New to the tenor banjo

New to the tenor banjo

My new Goodtime Special 17-Fret Tenor ~ without the resonator ~ is in the house. I’m brand spankin’ new to the tenor banjo (yes, I intend to take lessons and watch good banjo players). My Irish session teacher gives lessons, I think. I’m still open to suggestions: Enda Scahill on Skype?

I’ve been playing all trad all the time on my mandolin for about six years now … will continue, but want to be heard at sessions ~ eventually. Plus, I’m looking forward to getting made fun of: to thicken my skin and build character.

Not sure about picks … my mandolin picks run from 1 mm to 1.5 mm; looks like banjos like floppier picks: 60 mm or less. I welcome any suggestions.

I’ll definitely need a strap … the banjo is much heaver than my little Gibson mandolin. I’m all ears for strap ideas.

Lastly, I reckon I’ll need a mute to keep peace in the house and possibly a capo. Not sure if the neck is radiused, so I’ll hold off on the capo until I know for sure.

Thanks in advance. I’m tickled pink I finally got a banjo!!

Re: New to the tenor banjo


I think your biggest challange will be getting used to playing ‘one finger per fret’ after being used to the ‘violin fingering’ you probably use on the mandolin. Unless you have very large hands you will have to get used to moving your hand around to use that fingering. Both methods have their pros and cons, but I found using different fingerings to play the same patterns when switching between instruments to be very difficult. I probably could have worked through that but it was messing up my mandolin playing. Ultimately my solution was to take my banjo to a friends house and leave it there.

Hopefully you will find a better solution!

Re: New to the tenor banjo

I hear you, Cheeky, and I think mandolin fingering is somewhere in between the fiddle and banjo. I’m expecting to finger hop on the banjo. I have very small hands, so I’m already doing some hopping on the mandolin. I’m using Angelina Carberry as my model. She has hands like mine and kills it on the tenor banjo. I’ll give it a year. If I’m not up to speed on the tunes I like … I’ll pass it on. It wasn’t a huge investment.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

Congrats! Plectrums are a personal choice. Some players (like John Carty) play banjo with a big heavy pick like you would use on mandolin. John plays with a really light touch and a heavy pick. I prefer a much lighter pick.

I like the .53 green nylon "Brain Picks". They give a good snap tone, and aren’t too loud. The problem that a lot of players have (especially when they’re used to playing mandolin or bouzouki) is that they overplay the banjo. On mandolin, you need to really push through the strings to create good tone. If you do that on a banjo, you’re going to blow people out. A lighter pick helps me keep from being too loud. But you may find that triplets are a different animal on the banjo than on mandolin. The strings feel smaller, because there’s only one. The tension is usually less, and the pick is floppier. So you’ll probably find yourself missing some triplets when you first start.

The mute is easy. Just stick a sock in it, so to speak. Take a hand towel or something similar, and stick it in between the coordinator rod and the head under the bridge.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

I use the same pick for mandolin and tenor banjo; a Blue Chip TP 50. It’s a heavy pick with almost no flex. I also, in a sense, use the same strings for my mandolin and banjo; Thomastik-Infeld (TI) flat-wound strings. These strings are tin coated and seem to be essentially inert - they don’t corrode and therefore last a long time.

I use the TI octave mandolin strings on my Vega 1924 large-pot, short-scale tubaphone X9 banjo. The strings have an inherently mellow sound, especially with a heavy pick, which helps to avoid the shrillness of some banjo sounds, yet, in a big session when you really need clean volume, you can push these strings very hard and the response can be substantial - significantly more than other strings I’ve used. So, you can have a fairly soft-sounding banjo sound by day, and, by night, really blast it out 🙂

The TI strings are expensive, but for every pack of octave mandolin strings, you have two sets of banjo strings. These strings are good on the mandolin too for the same reasons as the banjo, and, because they are flat-wound, a lot of the string noise that often accompanies playing can be diminished.

My two-cents. Good luck, and welcome to the banjo. It’s a drum on a stick - doing a good job with the rhythm and tempo is really important part of banjo playing because you can help drive the melody, or you can end up being cursed by your playing colleagues. Be careful to know when to play softly versus belting it out.

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Re: New to the tenor banjo

.60mm to .88 nylons are the region you want for picks.Hey I’v done skype lessons for a while now if your interested.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

I use a .50mm Tortex, as does Jody Moran, or at least he was last time I caught up with him. For straps I’d avoid anything with any metal attached as this can easily scratch the finish; all my instrument straps are plain leather. A capo can come in handy if you ever find yourself playing with an instrument pitched higher than normal. I’ve had some great "Eb" sessions.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

I like heavy picks. A 1.0 Tortex is what I use. But whatever pick you are using now on your mandolin will be fine.

The Goodtime Specials have an armrest, I believe, but if you don’t have one, get one. That metal ring leaves one heck of a mark.

For straps, they actually make banjo straps, but you could also use a guitar strap if you take some leather lace and tie it off to the pot. I found that a strap was necessary because when I tried to hold the banjo in my lap, the metal parts on the pot gouged the heck out of my leg. Maybe that was because in summer we wear shorts here where I live, and banjo is a summertime instrument, but I had to rig up a strap

If you play mandolin, your tenor banjo is tuned the same, so any tune you know on mandolin you already know on banjo. I never bothered with a banjo teacher, but that’s up to you. I mean, you already know wear the notes are, you already know how to work a pick, there’s only one string to fret instead of two…what I’m saying is you already know how to play a banjo, you just have to fool around for a couple days and get comfortable with it.

and for a mute, like the Reverend says, its an open back, so just stuff something in the back

the open back models also make it a lot easier to get a snake out the back of your banjo

Re: New to the tenor banjo

It’s the redback spiders I have trouble with. I think they mistake it for a toilet seat.

Congrats. Banjos are fun both to play and annoy people with. The best part is, once you get the hang of it, you can play as soft as you like then as soon as someone complains play loud and drown them out;)

Picks are always a personal choice both in thickness and style but they are one of the most important items we have as they are our contact with the string, they play a big role in shaping our individual sound and many people just take them for granted. As cheap as they are it’s worth just buying a few sizes and play with them. You’ll soon work out what you like. I play various guitars, banjo’s, mando’s and therefore carry a range of pick sizes. I choose at the time not only for the instrument I’m playing but for the style/genre I’m playing as well.

Straps are also personal choice but as Tony says steer away from ones with anything that may scratch your instrument. I use all leather. I even hate plastic buckles. I prefer soft kid to hard leather but they get expensive. You’ll probably play seated most of the time but make sure your strap ties or fastens securely. I’ve seen many straps come off buttons and instruments hit the deck.

No matter what any purists say capos are a great tool. The trick in using a capo is to put it as close as possible behind the fret and only tighten it enough to clamp the strings to the fret without buzz. Most people centre the capo between frets, clamp it tight thereby stretching the strings, then wonder why they have gone sharp and aren’t in tune with everyone. Your banjo neck is thinner than a guitar neck so look for a small capo that will not overhang too much. If you install the capo close up to the fret and it overhangs the bottom too much it can inhibit your hand movement when playing. Bulk above the neck doesn’t matter as much as only your thumb is up there so you can move the capo up but make sure the back clamp still centres on the back the neck ok. Shubb make nice sized capos. I use a gold Dunlop with the thumb screw. It’s good on the mando too. Thumb screws allow you too adjust your own tension unlike springs. Your fretboard radius won’t really affect the capo.

Muting, yep, shove a sock in it. However, coming from a rock guitar background I’m a firm believer in using the side of your picking/strumming hand on the strings near the bridge to control an amount of mute on the strings. This allows volume control on the fly and also helps in controlling strings that aren’t being played. Some may say it isn’t relevant in ITM style but I think it is a technique well worth mastering for use with all styles.

Welcome to the house of fun…………

Re: New to the tenor banjo

@Reverend: Thank you! I’ll start off with mandolin picks I use and see how they work. If they work for John Carty, might work for me. Duly noted … I’ll stick a sock in it for my family’s sake. Looking forward to the “less tension” string part. Changing mandolin strings is awful. Gotta put glasses on so you don’t take an eye out … bleh.

@dfost: I have two Blue Chips: TAD 40 and CT 55 … never thought of trying those on the banjo … I’ll see how they feel. I’ve been mulling over Thomastiks and flat wounds for my mandolin anyway, but have an inventory of Elixirs. I’ll check out the TI octave mandolin strings for the banjo if it looks like I can actually play the thing. The volume flexibility is intriguing. Hah … drum on a stick. No wonder I’ve been drawn to it.

@pdm … Thanks! I’ve been using some .88mm picks this week. So far, so good. I’ll let you know re: Skype.

@Tony: 10-4 regarding the capo. Found a strap that was cheap, has lamb’s wool and it’s all leather.

@Nate: Yes, the Goodtime Special has a little armrest. I’m a huge fan of armrests. My main reason for getting a teacher early on is for technique. Crap technique can screw up your body … and I’m an old lady. I need all the injury prevention I can use. Bad left hand technique on the mandolin can invite carpal tunnel and pain (been there). I’ll watch for snakes … 🙂 . I cleaned up a friend’s ancient banjo once and the spiderwebs in the back were very prolific … ick.

@Mick: I’m not particularly creeped out by spiders unless they can kill you ala brown recluses or black widows. We have very polite daddy long legs and wolf spiders here. 😉 Still, I’m not inviting them by keeping the banjo out of her case. Yes, I did choose the banjo, in part, to annoy … I find that the older I get, the more being annoying appeals to me. Thanks for the capo advice. I have a banjo/mandolin capo already. It screws in the back. I’ll give her a go and not fret about the radius. Also, thanks for the volume control tip.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

Have you thought of trying CGDA, and capoing on second fret, so DAEB

Re: New to the tenor banjo

@Richard: Not yet. I’m gonna stuck with GDAE until I make sure I can get my fingers to behave. Thanks for the tuning suggestion. I’ll file her away.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

I would think that CGDA would be limiting for tunes where you’d use the low G string extensively (Lads of Laois, Tuttle’s Reel, Crowley’s, Julia Delaney, etc. etc. etc.).

I’m not a banjo player, but for Octave Mando or Cittern I use a quickdraw capo, which I assume would be equally nice on a tenor banjo. You can slide it over your nut and it stays out of the way when it is isn’t in use. When you want to use it, you simply slide it up the neck, which can be done very quickly and without unclamping or taking time to remove the capo or put it back on. When not needed, it can instantly slide back over the nut and stay out of the way. I also find the quickdraws don’t deaden the tone and mess up the intonation as much as the majority of other capos. The only bad thing I encountered was some difficulty initially attaching the quickdraw to my instrument, and making sure it fit correctly. Overall though, I think they are the best capos around. It’s nice being able to slide it down quickly and simply without losing any time or having to remove anything, and they don’t get in the way of your hand when playing the next fret after the capo.

If you can’t get a quickdraw to fit on your instrument (do note that they make various sizes), then the Schubb capos are the best alternative option in my opinion, if you can’t use a sliding capo. Make sure to get a capo where you can adjust the pressure, so it can mimic the pressure of your finger on the strings. I’ve found that capos that clamp really hard (such as the Kyser I previously used) would throw off the pitch a bit and deaden the sound slightly.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

Deering Goodtime’ are standard with a flat radius fretboard. I personally like the Shubb capo that’s available, it works for either 4 or 5 string banjo. I myself use a 50’s era Harmony Res-o-tone Plectrum Banjo 22 fret (the Mother of Bakelite rim special, LOL) tuned to C,G,D,A (19 fret tuning). Capoing at the 5th fret, I’m then in G,D,A,E when needed. I use anywhere from .80 to 1.0 picks dependant upon what song I’m playing. If I’m chording along on a song (this is usually a vocal number), I’ll use the lighter pick , heavier pick used when we’re doing an instrumental number. Strap wise I prefer the Cradle Strap by Perri, they’re around 25 bucks and fit through the bottom rim rods tying to itself, and very adjustable for playing comfort. This type of strap doesn’t require tying to the rim rods (if a rod nut comes loose, and they can, tied straps can pull the rod out of position and bend it). I too used to use a piece of cloth to muffle the back, until I tried a bridge mute. I now use the bridge mute all the time as it doesn’t seem to change the tone like a cloth muffler. I should say here, that because of the enviornment we played in (Noisy Bars and Pubs) typically, I was plugged in and the volume adjusted at the board by the tech for the mains and monitors, so I didn’t usually need to use a mute when playing live. I would use it when we practiced or played acoustically so I woudn’t be too obnoxious. Bridge mutes run anywhere from 15 to 50 dollars, depending upon the style. Mine simply slides on the bridge under the strings and dampens the bridge from vibrating the head as much. Good luck and have a lot of fun.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

I am on the verge of buying a tenor from Eagle music here in the UK. I’m interested to know why you went for 17 fret. The guys at the shop strongly recommended 19frets especially for mandolin tuning due to string tension or something. They build the instruments in house so I assume they know what they are talking about.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

@Christopher: Elderly has both the Quick Draw and Schubb capos. I’ve bookmarked them for future reference. Thanks so much!
@Chuck: I thought the Deering fretboard might be flat. Thanks. I have an el cheap cradle strap on the way … it ties … no metal. I’ve also bookmarked the Perri strap … thanks. I have a bridge mute also on the way. Looks like I’m set. Now to practice my little fingers off!
@Tongle: I went for the 17in because I have small hands and didn’t want a lot of weight. I’ve never heard anything about 17in. frets and tension. After the tension of mandolin strings, I guess banjo tension doesn’t scare many folks. Reckon I’ll find out how true this is.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

If you want to make the bajo really quiet, these work great:
I use it for late night practice to not disturb the wife. It does take away all the banjo tone, but good for practice.
I love my little goodtime open back. I use d’addario j80 octave mandolin strings, the heavier gague helps keep the low g from being too flat and dead sounding.

Re: New to the tenor banjo

@MonsterBanjo: Hah … great minds. I have a Gold Tone on its way. Thanks for the low G string tip!

Re: New to the tenor banjo

I think the technician was explaining that the 17 is a little more difficult to tune because the strings are at their (lower) limit. I tried one and they certainly felt very slack.

I also found the 19 a bit more of a stretch but then I also play guitar so I think it would just be a case of getting used to it.

I also play mandolin and agree about string tension there. Typical musician, want to play everything…I should probably stick to one!

Hope you enjoy the 17, in the end it’s all about individual preference and enjoyment!

Re: New to the tenor banjo

I play a 17 fret Dearing Goodtime (from Eagle Music in the UK) after many years playing a 19 fret cheap tenor banjo. The 17 fret instrument was playable with the strings provided but with a heavier set the thing was much much better IMHO.

Once you’ve worn out the initial set of strings try a heavier gauge set and all those sloppy strings will disappear, and I for one will not go back to the gauge it was supplied with. To know what gauge to use have a search back on the discussions here on ‘tenor banjo string gauge’ it has been discussed many times.