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Thread: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

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    Default Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Hello friends, I am writing from Madrid, Spain. After a couple of years learning guitar, I decided to increase my musical knowledge with the mandolin, since I have always really liked Irish folk music. After a year learning the rudiments of the mandolin, I learned that there is a banjo with the same four courses and tuning as the mandolin, the tenor banjo. It was a truly magical experience to hold an instrument in my hands for the first time and know how to play it. I have decided to buy a banjo for it and there will be three instruments with which I will practice. But my question is the following: I really like Bluegrass and I would gladly expand my musical knowledge towards that side, but… would I buy a tenor banjo or a 5-string one? It is very tempting to buy a banjo that I already know how to play, like the tenor ... but I do not know if I will put a ceiling on it, I will limit my possibilities for bluegrass, since I see that it is usually played with one of five strings and the three picks on the fingers. So the tuning and the way of playing would be different and learning from scratch ... I would like to know your expert opinion ...
    Thank you

  2. #2
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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Not an expert, but my opinion is 5 string banjos for bluegrass, played primarily in the Scruggs or melodic style. The difference in Monroe's band with Stringbean and Earl Scruggs is a paradigm shift.
    Play it like you mean it

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Yeah.… Bill is correct. For any kind of 'grass a five string banjo is the ticket. The two main banjo starter books are

    https://www.amazon.com/Earl-Scruggs-5-String-Banjo/dp/B000B6FB66/ref=sr_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Scruggs+Book&qid=1589 544324&s=musical-instruments&sr=1-2-catcorr[/URL]

    and

    https://www.amazon.com/Tony-Trischka...sr=1-2-catcorr

    The four string will be an instrument to play Irish fiddle tunes on..... R/
    I love hanging out with mandolin nerds . . . . . Thanks peeps ...

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Perhaps you could consider jumping into Bluegrass with the mandolin before making a major shift in instruments to the five string banjo, finger picks, etc. Tenor banjo for Irish music is a lot of fun.

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Thank you very much friends for your enriching comments. If I finally decide to buy a 5 string banjo I will follow the advice of Bill and Usuallypickin ... although most likely I will listen to Parker and not mess with me with so much tuning and new chords and just play Irish folk with tenor banjo and mandolin and start getting to know bluegrass with mandolin ... two same instruments and tunings for two different kinds of music… We will see in the future, if I can become a good interpreter...

    Thanks one more time!

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    I wonder if you got a 5 string banjo, could you tune strings 1,2,3,4 to a tenor banjo tuning, and tune the 5th string to a note that would compliment the tenor banjo tuning. You'd probably get a whole new sound in a 5 string banjo compared to what the standard 5 string tuning is that we are all used to. Don't know why I'm thinking about this now, maybe "outside the box?" Probably somebody has thought of this already? Worth a try? You might break out as the new Earl Scruggs....
    John A. Karsemeyer

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Bluegrass is played on a 5-string banjo, usually with a resonator.
    Irish/Celtic is generally played on a 4-string tenor banjo.

    Two completely different types of music.
    Two completely different types of banjos.

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Quote Originally Posted by JAK View Post
    I wonder if you got a 5 string banjo, could you tune strings 1,2,3,4 to a tenor banjo tuning, and tune the 5th string to a note that would compliment the tenor banjo tuning. You'd probably get a whole new sound in a 5 string banjo compared to what the standard 5 string tuning is that we are all used to. Don't know why I'm thinking about this now, maybe "outside the box?" Probably somebody has thought of this already? Worth a try? You might break out as the new Earl Scruggs....
    Nice your opinion ‘cause I thought that too ... but I don't know if it will be getting into too much trouble. I thought to do it in the following way: to use only from 1 to 4 strings tuned GDAE and leave free or simply without using the 5th, the short one. That way, if one day in the future I want to play bluegrass using the 5 strings, I have already the proper banjo for it only changing the tuning. but to be honest don't know if I was being doctor Dr Frankenstein doing that…

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    '`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`' Jacob's Avatar
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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Bluegrass is played on 5 string banjos with resonators, usually tuned to open G, gDGBd. This is the basis of bluegrass banjo sound. It creates a guitar like fingerboard map which allows playing in a one finger to one fret mode. The lowest pitched long string has been tuned up to D to facilitate this. 19th and early 20th century players tuned gCGBd.
    Tuning the 4 long strings on a 5 string banjo to GDAE puts them in a scheme that, uncapoed, requires mandocello style stretches and fingerings. They are considerably longer than those found on tenor banjos. Mastering this technique won't yield the sound of bluegrass banjo, but it may create something entirely new. To play bluegrass, get a 5 string with a resonator and learn the rolls in Earl's book.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Just to add, the technique is much different, as it requires 3 (usually) fingerpicks, vs 1 flatpick. Mastering the rolls Jacob mentions is a whole other thing compared with a single flatpick (my take anyway).

    So it's not only the difference in the instrument, but also how you actually attack the strings.

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    '`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`' Jacob's Avatar
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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Yes, most bluegrass banjo players use a plastic thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks.

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    Last edited by Jacob; May-16-2020 at 2:04am.

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    I play mandolin and Tenor Banjo. In Ireland the tenor banjo, referred to here as simply a banjo, is tuned an octave lower than an actual banjo. However I've seen Gerry O'Connor playing Trad on a tenor tuned to CGDA, the traditional tuning. Once in a while you'll see someone playing a tenor tuned to CGDA and using a capo on the 2nd fret. Loads of advantages to doing this.

    We Banjo 3 play Irish tenor banjo and get that old time sound regularly in their playing. If that's what you are interested in definitely look into them.

    While the fingering for playing the Irish tenor banjo and mandolin are the same, the technique is different. On mandolin I use 1 finger to cover 2 frets but for banjo each finger covers one fret each. I do know people who use the mandolin way and being primarily a mandolin player I often find myself doing this too. There are other differences in how you approach each one, I believe that a good mandolin player does not automatically make a good banjo player and too many banjo players pick up the mandolin and transfer their style of play directly to the mandolin which does not work effectively either.

    I was at the Fleadh Cheoil a few years ago and saw a guy playing very jazz like chords as accompaniment to an accordion player on a range of Irish Trad tunes, great sound. I'd say if you're inventive enough you can make anything work! There's a Scottish band The Red Hot Chili Pipers who play rock on bagpipes!

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Gentlemen, it really is a privilege to be helped by you! Thank you all. I definitely think I should continue to enjoy learning mandolin and tenor banjo in Irish music, where I still have a long way to go. At the same time I will be exploring the Bluegrass that attracts me so much, but for the moment with the mandolin. And in the future, if my knowledge increases to become a good connoisseur of all this, I will launch myself to learn the totally new world of the 5-string banjo and its peculiar way of fingerpicking from scratch. I am sure you are right those who say that you can do anything with any instrument but I do not have that musical level to invent anything!
    Regards

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Dang, Jacob! I’m all for education, but what are you trying to do to us??? That’s a loooootttttttt of banjos in that video...shudder, shudder...I’m gonna go curl up in the fetal position in a dark place til it feels safe to emerge

    (Disclaimer: I actually own a 5 string banjo and really wish I were better at it, but my wife really detests the banjo. She can tolerate a little Noam or Bela, but only in short bursts, lol, so practice time is limited).

    To the OP, if you want to play BG banjo, get a 5 string and some picks and dive in, it really is a cool instrument. But, I wouldn’t try to string a 5 string like a tenor banjo unless you have Mike Marshall sized hands. Mine is a Gold Tone Cripple Creek open back that was inexpensive and just fine for learning on. Deering’s Goodtime line are high quality and relatively affordable as well, though I don’t know about availability in Spain. If you think you’ll be playing banjo with others in a BG band setting, get a model with a resonator...
    Chuck

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    As we all know, if you get a 5-string, and have it in standard G tuning for bluegrass, it will be a different experience for your brain. The brain craves novelty and learning new things. It will be somewhat hard at first, but you will get it, probably faster than you think. Learning a new instrument other than what you are used to is good for the brain regarding potential deterrent to dementia, so learning the chords and notes in the standard G tuning would be close to learning a new instrument.
    John A. Karsemeyer

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    If you go to youtube and type in "Bluegrass Tenor Banjo" there are a number of offerings.
    This is one guys approach...




    I play a custom tenor banjo tuned octave GDAE, specifically built for playing old time string band music. Using different picking techniques I can approximate a claw hammer banjo style.

    Oh, and while on youtube, check out the band "We Banjo Three" they use a tenor banjo in a style they call "Celt grass". They are killer!
    Charley

    A bunch of stuff with four strings

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Another thumbs up for We Banjo 3...some nice mandolin picking by them as well!
    Chuck

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Love that clip that Charles E. posted above. I haven't tried that tuning, but frequently pick a few tunes like Rebecca or Daybreak in Dixie on my tenor guitar tuned CGDA.

    Scott

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    I tried to tune my 5 string banjo to GDAE and CGDA. Didn't work. I'm not that great with moving from to instrument or tuning to tuning, so maybe it just didn't work for me.

    But I think there are other problems. There's the problem of what to tune the 5th string. And in addition, there's a particular voice that a banjo plays in BG. Retuning it awill vary that voice. Finally, the whole foundation of BG banjo is not melodic, it's rolls ... which contributes to the BG sound. If you're a big dog maybe others will indulge you, but if you're just a guy with a banjo, you'll get unpopular real quick. They're a very conservative bunch, those BG players. I once saw a guy bring his sax to a BG jam. I thought it was kinda cool. Nope.
    belbein

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    '`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`'`' Jacob's Avatar
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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Maybe that saxophone player should've brought some reinforcements?

    Last edited by Jacob; May-24-2020 at 1:21am.

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Closest to "bluegrass on tenor banjo" I've heard was West Coast picker Joe Maphis:



    The cut puzzles me: does he switch from tenor banjo to 5-string, or does he play the 5-string alternately with finger-style rolls, and a flat pick? Whaddaya think?
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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Joe played both five string and tenor banjo (along with anything else that had strings) I think he is switching back and forth.
    Charley

    A bunch of stuff with four strings

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Listened to the first two breaks - 5-string then tenor.. playing is typically idiomatic for each (fingerpicking, 5th-string drone vs flatpicking in "5ths tuning").

    Back when I was banjo active there was a guy known for frailing on tenor/5ths-tuned..Mirac or something IIRC. I liked it for bossa nova, but not much else..

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    Default Re: Doubt about a banjo for Bluegrass

    Mandolin Mel..

    I suggest you look at this web web site discussion group

    banjohangout

    Post your questions there.

    Also consider this book:

    https://www.amazon.com/Complete-Iris...s=books&sr=1-2

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