Notation for the fifth string on a 5-string banjo. . .

• Jan 2, 2019 - 04:11

A common folk instrument, the 5-string banjo, has an unusual string arrangement that MuseScore appears unable to accommodate in TAB format.


The 5-string banjo has one string (the "5th string") that is 5 frets shorter than the other four. It extends from the bridge to a small "nut" at the 5th fret.

In the common G major banjo tuning the strings are tuned to the following notes, starting with the 1st string: D4, B3, G3, D3, G4. Note that the 5th string is higher in pitch than the other four.

It is the convention for TAB notation that a "0" on any string stands for the "open" or unfretted string. This is true for the 5th string also, even though it only extends to the 5th fret. However, when the 5th string is fretted two frets higher the convention is to write a "7" on the 5th string, presumably because that location on the fingerboard is "the 7th fret."

In other words, the TAB notation for the 5th string only uses the numbers 0, 6, 7, 8, up to 19. And in the common G major tuning those numbers represent G4, G#4, A4, A#4, up to A5.

To put it another way, in G major tuning the 1st string is tuned to the D above middle C, and the 5th string is tuned 5 semitones higher to the G above that. Noneteless, any notation greater than 5 (e.g. 6, 7, 8, . . . , 19) produces the SAME note on either the 1st string or the 5th string, however 0 produces different notes on the two strings, and the numbers from 1 to 5 are meaningful on the 1st string but meaningless on the 5th string.

Although MuseScore includes a Banjo instrument with a 5-string TAB staff, it misinterprets fret numbers (other than 0) on the 5th string by treating the fifth string as if it extended all the way to the 0th fret. This means that on playback a "7" on the fifth string sounds a D5 note in G major tuning instead of the correct A4 note.

Is there a workaround? Is it possible that someday there will be a provision for dealing with strings of different lengths? Ideally the pitch of a banjo string should be calculated as:
pitch (in half steps) = base pitch + max(nut location, fret notation)
where nut location is 5 for the banjo 5th string and 0 for the others.

Thanks for any info, help, or ideas.


In reply to by wolfgan

You are right! We're so used to using these workarounds for improving playback in various files (two staves, copy-paste, turning off playback in one, etc.), that making almost blind to think to an alternative for the banjo and its particular fifth string!
So, thanks, adopted! Waiting for a definitive solution (via the code).
See a new gif to show how to do that.


In reply to by wolfgan

Thanks for this suggestion. It works great! This is the best way I think for single notes.

It doesn't work for chords (e.g. barring all strings on the 12th fret). For a workaround for that, you will need to have two staves...1 muted with the correct notation, 1 invisible with the correct note.

Thanks for posting this tip!

In reply to by R.J. Quinn

in this case you could write the number of the 5th string fret as text you have the same sound from the 1st string anyhow.
if you use this very often and want to make it really correct you can add a 6st string tuned to d (still with 5 sting tablature and move the note up on the 5th string

Just another workaround while you're waiting. Detune the 5th string to D4 (Stave/Part Proprties, Edit String Data). Enter open string as 5th fret, all other as “normal”. Save that as your playback copy. Now change all the 5th frets on that string to 0s (Select >More > Same Pich, Same String and then DownArrow to makes them 0s).

Also in a similar vein - the use of Capo. Most tab seems to give a tuning and then you put the capo on a fret and the fret number is then up from the capo on the first four strings. Which is nice!

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