When it comes to Irish tenor banjo, it is hard to define exactly what type of banjo that is. Yes, it is a four string tenor banjo. But is it a 17-fret or a 19-fret? Does it have a resonator or is it open back? How is it tuned - standard tenor tuning C, G, D, A or Irish tuning G, D, A, E? After spending years playing and talking to Irish tenor banjo players, going to Irish sessions, even traveling to Ireland to watch and listen, I have determined that there is no exact standard although there are some generalizations.
What Is the Role Of the Banjo In Irish Music?
The banjo’s role when playing Irish music is generally to play the melodies note for note. It is not to be used as a chordal instrument. Many of the Irish instrumental tunes are fiddle tunes featuring very strong melodic lines and the tenor banjoist is expected to play these lines. This general role will help you understand why to choose a specific type of tenor banjo over another and how to tune it.
17-Fret vs. 19-Fret Banjos
On this point I would definitely say the 17-fret is more common, but by no means does that make it the standard. Using a 17-fret tenor banjo makes the scale of the instrument shorter. This shorter scale makes it easier to play those quick fiddle tunes which often use many triplets in the phrases. This scale is closer to that of a violin scale (although still quite a ways away), so you can use much of the same fingering a fiddle player might use.
19-fret tenor banjos are used quite often among professional players. It gives you two extra notes - which can be important in some tunes. The drawback is that it makes the scale of the instrument larger so it is even more removed from that of a violin scale and using the same fingering as a fiddle player is more difficult.
Resonator vs Openback
This is probably the hardest point to answer. I would lean towards saying an openback tenor banjo is used more often by Irish players but it is hard to say. Using an openback banjo allows your banjo’s tone to blend into the band more. Think of this the same way that old time 5-string clawhammer players generally use an openback banjo. It also gives the banjo a warmer tone. Saying this, many Irish players do use resonator tenor banjos. With a resonator you get more brightness and volume. This will allow you to cut through the other instruments during a session.
How to tune the Irish Tenor Banjo
This last point is probably the easiest one to say is the most common. Here, we are deciding between the standard tenor banjo tuning of C, G, D, A or the Irish tenor banjo tuning of G, D, A, E. Both of these tunings are tuned if fifths, just like the classical string family is. The standard tenor banjo tuning is exactly the same as the viola and the Irish tenor banjo tuning is exactly the same as a violin/mandolin, but an octave below.
The Irish tenor tuning (G, D, A, E) today is the standard and uses a special set of Irish tenor banjo strings. The famous Irish banjo player Barney McKenna is most often credited with making this tuning popular. This tuning makes sense since Irish players are playing a lot of fiddle tunes, and it being the same tuning as a fiddle (but an octave below) makes the tunes layout on the fingerboard much better. It also would give you the same range (an octave below) so every note played on the fiddle is available in this tuning.
Standard tenor tuning (C, G, D, A) will give the banjo a brighter tone because it is higher pitched and there is more tension on the strings. Before Barney McKenna made the Irish tenor tuning popular, this was the standard tuning used. Personally, I do not know any Irish tenor banjo players that use this tuning. This tuning is the standard tuning when playing jazz.
Bringing It Together
If you haven’t listened to much Irish tenor banjo playing, I urge you to do so. Recordings are a great way to start, but seeing it played live is really the way to go. If there’s a good Irish pub in your town, there’s a good chance there is an Irish music session there sometime and I urge you to go. If you are a 5-string banjo player, bring your 5-string and sit in. Talk to the tenor banjo players and ask them what they prefer to use regarding tuning, 17 or 19 fret, resonator or openback - and why, and make your own decision as to what works for you.