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Don Rickert Musician Shop

More on Irish Tenor Banjo

Posted by Don Rickert on

This is the one of a series of articles by Dr. Don Rickert on the banjo in Irish Traditional Music republished here by Don Rickert Musician Shop (D. Rickert Musical Instruments).

Mike Keyes' guest posting on tenor banjo in Irish Traditional Music generated all sorts of feedback through just about every channel (emails, posting on my Facebook wall, etc.) except direct comments here.

A lot of the commentary on Michael's points of tenor banjo in Irish traditional music was of the type "How dare he say that there is no such thing as an Irish Tenor Banjo!" Mike's point seemed, in many cases, to get lost in many players' lack of information about the tenor banjo. The tenor banjo was a American derivation in the early 20th Century of the existing American invention, the 5-string banjo (which, itself, started out as a 4 string instrument well over a century earlier). The tenor banjo was conceived by its manufacturers, including Gibson and Martin, as a banjo version of the tenor guitar...primarily a chord-playing instrument for Jazz.

Irish Traditional Music is a living tradition and the tenor banjo was quickly picked up by musicians in Ireland. At some point early on, it became a melody instrument. The practice of using heavier strings and tuning the tenor banjo so that it played an octave lower than a fiddle, often by capoing on the second fret to enhance ease of playing, emerged. I am sure that Michael knows when and who thought of the idea, but I do not. In any case, this use of a regular tenor banjo (typically 19 frets), restrung and tuned to an octave lower than the fiddle when capoed at the second fret, and used primarily for melody playing, came to be known as an "Irish Tenor Banjo". In recent years, some manucturers shortened the necks of their tenor banjos, making it unnecessary to use a capo. They call these short neck instruments "Irish Tenor Banjos."

Back to Michael's point. Retuning the tenor banjo in a manner prevalently used for a certain style of music does not make it another instrument...it's still a tenor banjo. By analogy, even though fiddles are tuned and played differently for Gypsy, Klezmer, Irish, Scottish and Old-Time music, they are all just fiddles!

Bottom line: A tenor banjo, at least the standard longer-neck 19 fret tenor, is a tenor banjo...period. We are left with the problem of what to call the current crop of short-neck (17 frets) "Irish Tenor Banjos"? How about just calling them "Short Scale Tenor Banjos" or "17-fret Tenor Banjos"?

  • Irish
  • traditional
  • music
  • tenor banjo
  • Irish tenor banjo
  • Michael Keyes