to play the banjo using A notation and they have all the information you need to learn how to read for the banjo.  I recommend starting from page one and working through.  Pick one.  The Frank Converse "Green" book of 1865 works too-- heck, they all do but some are better then others.

In fact, the piece you are asking about in this discussion is from a instruction book.  That book is very dense with information and is a little advanced to follow.  Converse wrote a followup to that one in the 1890s that is easier to use (also free online).

95%+ of all banjo music was written in just three keys before the nostalgia music of the 1920s.  With A notation that is the keys of A, E, and D.  Learning those three scales will let you sight read thousands of pieces direct from the page.  It sounds easy because it was supposed to be.

All instruments have specific information in notation written for them and the banjo is no different.  Not to be redundant but all the instruction books explain these edits.  Properly edited banjo music destroys the old excuse that notation is not good for fretted instruments (or smooth arm banjos).  All the information one needs to play the piece is included.

Hi Joel

Thanks for the reply.

I now understand what you mean by banjo edits.

As regards the scales, I was just wondering how you run through the scales? Having looked at the Fisher Tutor, I guess you mean play through the exercises. Do you see these as fingering exercises or reading exercises or, indeed both? I'm happy to devote time for exercises but looking at the exercises, I'm not sure I could play through all the A scale exercises in 5 minutes. Was that a bit of poetic licence or do you have a short cut method?

Thanks again Joel for your time.

Eric

So, do I understand correctly that the scales in  'A notation' would be A,E, and D (Rice),'G notation' would be G, D, and C (Briggs) and 'C notation' would be C, G, and F (modern drop C or 'standard')?  

Assuming this to be correct, these, along with their 'relative minors' add up to 18 different scales to work on.   However,  since we can simply 'change (our) reference on the staff (because) all the intervals and their relationships stay the same' (Twiss, Tim: Early Banjo p.2), we only need to work on six (6) different scales because it is the the intervals that are absolute, and not the tunnings which appear to be relative.  Do I have this right?  

Did ya'll have a nice holiday season?

Cheers,

-Scott

Joel Hooks said:

95%+ of all banjo music was written in just three keys before the nostalgia music of the 1920s.  With A notation that is the keys of A, E, and D.  Learning those three scales will let you sight read thousands of pieces direct from the page.  It sounds easy because it was supposed to be.

C.C Conway points out the differences between the terms "interval pattern" and "tuning pattern" (Conway, Cecilia: African Banjo Echos in Appalachia p.226).  If I understand this correctly, both the left and right hand fingering remain the same regardless of the selected pitch of the strings?  The only difference in fingering results when  'high' or 'low' bass is selected and should therefore only apply to the fourth string (unless your banjo only has four strings, in which case it stays the same).  There, simple.  Right?

Scott-- yes.  I started playing from A notation exclusively.  I was not until I was introduced to the American Banjo Fraternity and took a interest into the later era "classic" banjo pieces and ragtime that I started reading in C.  I never focused on really reading the Briggs book notation.

With rare exception the terms "high bass" and "low bass" seem to be fairly recent in common use. I have only found it used on a few period pieces.  "Low bass" is never stated as it is the starting point.  Scordatura is indicated as "bass elevated" or "bass/4th to B or D on sheet music.  Starting around 1900 one begins to see "A Notation" or "American Notation" and "C Notation" or "Universal Notation" indicated on sheet music.

Eric-- I mean spend 5 min or so on the scales and exercises and then stop and do your normal practice.  So start with the scale of A and focus on each note on the scale and play it over and over for 5 mins at the start of each practice session.  Once you can understand where the notes are located then move to the reading exercises-- use the book as a lesson plan (because it is).  But don't stress over it, just a little time each day so that you do not get bored.  When you are playing from sight in the key of A then move to the next one.  That is what worked for me.

If you drop everything and focus only on notation you might get tired of it pretty quick and it will not stick.

Truth be told, after I got the hang of A in first position I became ravenous at the thought if sight reading and focused on nothing else until I could.

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