Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

First of all I want to thank Rob MacKillop for tabbing out the Briggs Instructor and making it available online. That along with Tim and Greg's post about "Getting Started" has been what has got me going with minstrel banjo playing.

However, while the Briggs instructor is written in the key of D just about everything past that is written in the (un)natural key of the banjo which is E (or A). So I have a choice, Either I can try and find tab for all the other stuff(not so easy sometimes) or I can try and learn to read music.

One of the things I noticed with Rice and the other tutors is that the bottom 3 lines of the staff correspond with the top three strings of the banjo and the fifth string is always flagged. Also the finger position numbers corresponded with the fret positions (for the most part).

So I found that in one sense I can treat it kind of like tabs by seeing that any note that falls on the staff lines correspond with the open string and using the numbers written above the note to figure out what fret position to use for notes between the lines.  It sounds kind of complicated but once you start to do it, it becomes pretty easy.

Here is an example of Where do you come from from Rice that I kind of re-did.


And here it is with lots of slight changes


I've taken these from the PDF files that are available online and kind of redone them to be easier to work with and get them all on one page.  If anyone is interested I've done some others and can post them in PDF format.  It is nice to print them out so you can write them and not have to worry about writing in your book if you have one.

I've started a blog post on my page that has this also if anyone wants to find the files also.

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Tom, you're right. I lost you on the very last one however.

Tom--Most of the really early tunes don't use the bass string so it doesn't really matter for those.  If you are playing in D the banjos sounds better chorded in high bass.  Many would disagree, however.--Rob


What I meant by the same note on the drone string as the last note in the tune was they could be the same or an octave or more apart but still indicate "high bass".  If you don't have perfect pitch you don't need to retune - just play the scale and learn to read the notes in standard notation.  


You can play high bass tunes in low bass by positioning two "frets" higher on the 4th string when you need the lower notes.  Some say the vibration of the unplayed 4th string should sound better with the 4th string tuned higher but I can't hear it.

Hope the above statements make sense.


Sorry, I'm an idiot. I still don't know what you mean.

I'm not sure either, but I **think** he means that if a tune is in the key of A and it ends on the tonic note (A), then if your 5th string (drone) is an A note, it tells you that you are in a high bass tuning.  If you are playing in the key of A but the 5th string drone is not a A, then that means you are either in a low bass tuning or in a standard tuning....  Tom, is this what you meant?

I feel even more clueless, but if there is something in there that works....bravo! Not sure why a 5th string would be an A.

Here's what I am trying to say with some new ideas:

Modern Clawhammer high bass is key of G -> g D G B D, low bass key of C - g C G B D & in both cases the 5th string drone is G

Bob Flesher introduced me to minstrel high bass key of D -> d A D F# A and low bass G -> d G D F# A & in both cases the 5th string drone is D

For the Keys of E high bass would be tuned -> e B E G# B and Key of A low bass  -> e A E G# B & in  both cases the 5th string drones are E

So the drone is always the High Bass note for any tuning and key.

The key signature tells you what key you are in.  

If you read and play minstrel using standard notation for D and G for E and A just go up a single note in the score.

More tedious would to re score and lower each note by one to the more familiar keys

Anyway if these suggestions don't make sense I'll drop out of the conversation.

Where does one find the online Briggs Instructor?


Jon,  The Briggs instructor is available lots of places. The actual book is available online here at the site if you go to the resources tab and look under music books/ instructors. (Thanks to Tim Twiss for this.)

Or here is a direct link


Also Rob MacKillop was kind enough to tab out the book in PDF format. He has a neat website with lots of good banjo stuff to check out.


and here is a direct link


Lots of good stuff on minstrel banjo.

So the tuning for all the Briggs tunes is?



Jon , Essentially yes, unless the tune calls for a high bass, then the bass string is raised one note to dADF#A. Most people keep their banjo tuned to D because they like the low pitched sound sound.  It does not matter which book they are working from.  Remember that minstrel "D"  dADF#A,  "E"  eAEG#B and  classic "G" ( or sometimes called standard C ) gCGBD  tunings are all equivalent.  The relationship of the strings to each other is the same.  So tuning your banjo to the pitch of dADF#A works with all the instructors.

Normal tuning is:     dGDF#A

High bass is:            dADF#A

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