Bright Star – A Banjo Roadmap
Year: 2016 (Broadway opening)
Music/Book: Steve Martin
Music/Lyrics: Edie Brickell
In a previous article (Decoding the Bright Star Banjo Book) I described the many shortcomings of the Banjo book for Bright Star, and provided pointers on obtaining enough information and insight to play the parts properly. Given the lack of detail in the book, it isn’t worthwhile penning a detailed review of the book, as I have done for other shows.
Instead this article provides practical information on equipment requirements and the management of tuning changes during the show. Much of the required information is missing from the Banjo book, and I hope the information provided in this article will be useful to players preparing to perform the show. I also identify some of the more significant errors in the book (and a few in the Bright Star: Banjo iPad app).
Before diving into details I should emphasize that this is a challenging, idiomatic score for the banjo, made more difficult by the very poor quality of the Banjo score. Anyone seriously attempting to play the book requires competence in both three-finger and clawhammer techniques, the ability to read a musical theatre score, and a thorough knowledge of the banjo fretboard in multiple tunings. Guitarists trying to bluff their way through are in for a frustrating, miserable experience!
HOW MANY BANJOS?
Bright Star requires two banjos:
- Banjo A: Long-Neck banjo, tuned e B E G# B (E-tuning).
- Banjo B: Standard 5-String banjo, tuned g C G C D (Double-C tuning).
If you are spoilt for banjos, you could add a third – a standard 5-String tuned g D G B D, which would be used for the first three numbers in the show (#1: “If You Knew My Story”, #2: She’s Gone”, and #2A: “Scene Change”), the Entr’acte, and the Bows and Exit Music (#14, #24 and #25 respectively). This would eliminate most of the re-tuning of Banjo A, but isn’t really necessary.
If you’re unable to procure a Long-Neck banjo, an alternative would be to use a Standard 5-String, with heavier gauge strings, tuned down to the E-tuning. This isn’t an ideal arrangement, but it works if you have no other choice.
CAPOS & SPIKES
Capos are needed for both banjos. Additionally, it is necessary to re-tune the 5th string of each instrument frequently during the show. This can be accomplished using spikes, a 5th dedicated string capo, or by manually re-tuning the 5th string as needed, which I don’t recommend. In the Broadway production, Bennett Sullivan used spikes. I prefer a 5th string capo.
KEY CHANGES & TUNING ADJUSTMENTS
Like most Broadway musicals, Bright Star has plenty of key changes during songs, whereas key changes are relatively uncommon in banjo music. Handling the changes is a little tricky and requires planning and careful timing. Key changes during and between songs, and the more unusual key signatures (for a banjo) are managed in several different ways, including:
- Use of two banjos, with two distinct tunings.
- Extensive use of capos.
- Non-standard 5th string tunings.
- Re-tuning of 5th string during songs.
- Use of closed chords, avoiding the 5th string.
It’s very clever and well thought out, but, as noted above, much of the information needed is missing from the Banjo book. I explain all of the necessary adjustments in the table below.
In addition to the two banjos, the Banjo book calls for an acoustic guitar, in standard E A D G B E tuning. A capo for the guitar is also required.
INSTRUMENT SELECTION, TUNINGS & CAPO SETTINGS
The table below identifies which banjo to use for every number in the show, and lists all of the tunings and capo settings required. Note that three numbers in the show require re-tuning of the 5th string mid-song. Numbers not listed in the table are played on acoustic guitar.
The banjo has a distinctive and penetrating tone, which carries a long way, especially in a smaller theatre. It’s worth thinking through your plan for adjusting banjo tunings so that you don’t step on dialog or distract the audience, bearing in mind that many productions put the band on stage. In the brief notes on each number below I provide recommendations on this subject. I recommend the use of headstock tuners for both banjos.
PREPARING TO PLAY THE SHOW
Bright Star’s Banjo book is long and challenging. I recommend allowing plenty of time to learn and practice the material, and it is helpful to memorize as much as you can. Much of your preparation time will be consumed just working out what to play, as the score is so poor (see my companion article Decoding the Bright Star Banjo Book).
When I played the show in 2019, I played elements of the Guitar, Mandolin and Banjo books, and spent a disproportionate amount of time working on the Banjo material, a reflection on my distinctly mediocre bluegrass banjo skills as much as the quality of the book.
Eventually, in 2020, I prepared detailed transcriptions of every banjo part in the show out of curiosity, and managed to improve my skills on and understanding of the instrument along the way. I provide an example below of a page from the original score, and the same page from my transcription, which includes detailed Standard and Tab notations throughout. The end result is detailed, useful and fairly accurate, but probably has too many page turns to be practical as a performance score.
There are several resources you can use to help you understand the banjo parts better and fill in the gaps in the score, including:
- The Bright Star: Banjo iPad app (free and excellent, but has its limitations).
- The Original Broadway Cast Recording (which is a beautiful recording).
- YouTube video of the 2016 Broadway Cast Reunion concert (also very useful, and the banjo player is very visible).
- Other YouTube videos of Steve Martin and Bennett Sullivan (it’s interesting to compare the playing styles of these two musicians. Both are excellent, but there is a clarity, accuracy and crispness to Sullivan’s playing which makes him more useful as a guide to playing the music).
I provide more detail on these resources in my companion article, Decoding the Bright Star Banjo Book.
SONG-SPECIFIC NOTES / RETUNING TIPS
These brief notes do not cover every song in the show, and focus on the management of re-tuning of banjos during the show, and identifying errors in the score and the iPad app.
Top of Show
Long-Neck Banjo is tuned e B E G# B. Capo 3rd fret. Effective tuning: g D G B D.
Standard 5-String Banjo tuned g C G C D. Capo 2nd fret. Effective tuning: a D A D E.
#3: Bright Star
Error in Score: m.189 incorrectly shows 4 quarter-note B7 chords. It should have a quarter-note B7 chord on the downbeat followed by 3 quarter-note rests.
Error in iPad App: the tuning should be a D A D E, not g C G C D.
#4: Way Back In The Day
Retuning: this is played on Acoustic Guitar, but the part is tacet for m.1-40. During this time do the following:
- Set capo on Standard 5-String Banjo at 1st fret, and retune 5th string to A-flat.
- Remove capo from Long-Neck Banjo and retune 5th string to e.
#5: Whoa, Mama
Instrument: Long-Neck Banjo
Retuning during the song
- Play m.1-78 in e B E G# B tuning.
- During m.79-94, retune 5th string to f#.
- Play m.95-118 in f# B E G# B tuning.
- During m.119-134, retune 5th string to e.
- Play m.135-162, and m.1-2 of #6: “Firmer Hand” in e B E G# B tuning (direct segue into #6).
Errors in Score: m.95-118 are shown in the key of D, with a note saying “THIS IS TRANSPOSED”. This is incorrect. This section of the song is in B major. All of the chord names in this section are also three steps too high. I suspect the note and transposition is a leftover from the recording of the Broadway cast album.
Errors in iPad App: in the section marked m.30-37, all of the Gm and F chords should be G#m and F#.
#6: Firmer Hand / Do Right
Measures 1-2 are played on the Long-Neck Banjo, in a direct segue from #5: “Whoa, Mama”. You then have only m.3-6 to make the change to the Standard 5-String, which should already have been tuned to D-flat.
Retuning: at the end of the song, during applause, quickly set the capo on the Standard 5-String Banjo at 2nd fret and retune 5th string to A.
Errors in iPad App: for “Firmer Hand”, the tuning should be Ab, Db, Ab, Db, Eb. All of the chords (except Fm) are missing “flat symbols (D should read Db, etc).
#7: A Man’s Gotta Do
Retuning: the Banjo book is tacet for m.4-19. During this time you can quickly set the capo on the Standard 5-String Banjo at 2nd fret and retune 5th string to A (if you did not have time to do it at the end of the previous number).
Errors in Score
- m.20-35 are shown as rests. This is incorrect. They should show slash marks with alternating C and D chords changing every two measures for the whole 16 measures (2 measures C, then 2 measures D, 4 times).
- m.126: the last note should be D, not D#.
Error in iPad App: the tuning should be a D A D E.
#7A: Bright Star Underscore, #8: Asheville,
Retuning: at the end of the song, quickly remove the capo. 5th string remains tuned to A. You have only the applause segue and 4 measures of the next number to make this adjustment.
Error in iPad App: for “Asheville” the tuning should be a D A D E.
#9: Picnic Dance
Retuning: at the end of the song, during applause, quickly retune 5th string to G, then switch to Acoustic Guitar.
Error in iPad App: in the very last measure, the final D chord fingering should be “2 2 4”, not “4 1 2”.
During the Intermisssion
Long-Neck Banjo: set capo at 3rd fret and tune 5th string to A (effective tuning a D G B D).
Standard 5-String Banjo: tuning remains at g C G C D.
Instrument: Long-Neck Banjo
Retuning: At the end of the number, quickly retune the 5th string to G, leaving the capo at the 3rd fret. Switch quickly to the Standard 5-String Banjo.
This tune is a reprise of #9: “Picnic Dance”, but this time it’s played on the Long-Neck Banjo, instead of the Standard 5-String, which means the fingerings are slightly different. The Long-Neck is used to avoid a super-fast re-tuning of the Standard 5-String during the applause segue into #14A.
Errors in Score: most of the score is slash marks and chord symbols, marked as “rolls” but should dbe played as a “boom chuck” rhythm.
#14A: Opening: Act 2
Errors in Score: m.1-12 (preprise of “I Had A Vision”) looks like a guitar part and was probably pasted in from the Guitar score. This may or may not be an error, but I suggest leaving the Banjo tacet for m.1-12, playing the solo at m.13-20 only.
#15: Sun’s Gonna Shine
Retuning: at the end of the number, set the capo at the 2nd fret of the Standard 5-String, and retune the 5th string to A (effective tuning a D A D E), then switch to Acoustic Guitar for several numbers.
Error in Score: m.11: the C notes should be D.
#19: Always Will
Error in iPad App: the tuning should be a D A D E.
#19A: Scene Change
Retuning: at the end of this short piece, remove the capo from the Standard 5-String Banjo, and retune the 5th string to G (effective tuning g C G C D).
Instrument: Long-Neck Banjo. Capo 3rd fret.
Retuning during the song:
- Play m.1-60 in g D G B D tuning.
- m.61-65: drop out and retune the 5th string to A (effective tuning a D G B D).
- m.80-95: ad lib picking avoiding the 5th string (key of E).
- m.95-115: ad lib picking and strumming, in the key of F (now OK to use the 5th string).
#25: Exit Music
Instrument: Long-Neck Banjo. Capo 3rd fret.
The Long-Neck remains in it’s a D G B D tuning for this song. Avoid the 5th string for the rolls in m.64-71 (key of E).
Errors In Score: most of the slash mark measures should be played as “boom chuck” rhythm, not rolls. I recommend listening to “Entr’acte” on the Broadway Cast Recording for guidance, and/or watching one of the many YouTube videos of this number being performed on Broadway.
LINKS – OTHER ARTICLES ON THIS SITE
Decoding the Bright Star Banjo Book
LINKS – EXTERNAL
Bright Star Wikipedia page
Steve Martin homepage
Edie Brickell homepage
Bennett Sullivan (Broadway banjo player) homepage
Bright Star Licensing information (TRW)
Bright Star: Banjo iPad app
Broadway cast recording CD and YouTube playlist
2016 Bright Star reunion concert – YouTube video
Bennett Sullivan / Steve Martin 2016 video interview
Taproot Theatre, Seattle