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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One tip....learn a simple piece from tab. Then stare at the notation while you play it over and over. Make the association petween the symbol and where it is on the instrument. Don't be too theoretical...it is the curse of learning as an adult, feeling we need some deep methodology before we venture in.

Tim--This is more or less my point.  If I stare at notation from a Briggs' tune while I play it, I will have to somehow unlearn that while staring at notation from a Rice tune while I play it.--Rob

Don't unlearn it. Then you will have to do it all over again.

Oh yes you are right, and I should have included that. The recordings and videos are marvelous resources, much like the work that Tim has done, which give's the listeners/students of this music. I feel it is truly the best reference to these songs and learning the manner in which they sound according to the written notation. Like I said if you can take the time to figure out a tabbed piece one might be able to apply the same amount of time learning how to read the notation. Which once it is down..anything is open to you. 


Strumelia said:

I agree, Nicholas.  Not that I've yet conquered reading the tutors myself yet...lol!   But when i study them visually, there are golden moments when they make sense...and then POOF!  I get lost again.  but...the more I do that the less i will get lost.  I miss my brain from twenty years ago.  lol!

I think we have not mentioned the best tool of all yet- that of listening to the excellent recordings, both audio and video, that other folks have made of just about all the tutor tunes.  One can find them generously posted for free listening, and/or cough up a few modest dollars and buy the recordings and CDs that others have devoted their time and talent in recording.

Once you hear a tune about 6 or 10 times, you can read along in the tutor or in published tab books and you can start to actually SEE how the notes are falling on the page.  I feel this may help us 'speed learn' to read the tutors by sight.

I've struggled with the tab vs notation question over the years, particularly since I started playing from the tutors.  I started by making tabs using Tabledit (which is also handy for transposing from Rice to Briggs or vice versa) but I'm finding that the more tunes I learn, the easier it's getting to start with the original notation and puzzle it out.  I'm a long way from sight-reading but even when it's stop and go, I'm reaching the point where identifying a note on the staff and mentally mapping it to the fingerboard (in either tuning) is faster than turning notation into tab.

Also especially helpful is being to watch and listen to the hundreds of videos that Tim and others have done... but sometimes a particular measure or two will defy comprehension - that's when MuseScore, a free music notation application, comes in very handy.  You can enter a couple of measures (or the whole tune) and play it back at any tempo, and just last night I discovered the built-in "Note Names" plugin, which puts the name of each note above the staff, making it that much easier to recognize at a glance which note is which, and hopefully to map it to its place on the fretboard.

Good points and questions.

When starting out to read read tab or notation, listening is essential. It gives you a frame of reference so that those dots on the paper have some kind of meaning. In tab you associate the lines of the staff and the numbers with the strings of the banjo and the fret positions.  One of the problems with music notation is that there is no easy reference with which strings or frets to finger. What I'm doing is a bit of mental trickery to look at music notation the same way I look at tabs.  It works well with the key of E/A but not with other keys. But that's OK. As Joel said, there is enough material to keep me going until my wife cashes in my life insurance policy. ( either I will have died from old age, or my wife will have killed me for paying more attention the banjo than to her)

In tab you associate the lines of the staff with the strings of the banjo and the numbers with fret positions. The way I look at notation I associate the bottom three lines of the staff with the top three string of the banjo.
Then I use the numbers written above the staff with the fret position.  If the note falls on the E, G, or B line if the staff that will always be an open string corresponding to the 3rd, 2nd, or first string. Any note that falls on a space will have to be a fretted note and the number on top of the staff will tell me what fret to finger. You have to do a little extrapolation when you get above or below the bottom three lines of the staff, but you get used to it.

Like anything you have to work with it a while, but once you get the hand of it, it seems to work pretty good. It's kind of like trying to learn the bum-dity for all you clawhammer players.  you try, and try, and try, and think you will never get it. And then one day it just all falls together and you can do it.  For now that's the best explanation for how I think about it. 

Scott--I'm a visually oriented person (when I close my eyes I "see" the music I'm playing).  When you explained your method with words I didn't follow, but with the illustation I completely understand.  Thank you--Rob

Rob,  I'm glad to see that it some kind of sense to someone other than me :>)  Perhaps I'm not totally crazy.

Here is Converse's Juba with some notes so you can see what it looks like on a piece of actual music.

The first two varieties have some more explanations.  The 3rd variety is all I ever do. just change the numbers above the note to correspond with the fret position.  After a while you don't even have to do that.

One of the reasons I like to print out the songs on a sheet of paper is so I can make notes to myself. That way I'm not marking up a book with stuff.  Plus, if I make a mistake I can just print a new one and start over.

Here is the Cotton Pod Walk Around by Converse to play with. You can print it out and make notes on it and stuff. If you can figure it out for one piece you can probably do it to others.


What Rob suggests is exactly what has happened to me over the last few years. I began with the Briggs material from the Joe Weidlich tab book. Then I started to learn to read the A/E notation from other books — mostly the Converse little yellow book , for which there is also tab - excellent for cross-referencing. Now I can read A notation pretty well, and can also (grudgingly) read G notation if I have an extra cup of coffee. However I'll still generally go back to the tabs if I want to learn or re-learn Briggs material.
Of course for real masochists there's the Elias Howe book - with some tunes written out in B flat & F!
An unexpected by-product of all this is that I now find I can also read simple guitar music — something which I'd never bothered to learn over the almost fifty years that I've played guitar. I'm now the king of the Elias Howe 1850s guitar repertoire - at least at our house!

Ian-- Thanks for your comment.  I know off topic, but do you have a reference for Elias Howe guitar repertoire?--Rob

Rob - Go the the "Internet Archive" website and put "Elias Howe" into the search. You'll find all kinds of great tune books and tutors from the 1850s-80s banjo, fiddle, concertina, accordion, flageolet and - guitar. Also books on dancing ballroom etiquette (not that you need that!). They're all download-able. As if this wasn't enough, the archive also contains old radio shows and bootleg recordings of practically ever concert the Grateful Dead ever play. One stop shopping.

Ian--Thanks for the information and keep on truckin.'--Rob

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