Thinking about an Irish tenor banjo

  1. Steve-o
    Greetings all,
    Forgive my complete ignorance, and please educate me a bit on the tenor banjo. I am a mandolin and octave mandolin player interested in Irish sessions and possibly acquiring a tenor banjo to supplement my mandolins.

    First question: Does the TB have more history and more use in ITM than mandolins or OMs?

    Second question: How often is the TB used to play rhythm in a session, if at all?

    Third question: Would the Goldtone TS-250At archtop be a good starter instrument?
  2. Jill McAuley
    Jill McAuley
    First question: Tenor banjo came to prominence in ITM largely thanks to Barney McKenna of the Dubliners (who actually originally wanted a mandolin but his folks got him a banjo instead, so the story goes...), so it doesn't necessarily have more history than mandolins or OM's - all three are relatively new to the tradition. You'd likely find more tenor banjos at sessions vs. mandolins purely because the tenor has the upper hand as regards volume.

    Second question: I've never heard tenor banjo used to play rhythm in a session.

    Third question: I've never played a Goldtone meself, but they do get good feedback over at the Banjohangout. That said, checking out the asking price for them, you could probably pick up a quite decent vintage banjo in that price range (Vega, Paramount, Bacon & Day) from somewhere like Bernunzios. Depends on whether you prefer new vs. vintage etc etc.
  3. Ten_or_Fifths
    Also consider scale length (17 fret is slightly easier to play melody fingering, 19 theoretically has better intonation though a longer stretch - you might be used to it with the OM), archtop vs. flat have a different sound (my preference would be archtop for ITM). Also resonator vs. open back affects the overall volume. Do you intend to use GDAE or CGDA (with or without capo at the 2nd fret) tuning (your octave mandolin strings might be useful if you want to do GDAE). Enda Scahill's Irish Banjo Tutor book covers a lot of the melody techniques, and Mike Keyes has some good short tutorial videos.

    I ended up with an inexpensive open-backed friction-tuned 17 fret vintage instrument hoping it would hold its value while I learn, but consider the tuners carefully if you go this route. In the end, the Goldtone you mention is a pretty safe choice. If you can listen to a sample of the instrument or see it in person to compare against a player whose sound you like, I would recommend doing so. Different banjos (and different setups) have pretty different sounds (head, tonering, bridge, tuning, capo, etc, etc). What sold me on the one I ultimately chose was it had the sound I was looking for. Fortunately in Irish music there's no one ideal sound for banjos. I personally like the vintage Paramount Style A/B/C's that seem to be priced nicely lately, but don't get a plectrum neck by mistake - it would be pretty long for Irish music.

    You could also probably get by with the mandolin or the OM in a session while you make your decision. If you learn a song on one, you can play it on the others. Good luck, it's a lot of fun.
  4. Steve-o
    Thanks for the info Jill and Ten_or_Fifths. Our local sessions are large with plenty o' fiddles, so I am gravitating toward the tenor banjo for it's volume capabilities. In this regard, I assume the resonator style is louder, but wonder if there are other tonal differences. I'm also curious how different the archtop vs flat would sound. Looks like a pilgrimage to Elderly is in order.

    RE: GDAE vs CGDA, is there a preponderance of one over the other? I'd likely go GDAE to match my OM tuning.

    You also mention the different scale lengths. Similar to OMs, I would expect the longer scale length would have more sustain, correct? I understand the tradeoff in playability.
  5. Jill McAuley
    Jill McAuley
    The bulk of well known tenor banjo players in trad music play 19 fret instruments. The perception of 17 fret tenors being "more ideal" is a fallacy. That said, I play 17 fret tenors, but that's primarily because I've come across good deals on them - my most recent "dream banjo" was an OME 19 fret tenor that I played at Gryphon Strings, but alas, it was WAY out of my price range. . Also, the majority of trad players will be using GDAE tuning on their banjos - there are exceptions: Gerry O'Connor and John Carty being the most notable ones, but otherwise GDAE is pretty much the standard.
  6. Steve-o
    Thanks for your feedback and advice Jill and Ten_or_Fifths. I decided from the start to play as many tenor banjos as I can, but really had zero knowledge about the instrument and its role in sessions. I'll post some impressions after a trip to Elderly sometime in the next few weeks. I have also decided to try out a local session for the first time with my OM. Happy Holidays,
  7. Martin Whitehead
    Martin Whitehead
    Steve, do NOT get a plectrum banjo for ITM. I made that mistake for my first banjo (fortunately it was inexpensive and I was able to sell it). A plectrum has about a 27" scale and 22 frets ~ way too long for most people to play the uptempo ITM tunes. Plectrum banjo is traditionally used for jazz and dixieland and is frequently used for rhythm, as well as melodies.

    I have a 17 fret Goldtone IT250F archtop that I really like, but I don't have adquate experience to necessarily recommend it over other banjos. You will find that a 17 fret scale means the low G will frequently need fine tuning ~ just something about the tension being so loose on a short scale.

    You will also find that you need to fret lightly on TB, esp. on the G and D strings. If you "push" on them they will strech, with the fret acting as a fulcrum. Bertram Henze ( gave me some good advice ~ "your fingers should dance on the strings." I would add "lightly" to that advice, esp. on the G and D strings.

    The stretching strings issue is one reason it is tricky to use TB for chords ~ the instrument is picky about left hand technique and chords are easily stretched out of tune. GDAE an octave below mando is a pretty low tension tuning so its easy to push too hard or bend a string out of tune. I stick with two finger open chords as much as I can if I want to play backup or sing.

    I just remembered that you mentioned that you play OM. Perhaps the OM has similar issues; I've never played an OM, so I don't know.

    Hope that's helpful.
  8. Steve-o
    Thanks for the warning. I am hungry for the education, since I am starting at Square 1. I also appreciate the "stretching strings" caution. This phenomenon can happen on the OM, so I am no stranger to it. I am guessing that the string tension/gauges would be similar, but don't know at this point. I hope to play a few to get more familiar with tone and playability differences. You mention playing chords. What music genres do you play and use chords? It sounds like this is seldom done with ITM.
  9. John Kelly
    John Kelly
    Steve, I am a frequent poster here and over on the SAW group and have recently taken to the tenor as an addition to my mandolin, octave and guitar. I would agree with all that has been said by all the contributors here about tenors, tuning and tensions. I have recently acquired and renovated a lovely old Vega (1928 model) which I refretted, added a new head to and generally cleaned up and brought back to playable condition. I am NOT a banjo expert, either on the playing or on the technical aspects of their construction but am bery plaeased with my Vega and the way it plays now. As has been said, it is a melody instrument very predominantly in Irish music and I have rarely heard chords played on one during sessions. I try chords at times behind some songs, even trying finger-picking and banjo rolls behind the song and often in Scottish tunes, but as the others have said, I am more likely to try to pick out the tunes.
    There is a site with good info at and a good UK one at Andy gave me good help and advice when I was refurbishing my Vega and sold me suitable head and strings and advised on fret sizes.
    All the best, and let us know how things go.
  10. bmac
    I would tend to agree with Martin saying that the tenor tuned GDAE is easy to play with a background of mandolin playing. I have a tenor and use GDAE tuning. I use it primarily for blues. (My wife uses CGDA tuning on her tenor) However I would suggest Googleing "plectrum banjo" and see what comes up... There are some really fine Plectrum players out there who may just dazzle you. for instance:

    I would also suggest watching some of the Eddie Davis stuff on this site... While he plays tenor there is some fine plectrum playing on a few of these videos.

    Good luck in your search for a suitable banjo.

    Bart McNeil
  11. Martin Whitehead
    Martin Whitehead
    Steve, in reply to your qustion, I would not use chording for ITM, only other genres like old time, bluegrass, fiddle tunes ~ genres where everyone chords while one person take the "break," which doesn't really describe ITM.

    I second Bart on the virtuosity that can be achieved on the plectrum. There are some fine examples on YouTube, including some old, old recordings of some kingpins of the PB.
  12. bmac
    I found John Kelly's comments intersting:

    "... As has been said, it is a melody instrument very predominantly in Irish music and I have rarely heard chords played on one during sessions. I try chords at times behind some songs, even trying finger-picking and banjo rolls behind the song and often in Scottish tunes, but as the others have said, I am more likely to try to pick out the tunes."

    For whatever reason I do the same thing... I know (or can learn) the chords but am inclined to play melody or more likely counter melody, single string and occasionally double stops. Always unspoken in the back of my mind is the thought that for me... simpler is better. My primary interest is blues and I am not as tuned in to Irish as I would like to be. But I am working at it, and I greatly admire some of those Irish players I see/hear on Youtube.

    Bart McNeil
  13. Jill McAuley
    Jill McAuley
    In trad music unless you're playing chords on a backing instrument (acoustic guitar/bouzouki/OM sometimes) the rest of the instruments, tenor banjo included, play the melody in unison, not counter melodies. I'm sure there are exceptions in some of the more loosely structured sessions but by and large, if you sat down at a session and began playing counter melodies on your tenor, you'd get more than a few odd looks from the other players. Just my tuppence worth...
  14. Ten_or_Fifths
    Bernunzios and Jake Wildwood (among others) have good sound samples on their Youtube channels of various types of instruments and setups. Once you have an idea of what to listen for, definitely go to a nice store (I think you mentioned Elderly) to try it out. Check first what's in stock if you have to drive a way.

    Also, your post got me thinking and I found a promising link to an accompaniment workshop
  15. Steve-o
    Hey thanks everyone! Been a while since I checked in. I appreciate the advice and will have to check out the links you all gave. Thanks again and Merry Christmas!
  16. John Kelly
    John Kelly
    Ten_or_Fifths, that is a great link you have posted re accompaniment in Celtic music. Lots of good stuff for everybody, from simple rhythmic ideas through to theory on modes and scales. Just the thing for a bit of Christmas reading while the usual garbage is served up, rehashed, on our televisions.

    By the way, Merry Christmas and a great New Year, everybody!
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