So You Think You Know About the Banjo In Irish Traditional Music?: Part 2
It is a common belief that the Irish Tenor Banjo (4 strings, tuned in 5ths) is somehow different from a Tenor Banjo, which was introduced around 1915 in America and was also known as the "Tango Banjo". The tenor banjo generally had 19 frets; however, shorter 17-fret necks were available.
According to none other than the acknowledged expert on Irish Banjo, Dr. Mick Maloney ( see The Banjo: A Short History by Mick Maloney), in the 15 or 20 years prior to the introduction of the Tenor Banjo, many banjo players, including Irish players, used either a 5-string banjo with the 5th string removed or its commercialized form, the Plectrum Banjo. At some point early on, tuning these former 5-string banjos or Plectrum banjos in 5ths became common practice for melodic playing, regardless of the nationality of the player.
See and hear Mick Maloney play tenor banjo with two fiddles and guitar
The Tenor Banjo in Irish Traditional Music From About 1915 to the 1960s
During this period, tenor banjos used in Irish Traditional music were generally tuned to the standard c g d' a' tenor banjo tuning (exactly like a viola, a 5th lower than the fiddle) or d a e' b', the later of which could also be accomplished by a capo on the second fret. The point is that tenor banjos in Irish Traditional music were tuned much higher than what one is accustomed to today.
The 1960s and Later
According to Mick Maloney, it was the popularity of the traditional music group, the Dubliners, that ultimately led to the different "Irish" tuning (G d a e') for tenor banjos, which is an octave lower than the fiddle. Barney McKenna, the tenor banjo player of The Dubliners, tuned his banjo in G d a e'. Maloney argues that it was the great popularity of The Dubliners AND the popularity of McKenna himself that led the new generation of tenor banjo players in Irish Traditional music to string their banjos with heavier gauge strings in the G d a e' octave tuning.
See and hear Barney McKenna on Tenor Banjo
By the 1980s, the octave tuning had become the de facto tuning for playing Irish Traditional music; however, Maloney and others are quick to point out that there are still "old-school" Irish tenor banjo players who favor the old high-pitched tuning.
The Short (17 fret) Neck Story
The heavier-gauge strings required for the G d a e' tuning are more difficult to play fast, plain and simple. In order to enhance ease of playing complex melodies fast, many, but certainly not all, tenor banjo players in Irish Traditional music adopted the practice of tuning their 19 fret banjos a whole step lower (F C g d) and then placing a capo on the second fret, resulting in G d a e'.
This practice of placing a capo on the second fret of a 19 fret standard tenor banjo, in effect, creates a 17 fret short neck. Observing this common practice, used by all of the tenor banjo players I have ever played with (including my brother, Bob Rickert), some clever person (or committee) recently came up with the idea of a 17 fret necked tenor banjo tuned to G d a e' and calling it the "Irish Tenor Banjo." Bottom line is that the short-neck "Irish Tenor Banjo" is clever marketing idea of the banjo manufacturers designed to sell tenor banjos. The fact is that the 17 fret tenor banjo is simply a short-scale tenor banjo. There is nothing particularly Irish about it, although many Irish Traditional players use short-scale tenor banjos, including Mick Maloney on occassion.
There are similar stories behind other instruments, such as the "Irish Bouzouki", "Irish Cittern" and the "Irish Octave Mandolin". I shall tackle the origins of these other instruments with fake pedigrees at some point in the future.