Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Technique-wise are there real differences in how mandolins and tenor banjos are played? Or is it one of those things where it all depends on whatever ornamentation the player decides to use?

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

I play both and am often implicitly asking myself this same question. In terms of physical technique, they are roughly similar, except obviously the mandolin is smaller.

I feel as though my mandolin playing affects my tenor banjo playing (I play mandolin much more at home) but not sure yet if this is a good thing. For example, with the mandolin I play open notes liberally, and I think it sounds good (in the comparison to no open notes) , and adds to the texture, and energy. But the same amount of open note playing on the banjo seems to make it too muddy and lose some of the drive. I don’t know if anyone else finds the same thing.

Conversely with triplets, I think they are easier to get sounding good in more places on a banjo, as you can play them semi-muted making them less intrusive - which doesn’t work on the mandolin, I generally find myself not playing triplets ad lib on mandolin, and just in spots where rolls on fiddle occur (if at all).

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Being mainly a fiddle player I use the same left hand fingering on mandolin but on a 19 fret tenor banjo I find it natural and comfortable to use “cello” fingering most of the time, so fingering on the A string is
B = 1
C nat = 2
C sharp = 3
D = 4

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

You can throw in a lot more double stops and chords on the mando that don’t sound so good on the tenor banjo , also on the mando its a lot easier to reach top b’s and c’s if you have small hands like me - finally as the banjo is so strident ‘off’ notes stick out like the proverbial sore thumb, whereas on the mando you could probably get away with it………………….

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

I also have a couple of tenor banjos which rarely leave the house.
The instrument is much heavier to carry for a start and I agree with Christy about the other aspects.

Usually, one of the first attractions is that it is “louder” in a session than a mandolin.
However, I eventually realised that the mandolin is actually much louder than you think especially as part of a good balanced combination of instruments. Besides, why should you “want to be heard” particularly over other musicians in a session? As long as I can hear myself play, that’s all that really matters.

As for fingering, it’s usually one per fret as TomB-R suggests whereas I would usually use one finger for two frets on mandolin. On certain tunes, I will bend these rules slightly though on both instruments.

Of course, there are and have been many great exponents of the tenor banjo in Trad music…. Mick Moloney, Angelina Carberry, Eamonn Coyne, Gerry O’Connor, John Carty to name but a very few. I really enjoy listening to good players but, in some ways, the instument is a little similar to the bodhran (with strings) and can sound “deadly” in the wrong hands. Also, “deadly” in the right hands, of course, if you use the positive meaning of the word. 😉

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Further, I’ve just checked the OP’s profile.

jp…. I take it you are referring to the regular mandolin as opposed to octave mandolin?
The latter would involve similar fingering to the tenor banjo although there are obviously other more subtle differences in technique. The latter is arguably better for accompaniment and chord work etc although good for melody too.

As a guitar player, it seems quite an obvious route to these instruments and different from that of moving “up” a size from the mandolin or fiddle.

As has been discussed here before, the mandolin and tenor banjo too are less likely to be the “first” instrument which most of us here have played although there will be some members to whom this applies.
Most will have moved over from the fiddle or the guitar(like yourself). So, all their journeys will be slightly different along with the approaches and thoughts on technique.

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

i bite. i could play a gdae/cgda banjo, but i do not. (is this a windup to a banjo joke?). (i play mandolins instead, all sizes up to mandocello).

banjo is for you if you want to play all the notes of a tune really fast, louder than everybody else. low action, soft strings, light pick, high gain, lots of volume, easy on the fingers, zero effort bar chords. plays yummy 5-chords 7755, etc (impossible on double-strung mandolins).

now for the downsides. these banjo things are heavy. really heavy, compared to mandolins. the high gain makes it difficult to control the tone, a really light touch is needed to get nice soft sounds, avoid machine-gun music. the floppy top makes bridge position uncertain and that makes the intonation very iffy. coupled with banjo-style tuning pegs (instead of proper guitar-style soft action german engineered japanese built tuning machines) this makes banjos basically untunable. (in irish music, easy to hide that by playing against whistles and bagpipes).

other than that, technique-wise, i find mandolins and banjos play pretty much the same, except mandolin i just play, while banjo i have to fight all the time to keep the tone under control. main reason i do not play banjos. that, and the weight.

of course when a banjo is called for, only a banjo would do (Sam Bartlett on banjo, Rodney Miller on mandolin, popular contra dance tune) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eE0Buur4zM

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

I play both. I consider them similar in the brain and different in the hands. The biggest difference I find is that you need to strike mandolin strings solidly to get good tone, and if you play a banjo like that, you’re likely to be obnoxiously loud and brash. So the physicality of playing, while related, needs to be different in the right hand. I actually stopped playing mandolin for several years when I was less experienced, because I found that I was overplaying the banjo significantly, and I wasn’t in control enough to really play them differently with my right hand. I have since started playing mandolin again, and like having the contrast between the two.

I do play both with “fiddle fingering”, but a lot of players prefer to use the “4 finger” style on longer scale banjos. I can switch back and forth between the fingerings, but it makes most sense for me to play them both the same.

I was playing double strung instruments (bouzouki/mandolin) before playing the banjo, and when I first picked up the banjo, I found triplets to be harder. On the double strung instruments, it feels like one huge string when doing a triplet. Combine that with the fact that the double strung are usually at a much higher string tension, the strings don’t move as much (and feel huge), so it felt to me like I couldn’t miss a triplet. Banjo triplets feel much easier to me now, and can be much more compact and a light touch (although I usually have less tension on my G string and sometimes miss banjo triplets on that string because it feels like it flops out of the way of the second stroke of the triplet at the lower tension…) So part of it is just getting used to doing triplets on whichever instrument. I do a lot of left hand ornaments as well, and find them much easier on banjo too.

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Ive played both for a good while and agree with Reverend’s excellent description. “Similar in the brain but different in the hands” My banjo is a Little Wonder so I get to use “fiddle fingers” all round (I also torture a fiddle). I avoid the big tenors where I have to use the pinky as the other fingering is so ingrained it results in chaos. For me the difference is summed up by the picks i use. My mandolin picks have grown heavier and my banjo picks lighter over time. Once again Rev explains this very well. Only other comment I’d add is periodically I get sick to death of the sound of the banjo and avoid it for months but I never tire of the mandolin tone 🙂

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

At our local Irish session, I play a banjo-mandolin with a skin head. I get the best of both worlds and only have to carry one small case.

At other places I play, I take 3 instruments (for decades I carried around a set of drums, this is better).

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

» I play a banjo-mandolin with a skinhead

Having trouble deciding which of the two is worse 😉

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Slade were awesome! Quiet Riot made an entire career out of doing Slade covers in the 1980s and made millions!

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Not so fast! These were definitely Suede ‘eds. I served my time at Kingsway College of Further Education as an ‘Ippy (1969-70). See, a ligh’ ale bo’le won’ break on yer ’ed…

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

True. They went Suede and then full blown glam. The hair just wouldn’t stop growing in the 70s!

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

It’s probably time for me to confess that I owned a number of Slade singles in the 1970s - their music appealed to that younger version of myself. I would still argue that Jim Lea is a fine fiddle player.
Anybody who fancies an hour ‘YouTubing’ Slade should definitely try
’Kill ‘Em At The Hot Club Tonite’ (their spelling)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nQirj7MjhQ.


In terms of the Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo discussion, I attempt both (and also fiddle). What I find is that although the tuning is the essentially same on all (give an octave) they are all different and swapping quickly between them can be tricky for me. I find the mandolin makes my fiddle playing tend towards playing out of tune because finger spacing is a bit more forgiving on mandolin but fiddle shouts ‘out of tune’ at the first hint. I have a long scale tenor so have had to adjust to different fingering (what was called ‘cello’ fingering above I think) . I’m slightly hesitant with banjo about tunes with a high B in as it’s a big stretch and I prefer to work out alternative fingerings in different positions.

There is definitely a lot of cross over between the playing of the three instruments - learning a tune on one means I am a long way towards being able to play it on the others.

The qualities of mandolin, banjo & fiddle are different so can bring out different aspects of a tune. Some tunes more naturally suit one instrument - but I will persevere with all of them. There are musical ‘heroes’ for each instrument - and sometimes the heroes can be found to play more than one of them too.

Finally, if it’s a factor, it’s possible to play the mandolin quietly in a way that you cannot easily do with fiddle or banjo. This helps with neighbours if you want to practice late at night - and also gives the ability to melt into the background in sessions on tunes that are less fluent

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

“Finally, if it’s a factor, it’s possible to play the mandolin quietly in a way that you cannot easily do with fiddle or banjo.”

Playing quietly may be easier on mandolin, but playing at the barest whisper on fiddle is an excellent way to learn bow control and economy of motion.

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Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Every instrument has its own rubric and nuance of course, but mndln and TB have more affinity with each other than most instrument pairs. If you’re naturally a strong rhythmic player especially it will help you with banjo.

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Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

From my perspective i break it down into right hand and left hand . So right hand is exactly the same for all the plectrum instruments i play , guitar bass ,mandolin, banjo,tenor guitar etc.
left hand i tend to use a very similar approach; i use all 4 fingers 1 per fret extending down or up . When the stretch is larger 19/17 fret my hand floats more . So a light touch thumb in center of neck never poking over the top! On smaller instruments its easier to stay still and perhaps develop a bad habit of excess tension and rigidity …
As a poster above noted Cello fingering and techniques are more appropriate for Larger instruments like banjo and guitar : floating hand and position changes .
Cheers

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

I own both and more but haven’t yet found a mando that suits my big hands. I do enjoy the challenge of the tenor banjo, its discipline is very difficult to master. In a session with pipes and box I can still hear myself though it must be very loud when a three are going hard at it. ‘Er indoors won’t allow banjo playing in the house, however tenor guitar gets the nod. I play both exactly the same but tenor guitar is easier and the sustain is very pleasing, particularly as has been noted above when using open strings.

Re: Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Late to the discussion, but in case it’s at all helpful: I added tenor banjo after playing acoustic guitar for many years; sometimes flat-picking but mostly finger-style. With guitar, all four fingers are used for fretting.

I naturally adapted my 4-finger fretting to the TB, and eventually to the mandolin, octave mandolin, and Irish bouzouki as well. I studied classical violin for about six years, and the fourth finger is used for fretting that as well.

With the long scale length of the bouzouki, even with four fingers in play, it is still helpful to be able to float the hand up to second position to avoid an uncomfortable stretch. With respect to the mandolin, having the dexterity to shift hand position mitigates the cramped feeling one might expect when fretting using four fingers on such a small scale.

Learning to fret with four fingers on any scale length doesn’t really have a downside that I can think of.

On the picking side, I may use the outsides of the phalanges of my pinky finger or the heel of my hand on the banjo head, just below the bridge, to damp volume, tone, and sustain. Sometimes that allows stronger picking for clearer articulation without necessarily getting louder.

Also, if you let a tenor banjo string ring long enough, it may go sour, which you can see visually using a tuner. So sometimes it’s helpful to use light pressure from the heel of the hand directly on the bridge to limit sustain.

Although I have a very nice Breedlove mandolin, the mandolin is my instrument of last choice in a session because it’s hard to hear over the other instruments. Number one is an octave mandolin. Number two is the tenor banjo - especially if I want to start a set.