Minstrel Banjo

For enthusiasts of early banjo

In Buckley's book from 1860, on page 79, is Walk Around by Picayune Butler. The lowest note  is a low G. Buckley himself has earlier in the book said that the tuning is eAEG#B (from fifth to first). Is it a typo so an A can be played instead, or shall the fourth string be tuned lower?

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I think those tunes back there are a collection of fiddle tunes with little regard for the banjo. No arragement per se, as there is no thumbstring stem to guide you. I usually (but not always) play the fiddle tunes with one or two sharps as thought it were in "Briggs" tuning.

I'm with Tim on this one and here's why:

On page 7 of the book, Buckley says:

"To play in the keys of D and G, tune the thumb string to D, and the other strings accordingly; which will bring G, D, F sharp, and A, at the nut."

So, he intends all the pieces in G or D (one or two sharps) to be played in this tuning. 

This is the main tuning for the Briggs and Winner 1864 books and is listed as a secondary tuning in Rice and this Buckley book. The Rice has only 2 pieces intended for this tuning but Buckley has 25.

Yes, there is one more element to that Rice book.   It was published shortly after Briggs', both by Ditson.  Considering that there were a mountain of Briggs' published (and continued to be) as they were still for sell at the end of the century, why would a publisher make a still available publication obsolete?

Raising the pitch that the banjo was noted in would make Ditson's customers angry too 'cause they had stock of a book to go along with their tubs that the publisher now said were incorrect to the current times in the banjo world.

I can see how the letter would go...  "Dear Mr. Frank Converse, of Memphis, Tn.  We have received your recent manuscript of "Phil Rice's Banjo Instructor" and we would like to publish it.  Our editor pointed out that the notation is pitched different than your previous work "Briggs' &c".  Could you please add a page explaining that the banjo may be tuned different to accommodate one or two sharps?  We would also like to provide a few pieces transcribed for the lower pitched notation.  We intend to publish this work, with some differences, in England and attribute it to E. P. Christy, as his name will likely sell more copies and sheet music."

Same would go for the Buckley book, violin plates added to balance out the book (one that I can think of even says "violin").

Preferring to go with what is easily documentable, I usually don't like to indulge in historical speculation but what about this hypothetical situation: the author got lazy about re-notating things and just included a few tunes in keys other than the what he used to perform the pieces himself. Or maybe the publisher was too cheap to re-engrave some of the pieces for the current book. We'll never know.

Well, for whatever reason.. it seems to me that the tuning was simply going through a period of diversity before standardization.

It isn't until 1865 that we get a book that calls for more than two keys to be played in a single tuning (Converse Green book).

All of the previous books either explicitly describe the lower tuning or say that you should retune to play in any other key.

Bottom line -- if you like the higher tuning better, use it. It's certainly documented (many different pitches for the tuning are documented, as I said above). However, if you want to get the intent of the tutor's author, you should at least finger it as if it was in the original fingering.


P.S. For another type of documentary evidence:

The Charles Asbury recording of Haul the Woodpile Down is in the lower tuning.


Vocal range, most likely. But it shows that the variety of pitch levels used, even as late as the 1890s, is much more diverse than conventional wisdom would have us believe. 

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