Banjos

Banjos

I’ve been thinking about learning to play the banjo, but I want to know as much about them as possible before just jumping in. For example: "What keys do they play in?", "Can you play chords on them?" Basic stuff like that. It’s just that after all this time playing wind instruments, I’m looking to find something I can strum. Something that requires more complex finger movements.

Thanks! 🙂

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If you’re drawn to it go for it. I think some of your questions can be answered by listening to more banjo players. I’m assuming tenor? A few good players would include Angelina Carberry, Kevin Griffin, John Carty…

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As Ben said, I also assume you mean a tenor banjo. Given that you already know so many Irish tunes that gives you a head start as they are the easiest to play melodies on. You can, of course play chords as well if, as I suspect from your recent piano question,you are looking for something to accompany your voice. But another other advantage of the tenor banjo is that the tuning is the same as a mandolin, a fiddle and an Irish bouzouki, so what you learn becomes transferable for melody playing. You are young enough to learn all these things Kellie, so certainly go for it. 5 strings are nice also, but better for bluegrass and hillbilly stuff. I really like them but personally find them too restrictive for Irish trad.

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I’ve had two banjos. First was ebay for ~$120. Found my recent one on Craigslist for $125. I was patiently searching for a few months before finding these. Don’t let anybody tell you you need to spend thousands of dollars. Solid construction and set up well are all you really need to start.

For Irish music, chords are not typical at all. Mostly single notes and a few double stops etc. But the instrument itself is capable of chords and strumming and all of that.

I think Angelina is my fave player.
Definitely don’t check out Maggie Carty. 😛

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"You can, of course play chords as well if, as I suspect from your recent piano question,you are looking for something to accompany your voice."

Spot on Gobby! I didn’t even realize it until you said something LOL, but yeah that’s exactly what I’m looking for. Something that allows my voice to be free while I’m playing.

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Better to buy an early 20th century tenor like a Bacon & Day or Slingerland or Gibson clone. Mine is Sovereign brand from the 1920s or 30s. Open backed and it works just fine. It’s one of the cheapest options available, but in good conditon, such banjos will serve you will for years.

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I don’t know where to find a Banjo like that, so that particular one won’t work? Not that I’m hellbent on buying that one in particular, but I’m just curious.

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As I said in an earlier post, I got mine via ebay and CL. The CL one took about 3 months of patient searching, but I got to try it in person so it was zero financial risk for me.

Rogue is the cheapest of the cheap. I used to have one that looked exactly like that with a Trinity River brand or somesuch. It was unsalvageable. I threw it in the trash.

Typical new beginner banjos are the Gold Tone it-250 or whatever it is. Probably the Deering Goodtime Irish version would work. Others might have similar recommendations( I actually don’t know that much about banjo brands), but you’re looking at minimum $450 for new. Which is why I bought what I did at the price I paid. And also why I was patient when looking. Some people have lots of prejudices and preferences when it comes to brands, but you have to weed through all of that and make up your own mind.

Personally, I prefer the open-back versions. It’s easy to stuff a sock or a rag in there for quiet, relaxed practice.

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As with all string instruments(I know a lot about fiddles), solid construction and SETUP are the most important things. That costs money. You can’t get those things for under $200 new. It just is not possible with banjo.

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What about trinity river brand?

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" I used to have one that looked exactly like that with a Trinity River brand or somesuch. It was unsalvageable. I threw it in the trash. "

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Noted

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What makes the 4 string a better option?

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If you are looking for a six string I reckon you’d be better off going for a guitar. They are tuned the same but in my opinion sound worse. Some may disagree, but I personally don’t like them. Five strings are great but it largely depends what kind of music you want to play. They are more for finger picking in bluegrass/old timey style, but I’ve heard them do a good job on some Irish music. Finbar Fury recently started learning one and sings some nice songs against it. I just don’t think they are as versatile for Irish stuff, especially if you also want to play melody. 4 strings (tenor) are perfect for playing Irish melody but you can also chomp chords out, such as they do in jazz and other genre’s. Also, as I said earlier, if you can play melody on these you can fairly easily do the same on a mandolin and any other GDAE tuned things.

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I was thinking (and now my head aches)…. If I had a voice like yours I would definitely go guitar before banjo. I’ve played all these things in various bands over the years and I reckon the only reason I lost interest in guitar and settled for fiddle was because I have a crap voice. Accordingly however, because I’m a crap singer I learned to play finger-picking tunes on my guitar;- ragtime and blues etc -even intricate Leo Kottke stuff. That’s the thing about them;- they are very versatile. Yes, I know that every pleb ‘plays’ a guitar and yodels but you have a unique and powerful voice which would be your primary instrument, and the guitar would just be a more versatile accompanying instrument. Also for reasons I don’t understand, banjo’s tend to be more expensive, and Aaron is right about having to get them set up properly. They can be cows like that. There are millions of good quality second hand guitars around and good cheap second hand ones are not that hard to find. And in the end, if you learned to play the guitar I think you’d find it easier to adapt to banjo’s later (well I did).

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I would disagree with you slightly Gobby, instead of a guitar, a zouk, octave mandola or cittern might be a better compromise option. They will have a richer chord sound than a banjo and be able to play tunes like the tenor banjo.

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A good setup on a cheap banjo gives you a very playable instrument. Banjos are very mechanical- there’s none of the mystique that surrounds how a well built wooden instrument sounds. It’s simple engineering and maths, everything is measurable/quantifiable.

I respectfully disagree with Aaron re Trinity River banjos. Mine is a Stagg/Blue Moon type which is exactly the same- they’re all out of the same Chinese factory. In stock form it was indeed unplayable- strung for open G tuning, action a mile off etc. After new strings and a couple of hours fettling with nothing more than a sharp knife, a 7mm socket, 4mm allan key and an adjustable spanner it sounds beautiful and I get compliments upon it’s tone at sessions.

I agree with Aaron re the sock in the back of the banjo- but you can just take the resonator off. I have three resonators gathering dust in a drawer somewhere.

It’s easy for me to say this I guess, as I’ve already put the hours in to learn how they work. I can make pretty much any banjo that isn’t fatally flawed (mis-spaced frets, torn skin) sound good. If you’re not willing to put the hours in learning about setup, you’d be better off buying one that is already set up. Sadly price is not a reliable indicator of how good a setup is- my buddy has a £700 banjo, and the only difference was better wood and ornate (CNC) engraving. It was still a dog to play until I worked on it.

If you buy a Trinity River four string, I’ll take you through setting it up on here, step by step. There will almost certainly be others out there who could learn from this too.

Your first decision is whether you want 19 frets or 17. I bought 19, and set it up for 17 frets with a capo on second. The bridge and strings have been optimised for this scale length (as are my stubby fingers!), but I have the option of a whole step down. Works for me.

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I don’t think it has been highlighted enough that chords on a four string do not sound great.
For songs the five string is king, Eg finbar fury Luke Kelly Tommy makem and loads of others,
For tunes the four string is king.
For short lived novelty the six string is king

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And for accompanying tunes, banjo is not the instrument for that

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Bainseo5 is spot on in my book. Although a good flatpicking guitarist can make a decent enough job of Irish tunes on a six string banjo.

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That is true Norfolk, I was a bit unkind to the six string

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"I don’t think it has been highlighted enough that chords on a four string do not sound great.
For songs the five string is king, Eg finbar fury Luke Kelly Tommy makem and loads of others,
For tunes the four string is king. "

Best answer by far.

Chords on a 4-string will wreck a session, within seconds. It will sound like Dixieland jazz. Don’t go there, ever.

For trad. pub singing, open-back 5-string is the way to go.

For traditional tunes, neither 4-or-5-string is appropriate for backup. Use a guitar if you must. Use 4-string for tunes only. Or avoid back-up entirely, my preferred choice. 🙂

Gobby - Bluegrass and Old Time are discreet styles. Don’t lump them together. And the banjo approach is very different. Bluegrass is finger-picked, 3-finger style. 98% of Old Time players, me included, use "clawhammer", which is not fingerpicking.

I’m a serious clawhammer player. I never take my 5-string to ITM sessions. Ever. For that, its the fiddle.

And 40 years ago, I played bluegrass. For that, I had a 5-string with resonator back. Sold it 30 years ago. Never looked back.

Don’t buy a six string. Uggh. Taylor Swift has one. Does that say enough?

My advice, Kellie: Buy both, i.e. 4 string for tunes, open-back 5 string for songs.

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Don’t do it. There appears to be a huge increase in the numbers playing banjos in recent years. I think that this ruins the music in the tune and creates a rattle which isn’t sweat. Music is really meant to be played on fiddle and flute. And possibly accordion and concertina but only one of these per session.

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re Trinity River: either you got a better example than I did or your standards are a lot lower. The frets and neck were shite. Tuner broke on first tuning attempt etc. Mine did not have good construction. This was about 10 years ago.

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How’s the whistle going?

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It’s going really well actually. I just learned a bunch of cross fingerings, so I’m trying to learn and use them.

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What’s the difference between a Tenor Banjo and a Non-Tenor Banjo?

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Tenor banjo is really a generic term for 4 string banjos. There may technically be a difference between tenor and plectrum banjos regarding scale length and such. My 17 fret is small at 20.5 inches. Some 19 fretters go up to 23 inches, which is too much for me.

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Your standard 5 string has 28?" Scale length.

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What makes a 4 string a better option for playing tunes than a 5 string?

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Have a look at the "Home page" photo, bottom left [ at the moment ]. 🙂

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I’m a bit late coming to this discussion, but I’ll pitch in.

"What’s the difference between a Tenor Banjo and a Non-Tenor Banjo?"

Banjos come in lots of different types: 5-string, tenor, plectrum, mandolin-banjo, banjolin, ukulele banjo (banjolele), zither banjo, cello banjo, 6-string (guitar) banjo, 7 string fretless… and probably a few other variations. They differ in size, stringing, tuning and/or construction but the one thing they all have in common is a body with a stretched vellum (natural or synthetic) top, as opposed to a wooden soundboard.

A *tenor* banjo is a 4-string banjo with a scale length of around 21" - 24", tuned either CGDA (‘jazz’ tuning, viola tuning) or GDAE (‘Irish’ tuning, 1 octave below fiddle tuning). Naturally, the latter is the most common tuning for Irish trad (although a handful of players, e.g. Gerry O’Connor, use CGDA). This type of banjo is the one most often used for tunes, and sometimes for accompanying songs as part of a band, but not often as a sole accompanying instrument for a voice.

I would avoid 6-string banjo unless you have a real belter of a voice, or enjoy shrieking at the top of your lungs - as several people have said, if you want to go the way of 6 strings, just get a guitar. A 5-string banjo is capable of quite gentle voice accompaniment (e.g. Luke Kelly of The Dubliners). It is not an easy instrument to play Irish tunes on, although there are a few people that do it well ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCEcgLJyUA4 and check out Leon Hunt…).

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I’m not going for the 6 string. My decision is between the 5 and 4 string.

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"My decision is between the 5 and 4 string."

The decision is far more about what kind of music you want to make, rather than the instrument. If you want to play tunes, then it’s the 4-string. If you want to sing, or play Southern Mtn. music and other non-ITM styles, then it’s the 5-string.

Very, very few individuals play, well, ITM on the 5-string. It is particularly problematic in sessions, as several different tunings are required depending upon the tunes being played. You will find yourself constantly playing catch-up, and re-tuning your banjo countless times during a session. That will be annoying to you and to everyone else. If you walk into a session made up of serious ITM players, pull out a 5-string and just watch eyebrows raise, or heads drop, or folks get very quiet, or folks suddenly saying it’s time for a pint or a bathroom break, and so on.

You often hear folks newly exposed to pipes thinking "do I want to buy Irish pipes or Scottish pipes". That’s not the question. The question is, "Do I want to play Irish music or Scottish music"? Then choose the kind of pipe. Same thing with your decision.

Yes, there are various you tubes out there proving an Irish tune can be played on a 5-string. Fair enough. But then take the next step and ask yourself why you never see a 5-string in sessions, in Altan, De Danann, Planxty, Bothy Band and countless other ITM groups through the years.

I play Southern Mtn. tunes on my wonderful Fielding open-back 5-string. And I play Scottish and Irish fiddle. And I can play the odd Irish/Scottish tune on the banjo, but I never take it to Irish or Scottish sessions for very good reasons.

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So chords don’t sound pleasing on the 4 string?

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they sound ok on a ‘C’ tuned instrument for New Orleans jazz and the like, on a GDAE banjo they just sound clonky and wrong. Certainly wouldn’t work for accompanying songs or Irish tunes.

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This info is a help to me also, as I have tuned my banjolele to GDAE to play chords for ITM. Looks like I have another melody instrument instead. Maybe I’ll tune it back to uke tuning to play non ITM chords for pop songs. Hmmm..

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Michelle, chords played on a banjolele tuned GDAE won’t sound as bad as a tenor banjo tuned the same because its an octave higher - you’ll be playing in the same register as a fiddle or mandolin. Probably still not ideal for accompanying Irish tunes though………………

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"So chords don’t sound pleasing on the 4 string?" Correct - IMHO.

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Well not in Irish music, but fine in some other genres like Dixieland jazz. I think that’s the thing though Kellie, are you only focussed on Irish stuff or other genre’s, and are you more interested in backing your vocals or playing in sessions. If I was interested in backing my own voice I’d go either bouzouki, guitar or 5 string. For session playing a 4 string is a (bloody good) melody only instrument, whereas you could use the others either way. Going by your other posts there seems no doubt that once you start earning an income you will end up like the rest of us who are addicted to accumulating every type of musical instrument that gets our fancy. Nothing wrong with that (but it’s likely that your future wife will disagree).

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I’m late to the discussion, but I thought I would add my two cents anyhow. I have used a tenor banjo tuned GDAD (weird I know, but it works for me) to back vocals on occasion. However, I do not strum. As others have pointed out, strummed cords in this tuning sound nasty. Instead, I cross pick or use arpeggios. Also, I do a boom-chuck that works nicely. That said, these approaches only work on certain kinds of songs, generally ones that are peppy. Gives them a nice folky sound, but not particularly Irish. However, I find the banjo voice just doesn’t suit very many songs. I ordinarily use an OM, bouzouki or guitar for backing voice because I find them more versatile and match the songs better.

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Another instruments that works nicely for backing vocals is a waldzither. I acquired one recently and has a very nice sound for backing songs. They can be tuned all sorts of ways. Lots of them on the secondary market and can be had for around $300.

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The only times GDAE chords kind of works is on tunes that sound… "old". I’m pretty sure there is some chord playing on the Johnny Óg Connolly/Brian McGrath album, and I can easily imagine something similar being done on John Carty’s recordings. But those are tunes that sound kind of jazzy anyway.

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I like it! 🙂

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Yes! 🙂

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Get a 5 string and tune dgbd, They can be played with a plectrum for tunes, they are imo better for chords, and better for songs.

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Good video Ben, and it actually shows the 5 string and the four string doing what they best do. As for the song I prefer the Corries version, but from what I recall of Kellie’s voice that song would suit him, and the banjo backing is fairly straight forward. So I tend to agree with Richard Dalton. Just don’t forget to add that sixth string (high G) to that tuning.

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Just to keep the pot boiling, that’s an E banjo Luke is playing there.
Alex.

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"Get a 5 string and tune dgbd, They can be played with a plectrum for tunes"

Still, you may be constantly retuning and capoing as you encounter the key of each tune. Not a session-friendly instrument for tunes.

"Just don’t forget to add that sixth string (high G) to that tuning."

That’ll be a neat trick on a 5-string banjo. 🙂

"that’s an E banjo Luke is playing there"

What is an "E banjo"?

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A 5 string banjo is also known as a G banjo, as they’re generally tuned to an open G chord. The banjo Luke is playing in the video has a longer neck. Invented by Pete Seeger, it’s tuned to open E, hence "E banjo." Put a capo on the 3rd fret, as in the video and you’re back to G tuning.
Alex.