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Thread: Irish tenor banjo

  1. #1

    Default Irish tenor banjo

    Hey all, wanting to get a 17 fret Irish tenor / plectrum banjo, probably with a resonator. Has anyone recently done such a journey? My initial search the other night turned up very few. Wondering if I need to go over the pond for one.
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  2. #2
    Registered User Steve Baker's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    There are a couple of the at Elderly Instruments.
    https://www.elderly.com/products/gol...sh-tenor-banjo

  3. #3
    Registered User Steve Baker's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    And one more from my local shop,Down Home Guitars: https://downhomeguitars.com/instrume...ple-resonator/

  4. #4

    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    +1 on the Gold Tone Cripple Creek IT. I have the 19 fret model and it is quite good.

  5. #5
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Pre-war Vega Tubaphones are instruments of high quality, and still cost less than the imports, which are of lesser quality. Budget for a set up and possibly some loose or missing binding. A Vega Little Wonder is also a good instrument. It will have a mellower tone than a Tubaphone. A Whyte Laydie will be brighter, and will cost more. Look at styles M, N, R, and the "Professional" models.

    If you widen your search to tenor banjos and look for instruments with a scale length of 21" or less, you will find many more instruments to choose from.

    "Irish tenor" is a modern marketing term for new tenor banjos with short scales and short necks. Many thousands of high quality instruments with those specifications were made in the early 20th century by many competent builders, but they were simply called tenor banjos. Vega and Bacon were a couple of consistently good builders. Some players favor Bacon and Day Silver Bell banjos. A Silver Bell will cost a bit more. Check the scale length on either brand before you buy.

    Gibson "trap door" banjos are also interesting, but will not have the power of a Vega.

    I had a Vega style M that was a very good banjo. I bought it to fix up and re-sell. I probably should have kept it. I do have a trap door Gibson. It's not as strong as the Vega was, but it's enough banjo for me, and I like the oddity of the trap door design. Both of these banjos can be found for $600 - $800 in decent condition.

    And no, you don't have to go over the pond to find a good short scale tenor unless you just want to.
    Last edited by rcc56; Jun-10-2020 at 1:09pm.

  6. #6
    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    My pal Dan restores old tenor banjos and sets them up for Irish playing, he only has one banjo listed for sale at the moment but always has a few on the workbench so check his site regularly to see what he's got:

    https://tradbanjo.com

    There's also a Facebook group "Irish Tenor Banjo Marketplace" where folks list tenor banjos they're selling. If you do a search for tenor banjos over on Reverb there's quite a few going there, both new and used.
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  8. #7
    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    I just went through this journey. I talked to a lot of builders and music stores. If you want a more modern instrument you basically have to order one, get lucky and find a used one (Big Thanks Jill! ), or import one. If a vintage banjo is ok then there are a lot of options but you want to buy from a trustworthy source that has repaired and set up the instrument correctly. I've had a 17 fret Vega Little Wonder for years. First the head needed replaced, then the tuners needed work, then the tuners needed work again, then I bought new tuners but they will require new holes being drilled.....you get the idea....

    Next, why 17 fret? As was mentioned above the "Irish tenor banjo" is a bit of a misnomer. Seems that term was invented by a certain banjo company in order to sell banjos to mandolin players. The overwhelming majority of Irish tenor players use a 19 fret banjo. I didn't realize the difference in tone until I got a 19 fret 22.125" scale banjo. WOW what a difference! Took a few days to adjust to the slightly longer scale but it's SO much easier than long scale mando family instruments. The better tone and increase in volume is definitely worth a bit of a stretch.

    Lastly, what's your budget? That could help us steer you in the right direction. I probably looked at every tenor banjo available online over the last few months....
    PS -- The tenor banjo is a ridiculous amount of fun and I only wish I had gotten a decent one sooner!

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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Sooner or later, every banjo player will have to change a head.
    It's pretty easy. Instructions can be found in many places.
    The biggest essentials are buying a head of the correct size, and being smart enough to know when it is tight enough.
    There are plenty of instructions available on tightening a head also.

    Smakula Fretted Instruments is a wonderful source for banjo heads and such. They will help you size it correctly. The also sell tuners that fit the old banjos with little to no drilling required.

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  12. #9
    Registered User Rob Ross's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    I literally had a 1925 Bacon tenor banjo handed to me by a neighbor who was moving and said he didn't want it and would I be interested in taking it off his hands?! I had it run through a guitar shop to get the missing parts replaced and set up for Irish GDAE tuning. When I realized the frets needed work, I went to the local Nechville banjo factory here in Minneapolis and they were able to put in new frets (and a Nechville wrist rest) and I now have the most fun toy I could imagine. I can go from fiddle to mando to banjo on Irish tunes to get such different, but complementary sounds. I felt guilty about enjoying myself so much, so I went back across the street and paid my neighbor what I calculated the banjo was worth, just so I wouldn't hate myself for years. Since then, I've seen a bunch of tenors go by in Craigslist; there's a nice looking old Vega out there, with case, for $800. If it's in good shape, that appears to be an honest price. With the economy tanking and people looking for cash, I'm sure more will come on the market, so watch Craigslist and garage sales in your area. Caveat, most will probably need a good setup along with parts replacements and repairs.
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    Paul Wheeler
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Deering makes both 17- and 19-fret tenor banjos. I was lucky to snap up a used one last year, a 17-fret one which spent a terrific New Hampshire spring afternoon with me today. -- Paul
    He joyously felt himself idling, an unreflective mood in which water was water, sky was sky, breeze was breeze. He knew it couldn't last. -- Thomas McGuane, "Nothing but Blue Skies"

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  15. #11

    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Actually, I prefer the 17 fret, shorter scale. I have found that there are a lot of great banjos being made by people you have never even heard of, and probably never will. But many of them will make tenors, and will customize. Banjo Hangout, if you scout around, will lead you to a lot of fine instrument makers.

    Banjo tuners have come a long way, but the best ones I have experienced are made by Bill Rickard's shop in Canada. His shop also makes fine banjos.

    As for maintenance, lots easier than mandolins and even guitars. Pisgah has a couple of great videos on setting bridges and there are innumerable videos on replacing heads. Head tension and head materials have a big influence on tone. Lots to learn.
    There's nothing better than first-hand experience.

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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    I agree with Shaun Garrity above, having also taken the tenor banjo journey recently and finally deciding that 19 frets works better. There's something about the longer scale that fits with the GDAE tuning.

    I started with a good, contemporary 17 fret and could never tweak it enough to get the intonation and tone to my satisfaction. I spent a lot of time trying different bridges, heads and string gauges.

    I never thought I could get used to the longer 19 fret scale, but am finally very comfortable with it after 6 months of pracitce. It just takes some time and you have to decide if you are going to use "cello" fingering (using your pinkie for the fifth fret) or use your ring finger for the fifth fret as you would on a mandolin. I see great players using both techniques.

    My 17 fret has a scale length of 19-3/4" and my vintage Paramount Leader has 23". Quite a difference. I also have a 19 fret Ome Celtic model (which I love) that has a scale length of 22". I find this to be the most comfortable and has all the tone you need and intones correctly. I guess you could say it's a compromise length that doesn't sacrifice any tone or intonation for certain amount increased playability.

    Having said all that, have your heard Angelina Carberry play? She has a 17 fret Clareen banjo that sounds superb. I don't know how she gets such incredible tone out of a 17 fret instrument.

    https://youtu.be/Z07VrjbXFCQ

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  19. #13

    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Regarding the desire for a 17 fret, I have a 22 3/4" OM that is really nice, but the fingering is tough for me. I have had a 20" OM, and wasn't happy with it, or the sound of the european octaves (17 - 19").

    As far as price, the Deering Artisan Goodtime with and without resonator is the limit for me. Might even trade my Crump OM for the right instrument. I will want to play anything before I take this jump, so I do next expect this journey to be a quick one.

    Thanks all for chiming in and giving me a lot of information to help me in my hunt.
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    I also prefer the shorter scales on tenor banjos and octave mandolins.
    Buy what best fits you.

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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    I had a Flatiron OM a long time ago (I don't know what the scale was) and it was really tough to play. The 19 fret tenor banjos usually have such easy action (single strings instead of double courses) that they are usually much easier to play. Like you say, you need to try before you buy. I will add I've had extensive playing time on a Goodtime 5 string and really liked it. I know it's not a tenor, but my impression is Goodtimes in general are really nicely made and a great value.

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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    There are other choices available for the same amount of money that are better quality instruments than the Goodtimes.
    These include some of the more modest Vega, Bacon, and other old tenors, properly serviced; and yes, some of the modern imports, such as the Gold Tone IT-17 and IT-19.

  23. #17
    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill Foss View Post

    Having said all that, have your heard Angelina Carberry play? She has a 17 fret Clareen banjo that sounds superb. I don't know how she gets such incredible tone out of a 17 fret instrument.

    https://youtu.be/Z07VrjbXFCQ
    Just for the nerdy banjo spotters out there, Angelina plays a 17 fret Oakwood tenor banjo, and most recently I've seen clips of her playing a Dave Boyle 17 fret tenor. Don't think she's ever had a Clareen (I used to take lessons from her back home).
    2018 Girouard Concert oval A
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  25. #18
    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Looking at the Deering site it appears the 17 fret Goodtimes have a 21" scale. So I'd say that's definitely a plus. I just don't think that 20" scales and shorter work very well for GDAE tuning. I had a 20" Weber octave for awhile and finally got it to sound acceptable by using mandola strings on it that were 14-49. But the 22" banjo is SO much easier to play. I had a Flatiron OM/zouk as well. Those suckers are 23.5" with a 1 7/16" nut width.....way too much for my hands and ability.

    If your budget allows I would buy something like this LONG before buying a Goodtime: https://www.retrofret.com/product.asp?ProductID=8763
    Last edited by sgarrity; Jun-13-2020 at 6:50pm.

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  27. #19

    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Iím guessing the head and the head tension on Angelinaís banjo has a lot to do with her tone.

    My luthier sold a friend of mine a beautiful old Vega tenor with a wooden press-on resonator that he set up in GDAE. Itís a great instrument. Most banjos have flat fretboards, so they can be a bit cantankerous unless weíll set up.
    There's nothing better than first-hand experience.

  28. #20
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    You can find a style M for considerably less money.

    There's also a couple of style N's [Little Wonder tone ring] on the well known banjo forum, one at a very nice price.

    Be advised that one of the style M's [Tubaphone tone ring] currently listed on that forum is mis-identified-- a style M should have a "bracket band", which is a metal band that runs around the rim and holds the shoes.

    Style F: Simple brass rod tone ring, no bracket band, student model
    Style M: Tubaphone tone ring, bracket band, professional grade model
    Style N: Little Wonder tone ring, no bracket band, mid-grade model
    Style R: Whyte Laydie tone ring, bracket band, professional grade model
    Style X: Tubaphone tone ring, bracket band, fancy inlays, professional grade model

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  30. #21
    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    You're definitely not going to get a "deal" at RetroFret but they do have some cool stuff.

    Multiple Vegas here for under to around $1k: http://www.guitarandbanjo.com/inventory

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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by Jill McAuley View Post
    Just for the nerdy banjo spotters out there, Angelina plays a 17 fret Oakwood tenor banjo, and most recently I've seen clips of her playing a Dave Boyle 17 fret tenor. Don't think she's ever had a Clareen (I used to take lessons from her back home).
    You are so right. I've just been yearning for a Clareen lately and it was on my mind when I was typing! You are so lucky to have had a lesson!

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  33. #23
    Purveyor of Sunshine sgarrity's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Another interesting option just hit the classifieds.

  34. #24

    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Thanks again all, all this advice really helped me in my search. I went with a less expensive older Vega that I think I will be happy with. I have a line on a Vega Style N for a great price, picking it up tomorrow.

    Gary
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  35. #25
    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: Irish tenor banjo

    Quote Originally Posted by Gary Leonard View Post
    Thanks again all, all this advice really helped me in my search. I went with a less expensive older Vega that I think I will be happy with. I have a line on a Vega Style N for a great price, picking it up tomorrow.

    Gary
    Awesome! Assuming you went with a 17 fret model re: strings you'll want to use heavier gauge strings on a 17 fret tenor vs. a 19 fret tenor. When I played 17 fret tenor banjos I usually went with 40w/30w/20w/12 - some folks will go heavier than that but those gauges always worked well for me.
    2018 Girouard Concert oval A
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