Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

Hi folks,
I am currently building my first banjo, a minstrel banjo of course! I think it's coming along nicely, and thanks to Terry Bell for a lot of great advice and help. Hopefully I'll have her ready to go by Thanksgiving.

So my question is basically whether to go with the classical or minstrel set of Nylgut strings. Ahh, but it's not so simple. Here is what I'll be doing with the instrument. I have played guitar, fiddle, and mandolin for many years now and do so quite often in church (Cowboy Church). I would like to play this banjo in church, once I learn how of course. I do play solo a lot, but I'd like to be able to play with some other folks playing in standard modern keys. So the classical set would allow me to do that in Standard G, but what about playing with modern guitars with the minstrel set, would that work. Are there minstrel tunings that work with modern tunings? Other than church I'll mostly be playing for myself and for the kids so it does not really matter on that front.

My other question is if I did go with the classical set can it be tuned down to say a D tuning to get the lower minstrel sound, or perhaps sawmill tuning ( whatever that is). Though not a novice musician, I will be a novice banjo player. Thanks in advance for any responses.

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The 'Classical' set cannot be tuned down to D. IMO if you're building a minstrel banjo, put minstrel strings on it, you'll be playing in G and D. Playing solo, like you said, you'll WANT the full sounding lower minstrel strings. It's a world of difference between the high sound and the low sound. People love the low minstrel tuning, it's different. You can play with others who can play in G and D which are very common keys. Having played other instruments, you'll find the minstrel tunes a challenge at first, then when the technique (stroke style) soaks in, it's really quite easy. Very easy physically. You don't need callouses, you NEVER get fatiqued from fighting metal strings, and there are 'reaches' involved when you are playing the guitar and fiddle that wear you out. The banjo is light, thin, easy to play and doesn't fight you. Kindly tell your guitar playing friends to concentrate on their bass notes and strum easy or they'll cover you up. I don't know your musician friends, but many guitar players like to over-do it, like when they sense your DUN da da rhythm, many modern guitarists start with the JING jing-a JING. Don't let it get you down. Accompanying minstrel banjo is tricky. Get some recordings and have them listen and learn.

Ok so the minstrel set will allow me to play in G and D? Will that match ok with modern instruments? Like I said that won't be too often, but I'd like to have that option. Sorry for the questions, don't know much about banjos yet. On the plus side my library that I work for has a copy of the Converse 1865 green book. It looks interesting, but I'll probably end up playing mostly by ear. Thanks to Tim Twiss for the great videos and for posting the tutors too.

Sawmill tuning  is gDGCD, also known as G modal. The minstrel strings may not go that high, plus we play a lot of those modal songs capoed or tuned up to the key of A, essentially aEADE. You can get an equivalent tuning from the minstrel strings by raising the second string 1/2 step from the minstrel tuning. But this won't put you in the key of A. To play with more modern fiddlers, etc, you almost need a second banjo strung for the G tuning. I haven't experimented with using alternate tunings with non metallic strings, but I suspect it would be hard to keep them in tune if you change tunings frequently. When I change my nylon guitar or ukulele strings, it takes at least a few days of stretching  before they will hold tuning long enough to play out. Rather than re tuning, or capoing, it may be possible to move your bridge when you need a new tuning. This won't give you a lot of flexibility, but might let you go up a tone, say from D to E. Seems I've seen someone post about this.

Paul

Question: Can Nylgut Minstrel strings safely be tuned up to “E”? eBEG#B. 

yes

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