I am a novice with Classic Banjo, and part of the trouble I am having is learning how to play a composition from the standard notation. I find it difficult to translate a note from the sheet music to a fret on the neck. I have read standard notation for many years in the context of band instruments, but that is a simple mapping of one note to one finger position. On a banjo neck, there are many places to play a note.

I have been playing banjo now for about 20 years, but I only recently started learning Classic Banjo. How do you more experienced players go about arranging a tune? I find it to be agonizingly slow without tab to show me where the notes are properly found. It takes me forever to figure out a tune. 

Any hints or tips or suggestions would be welcome.

Thanks,

Brian

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Take a look at the 'learn to play' feature, there is a section 'tab or notation' which  explains how to deal with notation.

I simply use TAB. ;-)

Learning to read notation for the banjo isn't all that hard. I read it and can quickly translate it into TAB but I have the devils own time trying to play from it. My brain is far happier on TAB and I'm willing to do the 'extra' work to get it done.

Have you checked out the various tutors included on the web-site?  I was purely tab oriented when I first started playing around with CB many years ago, but when I recently came back to it I was determined to learn to read notation on the banjo and was surprised how quickly I have picked it up by diligently following a Tutor.  I use a Geo. L. Lansing tutor called "The Excelsior Banjo Method" from the late 1800's. I have yet to scan it and submit it for inclusion because it is an oversized folio.  I am sure the are many good tutors already posted and I am sure people here will be able to recommend some.  Most of the tutors indicate right-hand fingering, especially in critical locations, which is often times missing in many of the tabs I have seen.

 Most specimens of classic banjo sheet music include indication of what strings and frets to use. When that is absent or if you want to make a change from what is written there are two options for choosing where on the fingerboard to get a particular note. One is ease of fingering and the other is the most pleasing sound. Sometimes these coincide. In either case the choice is made in the context of a phrase.  So for instance in the third part of St Louis Tickle there are 3 notes leading into the downbeat. They are A natural, B flat and B natural. The downbeat is C natural.  The context of the phrase is the transition from the end of the second part of the tune to the beginning of the third part and the context of the C natural downbeat is the fact that it is followed by a chord that contains that C in the same octave. It's an F chord of CFA at frets 5, 6, and 7.  So I want to be sure that my downbeat C is at fret 5 of string 3. The last note of part 2 is a C natural. There are only 2 sensible places to get that particular C (because of the fingering of the phrase that ends in that C) and that is fret 1 of string 2 *or* fret 5 of string 3. In either case, the obvious fingering to get to the C downbeat of part 3 is frets 2, 3, and 4 on string 3, and landing on fret 5. I wouldn't want to do it on two strings at the first 3 frets and using an open B string.  I use consecutive fingers of the left hand for consecutive frets. But the next time this phrase comes along the context is different. The previous phrase ended on a C major or C7 chord on frets 8, 9, and 10. To jump down to fret 2 to get A natural is a rather daring and daunting leap. So instead I play the phrase (still A, B flat, B natural and C) on frets 9, 10, 11 and 12 of the bass string. I'm already up the fingerboard so why make it hard for myself?  The CFA  F major chord that follows can be played at frets 10, 12 and 12 of strings 4, 3, and 2. On some banjos it sounds ok. On others it sounds a bit choked or "fat" so I scoot down to frets 5 , 6 and 7 and play the chord as I did before.  That's an example of a choice based on tone quality.

If you think in terms of phrase rather of single notes the answer to "how do I finger this" gets answered fairly easily.

One thing though: classic banjo is not easy.

"Classic banjo is not easy".....having just spent the last couple of hours struggling with the FVE arrangement of "Ramshackle Rag".....I wholeheartedly second that.....!

 A coupla things I left out: 

1) my preference for the 3 note "lead in" to part 3 to be played on one string on consecutive frets is a choice of preferred tone quality. One string, all closed positions makes a more uniform sound than play A and B flat on string 3, B natural on the open second string, and C natural on fret 1 of the second string. This is sort of a reflex learned from playing banjo with metal strings where the difference in timbre between a closed and an open string is more striking than with the soft strings used for classic banjo. There still is a difference between the sound of C natural on a thinner string (string 2, fret 1) and a thicker string (string 3, fret 5) even with nylon or gut. 

2) the end of part 2 is not just a lone C note but more usually there is a  harmony of E natural below it. This E can only be gotten in this octave on the bass string. It exists nowhere else since its pitch is lower than the G of the 3rd string. So fret 4 is the only option. But how to finger it? If C is gotten at fret 1 of string 2 with the index than E can only be gotten with the 4th finger if the scale is 27 " or more. But there is another option. C and E can be gotten at frets 5 and 4 of strings 3 and 4. And we have a choice of what fingers to use.  I prefer this because it brings me to the area of the fingerboard where the lowest fret is number 5, since that is where most (or all) of part 3 will be fingered. 

Jody Stecher said:

 Most specimens of classic banjo sheet music include indication of what strings and frets to use. When that is absent or if you want to make a change from what is written there are two options for choosing where on the fingerboard to get a particular note. One is ease of fingering and the other is the most pleasing sound. Sometimes these coincide. In either case the choice is made in the context of a phrase.  So for instance in the third part of St Louis Tickle there are 3 notes leading into the downbeat. They are A natural, B flat and B natural. The downbeat is C natural.  The context of the phrase is the transition from the end of the second part of the tune to the beginning of the third part and the context of the C natural downbeat is the fact that it is followed by a chord that contains that C in the same octave. It's an F chord of CFA at frets 5, 6, and 7.  So I want to be sure that my downbeat C is at fret 5 of string 3. The last note of part 2 is a C natural. There are only 2 sensible places to get that particular C (because of the fingering of the phrase that ends in that C) and that is fret 1 of string 2 *or* fret 5 of string 3. In either case, the obvious fingering to get to the C downbeat of part 3 is frets 2, 3, and 4 on string 3, and landing on fret 5. I wouldn't want to do it on two strings at the first 3 frets and using an open B string.  I use consecutive fingers of the left hand for consecutive frets. But the next time this phrase comes along the context is different. The previous phrase ended on a C major or C7 chord on frets 8, 9, and 10. To jump down to fret 2 to get A natural is a rather daring and daunting leap. So instead I play the phrase (still A, B flat, B natural and C) on frets 9, 10, 11 and 12 of the bass string. I'm already up the fingerboard so why make it hard for myself?  The CFA  F major chord that follows can be played at frets 10, 12 and 12 of strings 4, 3, and 2. On some banjos it sounds ok. On others it sounds a bit choked or "fat" so I scoot down to frets 5 , 6 and 7 and play the chord as I did before.  That's an example of a choice based on tone quality.

If you think in terms of phrase rather of single notes the answer to "how do I finger this" gets answered fairly easily.

One thing though: classic banjo is not easy.

The question came up because I just downloaded Skeleton Dance to see if I could learn it. It is just the score. No fingering help.

I will go read the tutors again to see if that helps.

The way I understand the technique that Jody is suggesting, it is taking the time to puzzle out each phrase relative to each neighboring phrase. That will take me a long time. If I do that I will probably have to tab it out anyway just to remember it.

I just tabbed Arkansas Traveler from the Frank Converse book of 1865. But that is a simple, monophonic minstrel tune, and the Converse book has a detailed description of how to play each phrase in it. I merely transcribed the words to tab. Puzzling out Skeleton Dance will take more work.

Thanks to everybody for the suggestions.

If I don't come back for a while, I am probably scratching my noggin over a phrase or a chord or something.

That is exactly what I'm suggesting. Yes it takes time.  This is the method that every string musician I know uses whether the tune is learned from notation or by ear or is self-composed. If you can come up with another way let me know. What's your hurry? If the tune is worth learning, it's worth spending time with.  The banjo is so nice to play and so nice to hear. You like a classic banjo tune and you want to play it. So you start with obvious fingerings until a fingering problem arises. Then you seek a solution. This causes you to play the same phrase over and over. The result is that you get to *hear* the same phrase over and over. This is a good thing.  Not only that, but your fingers develop memory for how to play this piece. And that's not all. Your "memory memory", the mental kind, not the muscle kind, also starts to remember the tune. It gets memorized "automatically" and the piece starts to belong to you. The whole point is to spend time with the banjo and with the tune. It's not a race to see how fast we can finish. When that happens we get the banjo-uke scene at Bertie Wooster's club.

If spending time writing tab helps you remember how the piece goes, by all means do it. It is engaging another part of your brain and that is a positive thing.  But it's simpler to use the fingering system used in classic banjo notation. It's a simple code. 

There are other options as well. There are at least 4 banjo videos of Skeleton Dance on this website. Have a look at the hands of the players. If you like how someone sounds copy their fingering. Does this take time? Of course. Does it take effort? Of course. Is this a problem? None that I can see.


Brian Kimerer said:

The way I understand the technique that Jody is suggesting, it is taking the time to puzzle out each phrase relative to each neighboring phrase. That will take me a long time. If I do that I will probably have to tab it out anyway just to remember it.

When learning to play a new instrument no matter how many years you have been playing something else, it's sometimes better to go back to basics and just work through a tutor book, nice and slowly. Plunging straight into a solo like the Skeleton Dance might not be the best way of approaching learning to play in the classic style.

Sorry if I left the impression that I was complaining about time spent learning a tune. That is not the case. It just seems that it takes an inordinate amount of time for me to puzzle out the tunes. So I thought maybe I was doing it all wrong.

A year after I started trying to play Whistling Rufus I am still trying to puzzle out that tune. After playing Coon Hunt Walkaround on my minstrel banjo for 10 years, I just found out that I have been playing it wrong, which is probably why I play it so badly. That is the penalty for self-taught, solo learning I guess.

I am not familiar with the banjo-uke scene at Bertie Wooster's, so the reference is lost on me. I got shouted at by a conductor once for playing  Irish Washerwoman too fast on my saxophone. I didn't even think that was possible. The conductor actually stopped the entire band and shouted "THIS IS NOT A RACE!" LOL

Thanks for the help. The search goes on.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eEIIB5hVy4

Brian Kimerer said:

I am not familiar with the banjo-uke scene at Bertie Wooster's, so the reference is lost on me.

OK then. That reminds me of some of the OT banjo jams I have been to.

Thanks for the link.

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