Banjo versus mandolin

Banjo versus mandolin

I prefer the sound of the mandolin, but in a big session it can’t be heard and I use an old Vega banjo instead. If it’s a toss-up in terms of playing the mandolin or the banjo I would play what I thought would sound best depending on the tune. I wonder if there’s a general preference among other musicians; which would you rather listen to, all other things being equal?

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A banjo sounds like a banjo and a mandolin sounds like a mandolin. (Hello Captain Obvious). Either one works for me. I have no real preference. I’d rather listen to the one played by the more musical player. Usually I choose for myself the the one that’s the more portable and less cumbersome in the given situation. My banjo and it’s case weigh almost 25 pounds. That or, if I know another banjo player will be there I’m more likely to choose a mandolin. Most often I’ll play flute unless the session gets "over-tootie". In any case it’s not something I overthink.

Anything, and I do mean anything, is better than when I have to haul out my first instrument (a couple of times a week)…double bass!

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I love a banjo. I just had this conversation last week with our banjo player, who’s a bit of a masochist about his chosen instrument and whom I’m not sure I actually convinced I do love the banjo. (I’m a fiddler.) Guitars and mandolins I could take or leave - personal preference, not a value statement - but when the banjo comes in *zing* in the bottom octave I really get a lift.

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@tdrury!
I have been a member of different music forums for about 15 years (bluegrass, country, ITM) and it is the first time I have ever read a post starting with "I love a banjo"🙂 Brilliant! I agree.. (well..love is a strong sentiment, I’ll moderate myself to I like a banjo"

Ketil

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For ITM sessions banjo is by far the best, unless you do not want others to hear what you are playing 🙂

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Horses for courses. Banjos are OK if the session is just wall to wall jigs and reels at break-neck speed, but mandolin works better if things are a bit slower and more expressive. Both should shut the feck up when it comes to waltzes and slow airs. There is nothing big or clever about playing triplets whenever you come across a minim, and nothing worse than hearing the fiddles and flutes draw out a long whistful note with something that sounds like a machine gun going off in the background.

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I, too, am all about the banjo 🙂

m.d.

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I like the single strings of the tenor banjo. I have an octave mandolin, which is a lot of fun for backing, but if I am going to play the tune, my choice is the tenor banjo.

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"For ITM sessions banjo is by far the best, unless you do not want others to hear what you are playing"

A good mandolin is more than capable of cutting through in a moderate-sized session. But anyway, surely the point of playing in a session is more about blending in than standing out. In bigger sessions, this attitude is essential if you want to produce music of any quality - if everyone is trying to ‘be heard’, you end up with noise.

"Both should shut the feck up when it comes to waltzes and slow airs."

Mark M - Perhaps we have different ideas on how a waltz should be played but, as far as I am concerned, they are dance tunes and can be played on mandolin or banjo as well as any other kind of dance tune. If you are thinking of other kinds of 3/4 tunes, like O’Carolan’s compositions (many of which are in triple time), they can also be done justice - it’s all about knowing how to exploit the dynamic range of your instrument.

As for slow airs *proper*, I lean towards the view that they are best played solo, so that the player is free to play with the phrasing and timing as their muse inspires them. So banjo and mandolin players should, indeed, shut the feck up if someone else starts a slow air. But banjo and mandolin players should have no less entitlement to play them than any fiddler or piper. Admittedly, I have never yet heard a slow air played tastefully on tenor banjo, but I have no reason to doubt that there are some that can do it - and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve tremolo. I have been known to play the occasional slow air on mandolin (not that I would claim it was ‘tasteful’ - but I try).

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At my old session I could barely hear my mandolin over the other instruments, and got sore muscles from picking so hard. Now I play an open back 17 fret, and am at a comfortable volume (though I still had to practice the stretch to the 7th fret a bunch). I did like slow airs on the mandolin, I thought the tremolo sounded rather nice.

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Banjo has the power to overwhelm most sessions. It’s a pity, because the banjo players who use this power inappropriately have given the banjo and all other banjo players a bad name.

In good hands the banjo can be a great asset at a session. As the mandolin’s so quiet, it sadly doesn’t matter too much who plays it or how. I’ve heard great mandolinists almost breaking their hands trying to be heard at busy sessions. Such a shame.

As for good taste - I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s often in short supply, whatever instrument’s being played. Trouble is, there’s no single constructive definition of good taste. Everyone seems to have their own. Thank goodness.

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CMO, don’t worry, I do know what a waltz is. In this instance the important difference between a waltz and a jig is nothing to do with dancing, it is that the waltz is in 3/4, so you tend to get runs of crochets and minims instead of endless quavers. Even if you were looking at it from a dancing point of view, jigs and reels are music to skip to,k a waltz is music to glide about the floor to, and I’ve never seen a banjo do gliding. The banjo has very little sustain, so each ‘plink’ dies out before the end of the note, giving stacatto where the tune should be legato. Mandolins, with their slightly longer sustain can sometimes make it work, but they still come unstuck on the long notes.

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"I have never yet heard a slow air played tastefully on tenor banjo"

There’s a line somewhere between 1) being as open-minded as you can, and 2) recognizing that all tools have their strengths and weaknesses, and often one tool will be a better choice for a particular task than another.

I’m not saying it wouldn’t be possible to play a slow air tastefully on tenor banjo; especially with guitar accompaniment to fill in the empty spaces I think it would be possible for a fine player to make it work. But, s/he’d have to *make* it work. Not the same as on fiddle or pipes, where the instrument really "wants" to play those kinds of tunes.

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"I have never yet heard a slow air played tastefully on tenor banjo"
I was thinking to myself that it was probably impossible, until I thought of lute music…..

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Hi there - here’s my 5 pennies’ worth:

If searching for something in between a banjo and mandolin; maybe try looking into 8-string banjos, banjolins, or maybe even mandolas and mandocellos for a different sound?

I think that a good bit of banjo is always fun to bounce some fiddling off, against. The staccato sound, to which Mark refers above, can really beautifully syncopate with and/or accent the legato instruments.

If a Mandolin is that quiet, maybe get a nice little pickup (if the pertinent session allows provision for amplification?).

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@Mark M:
"The banjo has very little sustain, so each ‘plink’ dies out before the end of the note, giving staccato where the tune should be legato."

Agreed. I was once asked if I played any airs, and explained why. The note is dead once I play it. Tremolo isn’t the same thing as a "proper" long note, and that’s why legato instruments will always win.

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Re the post one or two above:

the mandolin banjo is not "in between" the banjo and the mandolin, as anyone who’s suffered an evening in the company of one will testify. They’re way out beyond tenor banjos in session-wrecking potential. Avoid.

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I find that each song asks for its own instrument sound. There are banjo songs,mandolin songs, octave mandolin songs, guitar songs, and bodhran songs. Each instrument brings out the best flavor when used in the right place.

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"… crochets and minims instead of endless quavers … The banjo has very little sustain, so each ‘plink’ dies out before the end of the note…"

What the banjo has is plenty of volume; it also has the potential to be silent, if you don’t play it at all. Ergo, it has the full dynamic range in between. If you utilise its full dynamic range, you can give the effect of ‘extending’ a note by repeating it at a gentler volume. You can also compensate for the lack of sustain with subtle melodic variations. I don’t know how many people play it that way, but it can be done. I am not arguing for the banjo’s place in the traditional music instrument hierarchy - it does not have the same status as pipes, flute or fiddle and nor should it - but it can be played in a way that is sympathetic to those instruments.

A the risk of sounding like a space cadet, I am very much of the view that the music that comes out of an instrument is dependent on what the player *intends*. This is not to say that musicians (including myself, no doubt) are not sometimes deluded as to what their playing sounds like. But the best musicians are not artistically hampered by the technical limitations of their instruments.

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Volume and sustain are not the same thing. Playing a note repeatedly like a machine gun and playing a long note are not the same thing. And if you can find me a banjo player who can play a minim and then slur it gracefully into the next note, as is very often needed to play a waltz as written, (and to allow people to dance a waltz to it) then I’ll believe that a banjo can play a waltz. Until then I’ll continue to believe that they should shut the feck up during waltzes.

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"I am very much of the view that the music that comes out of an instrument is dependent on what the player *intends*."

That’s very true, but at the same time you have to accept that every instrument has it’s limitations: there are things it is good for and other things it is hopeless at. That’s why we have so many different instruments - if one instrument was good for everything we wouldn’t need anything else.

There is some great banjo music (at high mach numbers) that I wouldn’t dream of ruining by trying to join in on fiddle. Banjo players should accept that their instrument has limitations at the other end of the speed spectrum. Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should.

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I think mandolin is more versatile as far as crossing differentmusical eras and musical types goes. It can play medieval music, bluegrass, some rock and of course Irish. If youre having volume trouble try using a oval hole if you aren’t using one already. Resanator mandolins are loud but they are butt ugly.

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"If youre having volume trouble try using a oval hole if you aren’t using one already. "

Of course many other factors come into play in determining the volume of an instrument, but I’ve personally found that most instruments with F-holes tend to cut through and project more than oval holes. I prefer oval hole instruments (all of mine are oval hole), but I can’t say I’ve noticed them necessarily being louder.

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"Playing a note repeatedly like a machine gun and playing a long note are not the same thing."

…except that machine guns don’t have dynamics (in the musical sense). I agree, it is not the *same thing*, but done sensitively, it can sound just as musical.

"I think mandolin is more versatile as far as crossing different musical eras and musical types goes."

I agree with the-wise-troll on this - at least, that it is *easier* to adapt to different genres on mandolin than on tenor banjo.

There is something of a dichotomy here between the good workman (which I try to be) not blaming his tools and the good workman choosing the best tool for the job. Personally, I rarely play banjo (although I own one) because my own limitations on it do not allow me to get the music I want out of it - mandolin is my main instrument (although I have been playing more fiddle of late). But if I happen to have the banjo in hand when someone plays a waltz, I might have a stab, for the craic. (Incidentally, I find it much harder to play slow tunes on fiddle at present, because long notes require maintaining a good tone throughout. It seems I have a long way to go before I can legitimately call myself a ‘good workman’.)

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CreadurMawnOrganig… wise as well as modest.

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Personally, i really like the sound of a banjo. I’ve never had the experience of an overpowering banjo player…

Mandolin is OK.

I just really like the sound of banjos during a reel. They really bring a little definition to the melody.

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If you’re not sure of a tune … a mandolin won’t annoy as many people if you screw it up at a session. With a banjo, you’d better know that tune … or risk those snarky looks.

Some tunes work better with a banjo; some with a mandolin. Many cross over and sound great on a banjo or mandolin.

A banjo might come in handy if a fight breaks out. 🙂

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What if you have one of those metal resonator mandolins? are those sturdy enough for a fight?
Personally I prefer mandolin, the sound is a little more pleasing to my ears. I do also like the sound of a banjo though. Maybe one day I’ll get myself one of them. It’s either a banjo or an octave mandolin next, I think.

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"What if you have one of those metal resonator mandolins?"

I’m not a great fan of them myself - they sound just a bit too much like biscuit (cookie) tins for my liking. That said, I have only ever tried a cheap one - I’m told that my opinion would change instantly if I ever got to play a genuine National. But I’m not convinced.

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I prefer to use the banjo in sessions just for the fact it can be heard, but I prefer the mandolin for slow airs and waltzes.The banjo just doesn’t sound the same for these, no matter who plays it. I have heard various good banjo players playing waltzes and slow airs and they would sound much better played on mandolin.

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Margaret Barry used to play waltzes and airs on banjo, (1960s) and not subtly! I thought for a while that it was somewhat distasteful, but later understood that it matched her tradition and personality, and seemed OK.

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I’m not sure I understand your question, the banjo and mandolin have very little in common other than tuning and there are at least two other instruments that share that tuning. It is a lot easier to hear a banjo in a big session but I usually want to hear the player and not the instrument for reasons mentioned above.

I think the confusion lies in the misconception that a mandolin is a little tenor banjo and should be played as such. While they share some technical similarities, they are entirely different instruments and at intermediate and higher levels are played in different manners. They sound different and are different and that should be kept in mind.

Other folk styles have no problems with mandolins playing slower tunes including waltzes and the tremolo is part of the musical heritage of the mandolin. In Irish music, while the mandolin has been around as long as the GDAE tuned banjo, it has been neglected from a technical standpoint until recently. If you listen to Martin Howley (who was first a banjo player) and compare him to Marla Fibish (who played mandolin first) you can see how different they sound from one another and how much technical range the mandolin has.

Martin plays The Good Wife:
http://youtu.be/KM7w5ahMoeY


Marla plays three tunes including a waltz:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCimo_ko-mY


Mike Keyes
http://itmbanjo.blogspot.com