If you’re like me, you don’t own a several-thousand dollar replica of the Minstrel banjo, an old-time banjo with far-reaching 18th century African roots. And if you’re like me in another way, you crave the ability to play those old-timey songs (like Brigg’s Corn Shucking Jig, Juba, and Hard Times), but only have a good ol’ American 5-string banjo.
Don’t panic. You can still play them, and play them right now with the trusty 5-string beside you. Keep reading, and learn a little first — it’ll make your banjo-ing experience all the more satisfying. Because unlike many other instruments, half the fun of playing banjo songs is knowing the history behind them.
Minstrel banjos have two key differences (there are more, but these are what matter for this particular comparison): string type and tuning style.
Your 5-string banjo has silver and nickel strings, common strings. The minstrel banjo has/had a variety of string types, but were not commonly silver and nickel like the American banjo. You can find strings like those on a Minstrel online or at your local music store, but that’s not really needed to achieve the sound you’re after. It will sound infinitely more like a minstrel banjo, but it’s not necessary. What is necessary is getting the tuning right.
Minstrel banjos were commonly tuned in dGDF#A. That’s the first string in D, the second string at G, the third at D, the fourth at F, and the fifth (the short, loud one) at #A. And while you can tune your good ‘ol 5-string to that very tuning (even if it feels like your fifth string is ready to pop as you do it), the sound won’t sound nearly the same as it does on a minstrel. In fact, it doesn’t sound very good at all. There are a few reasons for that, but there’s plenty of research on the topic if you’d like to learn more.
How to Play Minstrel Songs on Your Regular Banjo
You want to know the right tuning for playing these songs without plunking down the cash for another banjo. Well, thankfully, you can do it right now, in the next 30 seconds, by yourself.
It’s called Drop C Tuning, and it involves simply tuning the fourth string (the string right below the short fifth string) down to a C#. If your other strings (5,3,2 and 1) are in regular G tuning, then leave them how they are! You’re ready to play!
If you’re not in standard, open G tuning gDGBD, then tune to that. Then, once you’re there, just tune down the fourth string to C# as said above, which will result in a g#CGBD.
Now… go practice Brigg’s Corn Shucking Jig — it’s simple to learn, fun to play, and should be known by every young picker. Enjoy!