Hello,

I’m brand new to classic banjo, and I understand a typical American tuning in the late 19c was eAEG#B, while in England banjo was gCGBD (which was ultimately adapted in America). 

That said, I came across a farcical article in a Stewart’s Journal (“A.D. 2000”), which seems to suggest that banjo music written in “A” tuning actually sounded in “C”.  

https://urresearch.rochester.edu/fileDownloadForInstitutionalItem.a...

Was this the case? Was there a time when banjo read in “A” but was tuned to “C”?

Thanks in advance for your help!

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The short answer is "Yes there was such a time". Banjo players were accustomed to reading A notation. As the actual pitch rose over the decades, they continued to read the notation they were used to. And to use the fingering they were used to,  The actual pitch of the strings got higher but the relationship between the strings remained the same in the two tunings. The 3rd string is a fifth above the 4th string. The 2nd string is a major third above the 3rd. There is a minor third between strings 2 and 1. And there is an interval of a fourth between strings 1 and 5. Same in both tunings.

 It sounds crazy but it's not unusual. "Transposing instruments" like clarinet do this even now.  They play C and it comes out B flat.  For details do a search on this website using key words like "transposing" or "A notation".   Member Joel Hooks has written about it a few times here with details and a good sense of humor.

Thanks very much!  

Jody Stecher said:

The short answer is "Yes there was such a time". Banjo players were accustomed to reading A notation. As the actual pitch rose over the decades, they continued to read the notation they were used to. And to use the fingering they were used to,  The actual pitch of the strings got higher but the relationship between the strings remained the same in the two tunings. The 3rd string is a fifth above the 4th string. The 2nd string is a major third above the 3rd. There is a minor third between strings 2 and 1. And there is an interval of a fourth between strings 1 and 5. Same in both tunings.

 It sounds crazy but it's not unusual. "Transposing instruments" like clarinet do this even now.  They play C and it comes out B flat.  For details do a search on this website using key words like "transposing" or "A notation".   Member Joel Hooks has written about it a few times here with details and a good sense of humor.

Yeah, it is actually an unfortunate series of events which I believe largely contributed to the decline in popularity of the regular 5 string banjo.

By the time that the change to C notation started being debated (about 1900) fretted instruments in general started to become less popular as a pastime for people. Magazines stared promoting music as a way to earn a living where before it was pitched as a hobby, reason for social gatherings, means for forming clubs, or part of general education.

One thing seen in many industries that follow fads is that when there is a decline the companies usually form some sort of trade association, which is exactly what publishers, manufacturers, and professionals did with the Guild.

The academic narrative of banjo history loves to claim that manufacturers were in control of how their instruments were used (this is false-- they built/published what people wanted or went out of business).  The formulation of the Guild is proof positive that the industry had zero control over what people played and negates all of the academic obsession with "banjo elevation" concepts. The guild stood firm against pick playing (both banjo and guitar)-- eventually giving up and going with it.  They were against wire stings for pick playing and eventually gave that fight up. In fact, they were pretty much just a group of curmudgeons trying to stand against change (or progress).  Many of the Guild founders had their formative years during the 1880s and 1890s and by the 1910s they were outdated.

Meanwhile, as happens with music, younger generations were developing their own new music styles. 

When it came to learning an instrument, at that time it was all clear cut, except for the regular banjo.  You had to choose (after it was explained to you) of you wanted to learn in C, or play a transposing instrument that was pitched in C but read in A.  Also consider that there was 30+ years of music published in A but if you wanted C it needed to be imported from England outside of the few works published in the US. 

Or-- you could just play the plectrum or tenor banjo and read at pitch (one octave higher than sounds).

It was shortly after all this A/C nonsense that chord playing (and chord charts) become popular.  Note reading starts to take a sideline over chord strumming accompaniments.  This eventually puts us where we are today with a world full of illiterate banjoists who at best can read charts with numbers on lines. "There ain't no note to the banjo" is a favorite quote to make people feel better about that. 

Stewart made a serious tactical mistake by sticking with A notation. When pitch was raised to C in the early/mid 1880s he should have changed the notation he published.  Had he done that there might be a good chance that classic banjo in the US might have continued to be popular up to WW2 (like it was in England).

Then again, that early change might have killed the banjo then and there. 

Yeah, I have focused a lot on this bit of trivia.  My theory of importance my be overblown. It could be that the banjo had just run its course.  But it is interesting that the changeover of 1908/1908 happened right when pick playing became popular. 

Thanks Joel for your very thorough explanation!

It seems to me that I have three options when it comes to exploring the “A” repertoire today: 1) learn to transpose at sight, 2) have a dedicated banjo in A (or retune) and learn to read the new notes/fingerings, or 3) transcribe pieces up a m3 using a software program (or by hand). Is any one strategy used over the others?

Jason: If you want to play zither-banjo then I think you are better off with C tuning because as far as I know all the zither-banjo published notation is in C notation. I don't think zither-banjo will sound very good tuned low either. However if you want to also play a "regular banjo" and do it in both A and C tuning.... well...to my way of thinking it's a pretty simple situation. The fingering is identical. Not all of the old A repertoire has been transposed to C notation but enough has to keep one busy for many years.  Repertoire that has been published only in C notation may be played on a banjo tuned to A tuning with no change in fingering. It comes out in A. Or as Meher Baba used to say (on posters on lampposts in the late 1960s): "don't worry. be happy".



Jason Cornwell said:

Thanks Joel for your very thorough explanation!

It seems to me that I have three options when it comes to exploring the “A” repertoire today: 1) learn to transpose at sight, 2) have a dedicated banjo in A (or retune) and learn to read the new notes/fingerings, or 3) transcribe pieces up a m3 using a software program (or by hand). Is any one strategy used over the others?

Sort of what Jody wrote, just do what all the banjoists did in the US before 1900, read in A and ignore the actual pitch.  It is simple.  If you lean to read in A, the relative pitch of the banjo can be anything.  Think of it as moving a capo around, but without using a capo.

My personal recommendation would be based on what you want to do.  If you are planning on historically informed performance or any kind of reenactment of the mid to late19th century America (like civil war or old west) then use period appropriate books to learn from in A.  My one major warning with this is that before the late 1890s most books did not teach alternate fingering but it is very likely that pros were using it.  Start using alternate fingering right away.

If you are just interested in playing banjo then start with C and learn A later. I did the opposite of this by starting with A (old west reenacting) and later added C.  There is only one ledger line of difference and it is surprisingly easy to add the second system to your brain.  I can go back and forth. 

Jody mentioned the zither banjo.  With that I would start with C and expand to A later.  The banjo hit England hard in the 1880s and they started publishing in C.  That is what your repertoire would be in. 

Thanks again! The explanation of the rising pitch relative to notation goes a long way. I’ve been learning in C so far but I will plan to learn how to read in A at some point. I really appreciate all the help!

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