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Glossary of Terms


Fingering technique on banjo where the left index finger (of a right-handed player, or right index finger of a left-handed player) presses down across multiple strings on the finger board.

Blackface Minstrelsy

A significant but controversial phenomenon of American musical and popular culture in the nineteenth century and beyond. Though blackface theatrical performances were not a new concept (Shakespeare's Othello was played by an actor in blackface, for example), minstrel shows featured an entire evening of entertainment by blackface actors (or actresses, later in the century). While performers often mocked and (grotesquely) imitated plantation slaves, other targets of ridicule included northern black "dandies," preachers and lecturers, the Irish and other "foreigners," and women. Minstrel songs often include lyrics in a "dialect" imitating a certain group (this dialect can be quite offensive to modern sensibilities). Example song titles: "I'se Gwine Back to Dixie" and "Oh, Dem Golden Slippers." Though black speech was the most common inspiration for dialect, German speech and Irish speech are also targets.

Compound Meter

Division of the beat into three parts. Example time signatures: 3/8 (1-2-3, 1-2-3) and 6/8 (1-2-3-4-5-6, 1-2-3-4-5-6).


An adjective used synonymously with "African" or "black."


Lines of metal or other material spaced equally along the neck of the banjo, such that a particular note sounds when one presses down on a particular fret.

Guitar Style

A style of playing the banjo in which the player up-picks strings with the index, middle, and ring finger, as well as thumb. Whereas stroke style is much more propulsively rhythmic, suited to duple meter, and uses the banjo's short string as a drone, guitar style is more suited to European music, arpeggiated accompaniments, and more sophisticated harmonic progressions. This style was probably in performance practice by the 1850s, but first described in detail by Frank Converse in his book New and Complete Method for the Banjo.

Modern Tablature

A system of notation used by many modern banjo and guitar players, popular because it requires very little knowledge of music theory and is very easy to understand. The lines correspond to the strings of the instrument.  Notes are accompanied by a number indicating which fret to press. Tablature uses the same rhythmic notation as modern musical notation. Some tablature places letters under notes to indicate how to sound the string (with one's thumb or index finger, by a pull-off, etc.).


The scale on which a song, especially a melody, is based. The mode used most often in these manuals is major, also known as Ionian mode.

  • Aeolian mode uses the same notes as the natural minor scale: the seventh degree is not sharped as it is to imply a harmonic minor. Example: Veni, Veni Emanuel (O Come, O Come Emmanuel).
  • Dorian mode sounds like Aeolian mode with the sixth degree raised. Example: Scarborough Fair.
  • Mixolydian mode sounds like the major mode with the seventh degree lowered. Example: Old Joe Clark.


Single melodic line with no harmony or counterpoint.

Simple Meter

Division of the beat into two parts. Example time signatures: 4/4 (1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and) and 3/4 (1-and-2-and-3-and, 1-and-2-and-3-and).

Stroke Style

Style of banjo-playing associated with early and minstrel banjo, related to modern clawhammer style. The fingers curl, with the index finger sticking out a bit, and the nail of the index finger strikes the strings while the thumb plucks the short fifth string, functioning as a drone. This style of playing is very rhythmic and best suited to duple meter; the characteristic rhythm (long short short) is often called something like "bum-diddy."


Instruction manual for a musical instrument.