Irish Tenor Banjo - What Is the Standard?

by David Bandrowski

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

The 19-fret tenor banjo is the standard by most Irish tenor banjoists. When I asked this question to the banjoists of We Banjo 3 they all said the 19-fret is the standard and that the 17-fret is good for children and people with small hands because it has a shorter scale.


Resonator vs Openback

Resonator tenor banjos are used most often by professional Irish banjoists as it gives the banjo a crisper tone and can cut more especially when playing in a large ensemble or jam. Openbacks are good in that they are lighter in weight and have generally a warmer tone which some players may prefer.

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. 

To learn more about how to get started playing the banjo, see our free guide here!


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