View Full Version : Tenor Guitar vs Tenor Banjo

Bernie Daniel
Sep-08-2009, 8:07am
Just a quick comment and an set of following questions.

I have recently acquired both a tenor guitar and tenor bajno -- they are both vintage ear Gibsons and, I would suggest, more or less of compable quality i.e., a 1936 TG-00 versus a 1929 TB-3. I have both tuned CGDA.

However, I have found that while I am making pretty good progress in translating my mandolin family techniques to the guitar -- the banjo is a different story. It seems to be to be a much harder and more demanding instrument (for me) to play.

I find myself making clams -- not because I hit the wrong note but rather because I miss or overpick, or just "tangle up" in string on the banjo.

Both have a 23 inch scale (584 mm) scale but the there seems to be considerably less tension on the banjo strings (0.009; 0.012; 0.022; 0.028) then the guitar (0.010; 0.014; 0.022; 0.032) so the banjo strings feel "floppier".

Therefore, they give way to the pick more easily and as a result I seem to hangup or get caught on them breaking my pattern or the less tension leads to my touching other strings producing unwanted sounds.

On the advice of folks like Jill McAuley, Barbara Schlutz and Mike Keyes I have switched to a much thinner pick (circa 0.5 to 0.63 mm) for the banjo (vesus 1.5 mm for the guitar) but I still not there on the TB! :)

Others find this to be the case?

Jill McAuley
Sep-08-2009, 10:54am
My example is coming from the reverse perspective of yours, but one thing I noticed when I made the tenor banjo to mandolin crossover was that I found the mandolin more challenging - the reasons I identified were these:

-I was trying to just transfer tenor banjo techniques directly to the mandolin, when I would've been better served approaching it as what it is - an instrument in it's own right. Lots of techniques I use in my tenor playing just don't translate to the mandolin as well. I try to be aware of that in my playing but it's something I'm still working on. Interestingly, when I got the chance to play a tenor guitar back in the spring (a beautiful Fletcher Tenortone) I at first had some difficulty until I realized the mistake I was making - I was just playing it like it was a tenor banjo, again falling into the trap of not approaching it in it's own right. I then started thinking about the tenor guitar playing of John Carty, and inspired by that I started playing the Tenortone in a manner that took advantage of it's guitar qualities and it was not only easier to play, it also sounded a million times better in my hands than previously!

--Another trap I fell into at first was assuming that my level of proficiency on the mandolin was automatically going to be relatively on a par with my tenor banjo playing. So if I could play a reel at speed on my banjo I would attempt the same degree of speed on the mandolin from the get-go. I could kind of get away with it, but there were mistakes (mostly from my right hand/picking) peppered throughout it. When I realized that I wasn't getting thru any of the tunes I knew cleanly then I copped on and slowed things way, way down and stopped assuming that everything from my skill set was instantly transferable.


Bernie Daniel
Sep-08-2009, 1:17pm
Thanks Jill, very analytical suggestions and intuitively they seem on target and worth heeding.

Thinking about your comments more -- I started out on the frets playing 6-string guitar (probably 3 or 4 years before touching a mandolin) and in fact the as I think about it the strings of tenor guitar do respond very much like my J-50 6-string. So I am probably getting carry over benefits from that insturment even though I don't play it much anymore.

My only banjo experience was three finger picking on a 5-string --so that does not related in any meaningful way to the piking a tenor banjo I guess.

Something else I just realized -- in the past the times when I have picked around on a tenor banjo to plink around on they have always been 17-fret insturments whereas the Gibson I have now is the longer scale 19-fret. I wonder the extra frets changes the playing character of the insturment?

Sep-08-2009, 5:02pm
Bernie -- the "extra frets" have two different effects. First, the scale length on a 19-fret banjo is generally longer than that on a 17-fret banjo, making LH stretches a bit more difficult. Second, the shorter scale length on the 17-fret means that, holding string gauges and tuning the same, the string tension on the 17-fret will be lower (looser, floppier) than on a 19-fret. Some folks use (slightly) heavier-gauge strings on shorter-scale instruments to compensate.

Sep-08-2009, 5:11pm
I've goofed around on all 3- mandolin, tenor guitar, tenor banjo. The main difference is in the right hand I feel, getting used to the different string tensions takes a lot of work.

I string my 19-fret TB 11p/18w/30w/42w or therabouts. The TG gets heavier gauges, and I tune all 3 of them to GDAE. I use a .54 pick on the TB, a .72 on the TG, and these days a .95-1mm on the mandolin. It varies considerably with each instrument what will sound right.

The trick to your TB might be trying lighter picks (or try GDAE tuning which has a little more tension to it). It's certainly a different picking technique too- a thinner pick hitting the strings at more of an angle is most common, though I still am mostly perpendicular and playing more mandolin-like.

Sep-08-2009, 6:09pm
Aside from scale-length differences, and adjusting string tension with varying string gauges, what I would say here is that the banjo is just that way: it's a loud instrument accentuating percussive elements; thus, it is an instrument requiring great precision and is less forgiving than mandos and guitars. It amplifies your sound, so it will amplify your mistakes: the same fluffed notes that don't play havoc on the mando and guitar sound noticeably more incorrect on the stark palette of the banjo. But being inherently loud, it does not require a heavy attack and therefore will permit use of a thin plectrum--no need to use a heavy pick with TB/PB. In this regard, the banjo requires a very precise approach and, having adjusted to it, will make you a better player on the other instruments. Maintain a supple wrist, practice legato..

Charles E.
Sep-08-2009, 7:48pm
Bernie, I will second catmandu2. I play mandolin, tenor guitar and tenor banjo and I have to approach each one differently. Because the banjo responce is so quick and amplified I think of it like an electric guitar. I use the same pick as I do for the other instruments ( heavy jazz ) but use a much lighter touch on the string. I play mostly old time on the banjo so I incorporate slurs, slides and brush strokes to simulate clawhammer playing, something I cant do on the other two instruments. It is also great for playing Wacka-Wacka rhythm in a stringband setting.

Bernie Daniel
Sep-09-2009, 6:19am
I appreciate all the comments. At least it confirms my intial impressions that that two instruments are indeed different picking experiences.

The idea of the thinner pick and more delicate touch seem to be the dominant take home. Indeed I tried the TB-3 for an hour again last night and I can already tell that keeping these ideas in mind are going to help.

Here are some picks I have been trying. The Clayton 0.63 mm was Jill's idea. Drilling the holes to improve the grip -- a la Wegen -- was mine. The jury is still out on that idea -- it does confer more stability for grip but makes the pick more "flimsy" also.

I'm still working on the ideal pick for me.

Thanks again :)

Jill McAuley
Sep-09-2009, 10:14am
You might try one of the light grey Jim Dunlop .60mm nylon picks - grip wise they're good because the shoulder end is textured. They have less pick noise than the Claytons, but aren't quite as snappy sounding to my ears. When I was starting out they were the only pick I could use as the flex in them felt just right. Once I'd been playing for a few months I moved onto the Claytons - I think because my technique was better at that stage that I was able to get the benefits from them. I had initially tried a Clayton when I first got my banjo and had grip issues, but those cleared up with improved technique later on down the line.


Bernie Daniel
Sep-09-2009, 10:05pm
Jill: You might try one of the light grey Jim Dunlop .60mm nylon picks - grip wise they're good because the shoulder end is textured.

Thanks I think I've seen those recently -- they might be very much like that black on in the photo I took?