Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?


Firstly, please excuse my ignorance on all things ITM.

As a guitarist I enjoy accompanying tunes (from the safety of my armchair). I play in standard, drop d, and dadgad. This is all fine. However, I also like to play the tunes. I would like to have an instrument that I could dedicate to playing tunes on, which would mean that I would not have to keep retuning my only guitar to play specific tunes.

Basically, my question is this:

Coming from a guitar background which is better/more fun to play tunes on…..a banjo….or a mandolin?

Starter Mandolins seem to be cheaper to aquire??

Go raibh mile a maith agaibh!!

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Mandolin without a doubt, but watch out - some have very narrow fingerboards.
Banjo is great in a session but can get a bit tiresome when you’re home alone.

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Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

The banjo and mandolin are entirely two different instruments requiring separate techniques and styles so the “fun” aspect or “which is better” is really a matter of preference. While they share a tuning (but are an octave apart), the mandolin is a double coursed instrument with a fair amount of sustain, a short (and crowded) fingerboard, and only moderate volume in a session while the banjo is loud, has a long scale that begs to be played with all four fingers, and has a specific technique attributed to it by a multitude of players that relies on the stacatto triplet and other methods that complement the sound of the banjo.

There is not an established mandolin style, which means that the mandolin needs to be explored a lot more within ITM. There are now emerging a range of banjo styles that work well with ITM, but the instrument still has a lot of exploration left too.

That being said, I agree with Bren, but for different reasons.

Starting with a mandolin allows you to play in sessions a little faster, mostly because no one will slag you for having a mandolin and you can play without your mistakes being broadcast all over the venue since no one will hear you anyway (unless it is a very small session that lacks accordions, banjos, and multiple fiddles.) In addition you can learn the tunes by watching the fiddlers and use the same fingering.

Learning to play the mandolin or banjo offers about the same level of challenge to a guitar player because of the different tuning. So difficulty is not an issue.

Since you live in Ireland, the chances of finding an accomplished banjo instructor are higher than finding an equally accomplished mandolin instructor. On the other hand, a reasonably priced new mandolin (an Asian Rim laminated body mandolin) will be cheaper than a reasonably priced new banjo (asian rim.) So cost might dictate your choice.

If you want to make the transition to banjo from mandolin, you are a little ahead of the game if you have been playing mandolin. I advocate that you learn to play using a guitar/four finger style if you want to make that transition (but there are others who disagree with me) at some point as I think it is a more efficient way to play the instrument and that you will become a better musician faster by going this route.

The mandolin is also more portable if that is a factor.

I’ve played mandolin for much longer than I have played the Irish tenor banjo but I prefer the banjo in most situations. When I go to Ireland, however, I bring a mandolin for some of the reasons I mentioned above (portability, volume, etc.) and have a great time.

MIke Keyes

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

a mandolin is a more appreciated instrument than a banjoe

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Good advice above, I found that once I started playing mandolin in session with UPs, accordion, banjos, fiddle and whistles I couldn’t hear what I was playing, let alone others hearing my mistakes. I’ve added a mandolin banjo to my arsenal which I use for sessions and use my mandolin for practising at home. Same fingerboard, more volume with the mandolin banjo, domestic peace. Andy Perkins was very helpful:

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

You bought your mandolin banjo from andybanjo did you lurcher john? are you pleased with it . . I’ve been thinking about upgrading from a mandolin to a b/m for most of the reasons discussed above.

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Iv’e spoken to Andy Perkins about banjo’s and your right he makes the effort to be helpful . . by the way does your mand/banjo stay in tune Rip ?

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

I took up mandolin after many years of guitar. Soon afterward I developed an interest in ITM. The mandolin’s soft volume was a blessing in sessions, because I felt I was in the background and if I made a mistake it wouldn’t be too conspicuous. I also liked the portability of instrument. A downside is that mandolin frets can be kind of close together for someone with middle-size or larger hands.

After about five years of mandolin, I happened on to tenor banjo quite by accident. I’d never even remotely considered playing the instrument. But I was immediately hooked by its grittiness, its substance, its flavor, and what I can only describe as the instrument’s kind of in-your-face personality. I love it! It’s true, you can’t hide with a banjo the way you can with a mandolin. The volume is just part of it. It’s a bit like being naked, everyone will be able to notice the whole shebang! So a little confidence would not hurt the banjoist who wants to play with others.

I still play my mandolin, but more at home, not in sessions. I think perhaps I appreciate its subtlety more after taking on the banjo. They’re both enjoyable, really, and I wouldn’t want to give either up.

Also note—cost need not be a deterrent, really, since there are companies that make good entry-level instruments in both cases (Mid-Missouri for mandolins & Deering’s Goodtime line for banjos are two that come to mind).

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Ireland78 - my suggestion for what its worth - get yourself a nice shortscale tenor banjo. The relatively low string tension (compared to guitar) will make it feel very light to play and the 21“ scale makes fingering that much easier than longer banjos.

The fact that banjo can be played loud doesn’t mean that you have to do so, but loudness will remain as an option that other corresponedents seem to suggest wouldn’t be available with the mandolin.

Played well, the mandolin’s a fine instrument, but inexpensive mandolins don’t sound good to me when they’re pushed to the limits of their performance trying to be heard at noisy sessions, and they seem to break a lot of strings whilst doing so.

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Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Here comes my $0.02…

Mandolins are always so accepted in sessions. Some people are downright hostile to it (as being “not really a traditional instrument”) and might view you as some wayward bluegrasser (just don’t chop, whatever you do!).

That said, the mandolin is still my prefered instrument and I still play one at sessions because I think they can be beautiful addition to the sound (as long as you’re not being completely buried under an avalanch of boxes and fiddles)… not in-your-face like a banjo, but supporting and flowing just underneath the louder instruments. And, like Mike, I can back off on it on tunes that still need more work and play to my own ear without really devistating the music. Very handy. If you bear down on the right mandolin, it CAN produce a good deal of volume (though it will never cut through like a banjo).

I would respectfully disagree with the expert Mr. Keyes in the suggested fingering. I started learning melodies on a bouzouki in the one-finger-per-fret style, but the long scale length absolutely killed me, so I picked up a mandolin as a better option. The narrow fret width practically begs for the fiddle-fingering style (as does the ability to jump to the B-note on the E-string easily), so I relearned the tunes this way. This fingering style is also handy if your fingers are pretty beefy… you’ve got more room to maneuver. I’ve since added a banjo to the arsenal and I haven’t had much difficulty with this fingering… just make sure you get a short scale banjo. Besides, someday you might want to start on the fiddle…

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Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

I’ve made this same journey, and I’ll echo the above comments. A nice mandolin is very sweet in the right hands, and works very well for waltzes and airs where a banjo might not. You can also play non-chopping, even arpeggiated parts on some tunes if you don’t want to carry the melody all the time. The reach required to play a mandolin is nowhere as much as even a short-scale banjo. Mandolins are also very small and easy to carry, whereas a good banjo with a bronze tone ring can be very heavy. However, a banjo can really lift and dominate a tune, and if the action is set up well, it requires less fretting pressure than a mandolin. I like them both, but they are very different instruments. Give ’em a try and see which one speaks the loudest to you.

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

I started out playing ITM on mandolin, and as stated in previous posts I, too, couldn’t hear myself in a session of moderate size. So, I worked on developing a strong right hand attack … that helped some. But, even so the mandolin just gets lost in a session most of the time … it’s great for solo, duet etc. playing.

But, another issue for me was the lack of recorded “reference” material for ITM on mando (this was 20 odd years or so ago). If you’re doing some learning by ear it’s nice, especially early on, to hear tunes played on the instrument you are playing … there’s a 1 to 1 correspondence with what you’re trying to learn. If you listen to pipers and fiddle players their ornaments are different, and you won’t be able to recreate this sound … and sometimes that makes learning the tune a bit more difficult.

So what’s the magical answer … the tenor banjo of course! You will be able to hear yourself in sessions. It is not difficult, once you’ve learned to play, to “back off” a bit so you don’t overrun the music. And, there’s tons of ITM music recorded on tenor banjo … want a “reference” for a particular tune, you can probably find a banjo version of it! So, what do you want to do … play in sessions or small ensembles? Do you want to have a wealth of recorded material available for reference? Are you thick-skinned with a wry sense of humor and a penchant for the irony in life … then the tenor banjo is the logical choice.


Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Thanks folks!! All the replies have been very informative and helpful.

It sounds like I should spoil myself and get a mando and a tenor banjo……I’m sure the wife said to me that I need to treat myself more often 🙂

From what I have read on this site, it looks like fretted instruments get a rough time of it at sessions. The only acceptable one being the inaudible mandolin.

Well you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Thanks again.

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Stewpot. I’m really pleased with the mandolin banjo, the fretboard is very slightly smaller than my mandolin which makes the fourth finger stretch easier. The sound is definitely banjo. It’s built like a tank and keeps in tune.

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?


Of course getting both is what I did too. I like the andybanjo connection for those of you in GB/Ireland because he is both interested and knowledgeable and will get you started on the right path.

Cheap mandolins can be setup well and sound decent. The problem is that few people (none of them in China) know how to do the setup although it is not that hard once you study and learn a little from or other sources. The same is true with banjos except the source is for good ideas.

I am a little leery of banjo-mandolins because of the difficulty of making one sound like a mandolin and not take paint off of the walls. I have mine tuned like a “lead banjo” which is a short piccolo banjo that has the mandolin scale but only four strings instead of double courses. It also saves on strings. A Banjomandolin is not a mandolin, it has none of the tonal qualities imbued by the various woods and construction of a mandolin. It is a piccolo or piccolino banjo that is mostly high frequencies and has none of the depth of a 19 fret banjo. In addition it is in the violin range which is an octave above the tenor banjo.

The upshot is that it is much more responsive to good and bad setup and since bad setup is the norm, the instrument can be very annoying and not very musical, especially if your technique is not optimal.

On the other hand, I have heard good Banjomandolin playing (Dave Grisman, for example) so it can be done <G>

BTW, I don’t advocate the four finger style for mandolins. The scale is way too short for that and your fingers don’t fit well. You can really cheat with a mandolin, especially if you have big hands and most players I know in the BG field only use two positions to play all over the neck. You can’t do that with any banjo.

MIke Keyes

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Cheap mandolins can certainly be set up properly and many can sound very good indeed - its just that the sound quality vanishes as the player pushes the instrument to its modest upper limit of volume. IMHO that’s why they struggle to be heard at busy sessions.

I’ve realised that when a mandolin banjo appears at a session its time to put my own instrument away. I’ll reconsider if Dave Grisman drops in for a tune.

4-finger or “cello” fingering works fine on 17 fret banjo for people with stubby fingers. The best tenor players I’ve heard seem to play mixture of 3 and 4 finger, plus guitar style, just to get enough fingers to the right place in the right order at the right time.

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Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

That’s a piccolo banjo or lead banjo. Apparently these were used in banjo bands at one time. I just saw a neck for a 1925 Gibson Mastertone that had a similar style. There can’t be too many of them out there (maybe one and the pot is now a five-string banjo somewhere else.)

If you have a mandolin banjo, you might try putting on only single strings to see what it sounds like. I have had fairly good results with my Weymann MB setting it up that way. I used a conventional tenor bridge and tightened the head. I was able to use slightly heavier strings because I only had half the number of strings on it and I think the sound is more complex that way.

Mike Keyes

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

One more option is a resonator mandolin (a mandolin with a brass dobro like body). It has the cut of a banjo & the sustain of a mandolin, so you can hear yourself around accordions and unlike a banjomandolin it has enough subtlety to be played quietly. Mine is a Johnson with a 15“ scale which is a bit longer than my mandolin. It is made in China and is pretty cheap. If you want a look at one


Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

I’d go with the Banjo
I think good tight banjo playing is mighty, gives a real solidity to the sound in a nice session.
I always get a great buzz playing with kevin griffin.
But its got to be pretty good…as they ’re not exactly quiet.
I have fond & fuzzy memories of shareing a flat with the late Johnny Keenan & some other “characters” for a year or more in Galway city,
I love a good Banjo!

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Johnson brand insturments, banjo or mandolin are very good value for money, though may need setup. Roger B above is right, be brave and bold if you chose a banjo.

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

Washburn and Oscar Schmidt are nice brands and can vary in cost from inexpensive to very expensive.I found 2 places that provide a nice selection on both.They are and

Good Luck!

Re: Playing melody - banjo or mandolin?

I’ve fallen into a time warp, from 2021 back to when this thread originated 15 years ago.

The question of mandolin volume gave me flashbacks to a … dulcimer.

Camped often at Virginia bluegrass festivals back in the ’80s and ’90s. One year, a fellow came out of the blue to jam with the experts, armed with a mountain dulcimer. He stood when he played, strap around his neck, axe hanging over his ample belly, frets facing outward rather than upward. He was a music master, too, who played smoking leads and improvs alongside fiddlers and banjos.

So … how in the world could anyone hear his instrument? Simple!

His dulcimer had a pickup and cable feeding a small “Marshall” amp clipped to his belt. Ran on a 9V battery and did not distort the dulcimer’s natural sound. You could hear it easily over fiddles and resonator banjos.

Love mandolin yet want more punch? Follow his example.

Oh, would amplification incite howls of “Heresy!” amongst purists?

Anyone starting a row about a tiny electric gizmo at a session should equally oppose electronic tuners, electronic woodworking tools in lutheries, musicians driving electric cars, and who knows what else. Oh, please, don’t go there … 😉