Tenor Banjo - The Most Versatile Instrument?

by Barry Hunn

The concept of “the most versatile banjo” or even “the most versatile instrument” is probably just as absurd as a painter claiming that blue is the “most versatile color”.  Sometimes artists who are enraptured with their instrument sing (no pun intended) it’s praises with the passion and vigor of youthful love and proclaim one type of banjo or other to be the best, most versatile, etc.

A most wonderful description came to me from a thoughtful artist who said, “The most versatile banjo is between the ears of the player”.   This is probably the most accurate statement about this argument.

Having said all of that, let’s take a look at a “very versatile” banjo: the Tenor.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the banjo was one of the most popular instruments.   The four string plectrum banjo was played in jazz bands with horns, drums and reed instruments.  The plectrum banjo was adapted from the five string banjo, using the same scale length, (distance from nut to bridge) and strummed with a flat pick called a plectrum.

Violinists, and mandolinists wanted to get into this popular new music phenomenon which paid well because everyone needed a banjo in the band to appeal to the audience of the day.

So, banjo makers built banjos that were tuned like a viola.  Violinists could adapt their left hand (for right handed artists) to the fingering of this new banjo and augment their income playing the banjo.  Tuned C,G,D,A which is the same as a viola, the mandolin player and the violin/viola player can quickly adapt to the banjo.

The strings are tuned in the musical intervals called “fifths”.

This means when you start on the lowest string C and go up the C scale, C,D,E,F,G,  the fifth note you land on is G, which is the next string up from C.  Go up the G scale in the same way, G,A,B,C,D and end on the fifth note D and you have landed on the second string.  The same is true for the D string.  Go up five notes in the D scale and you end up on A.   The strings are tuned five notes apart and that is why they are said to be tuned in “fifths”.

However, some guitarists got tenor banjos, and tuned them like the first four strings of the guitar; D,G,B,E.   This allowed the guitarist to play the banjo instantly so they could play in the big dance bands and make the big bucks.

The recent interest in Irish music has sparked yet another tenor banjo variant with yet another tuning.  Irish players started tuning their banjos to one octave below a mandolin or violin but with the same notes; G,D,A,E.  This tuning allows a mandolin player to play a tenor banjo with the exact same chords and fingerings of mandolin, but just an octave lower.  The low, deep sound of the “Irish tuned" tenor banjo is beautiful.  The first string E is the same note as a guitar and the low string G is lower than the guitar A string but when played on a banjo head, it’s low ringing sound must be heard to be believed…there is nothing like it.

Tenor banjos are made with 17 fret short scale necks and 19 fret necks.  Generally, Dixieland jazz players play on 19 fret tenors and many (but not all) Irish music players enjoy the 17 fret banjos.  Dixieland players play combinations of chords and interweave melody notes in while playing the chords.  The 19 fret neck gives them a little more physical and musical room to hold chords and play the melodies.  While some great Irish players love 19 fret tenors, many “pub players” love the shorter 17 fret scale tenor because the frets are closer together.  The fret closeness can be helpful for fingering fast passages and the fast note flurries (like triplets) that are common in Irish fiddle tunes.

In fact one of the latest incarnations of the “Irish Tenor Banjo” is Indie Rock with bands like “The Drop Kick Murphys”.  Perfectly placing the tenor banjo in yet another different musical style, this band is again expanding the musical repertoire of this incredible instrument. We have recently come out with a line of Goodtime and Deering Dropkick Murphys Tenor Banjos. Check out all of the Dropkick Murphys tenor banjos here... 

Here at Deering, we have even built 17 fret tenor banjos for ukulele players who tuned their tenor banjo like a tenor ukulele in the “my dog has fleas” tuning.  The bright, bouncing uke tuning is perfectly at home on a banjo pot and with either nylon or very light steel strings gives the ukulele artist a very different, new and boldly dynamic instrument when played in the uke styles.

So, here is a banjo that can be tuned for:

  • The violinist/ violist
  • The mandolinist
  • The guitarist
  • The ukeist… only kidding.. the uke player

It is and has been popular for Dixieland jazz, Irish and Celtic music, Indie rock, folk music, punk, world music, broadway musicals, polka bands, oompa bands in Germany and some brilliant Irish musicians have even manipulated their technique on this amazing four string instrument to play hard driving bluegrass, and it’s fabulous!

Are other banjos just as versatile? The answer is a resounding yes.  But historically, the tenor banjo has been reaching out to musicians of every musical style and background for generations of musicians.

While not seen and heard as often as the five string banjo is today, we here at Deering are seeing growing interest in the tenor banjo. And as the guitar players, violinists, mandolinists and uke players catch on to the versatile “tune ability” of this short necked four string banjo, I predict we will see a huge resurgence in this timeless, versatile and un-restricted instrument.

The dynamic and versatile Tenor banjo … pick it up! Check out all of our tenor banjos here...

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