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Thread: From Mando to Tenor Banjo

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    Lately, I've been daydreaming about getting a tenor banjo, probably after seeing Norman Blake play one for a couple tunes on a video.

    I know very little about the instrument, and related resources on the internet are scarce.

    Question 1: I don't want to get out of the GDAE scale, and from what I've read, the shorter-scale "Irish" Tenor Banjo is more receptive to this tuning, as opposed to the "regular" Tenor Banjo, which is designed for a CGDA tuning. Have I been misled on this issue?

    Question 2: I wouldn't want to spend alot of money, and the only "beginner-end" builder seems to be Gold Tone. Does Gold Tone have any competitors at this end of the market?

  2. #2

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    I can't really answer question #1 as I use mine in standard tenor tuning of CGDA. It's really not that hard to figure out the differences, as you just move the patterns over a string to be in the same key as a mando. I have a friend with a tenor guitar that's tuned GDAE, and it just doesn't sound right, plus the strings are floppy...

    For your second question, I'd recommend taking a look around on eBay. I bought a tenor banjo for about $150 off of there, and couldn't be happier with it. Obviously, you'll have to shop wisely, but it was a heck of a lot cheaper than a Gold Tone, and it may give you a chance to realize whether you like playing a tenor or not at a lower price point.
    Mandofiddle

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    I'll second Mandofiddle's comment...I paid $220.00 for mine from Ebay and also have it tuned CGDA. I love playing it, long stretchs and all! My only advice is try to buy from some one with 5 or more positve feedbacks, they seem to "care" a little more about there rep., than some of the zero feedback scammers which have been pooping up ever-more frequently lately.
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    You can tune a 19-fret tenor GDAE, you just have to use heavier strings to keep the tension up so it doesn't sound "floppy". A set of tenor banjo strings intended for CGDA tuning will probably be too light. Janet Davis sells a set of irish tenor strings, 13-20-30-40 that I use, or you can buy single strings in whatever gauges you want.

    I got a good deal on an older used one mail order from Gruhn Guitars. I'm allergic to buying instruments sight-unseen on Ebay and it's kind of nice having an instrument with some history behind it.

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    Registered User Bob DeVellis's Avatar
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    I have a short-neck tenor (16 frets, about 21") that I tune GDAE with .012, .022, .032, .044 strings and it works fine. THe technique is different, with one longer looser string rather than two shorter tigher ones per course. Triplets and other ornaments take some adapting, but basically, much of your mando knowledge will transfer. They're great instruments and cut through the din like a buzzsaw.
    Bob DeVellis

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    I tried tuning my tenor GDAE initially, but the heavy G string sounded thunky and awful. #The alternative someone suggested to me was to use conventional CGDA tuning and then capo at the second fret, which gives you DAEB. #In this tuning, your lower 3 strings are the same as the upper three on a mandolin, and you've added the B at the top (in place of the G at the bottom). #I found this works very nicely for Celtic tunes - the fingerings are all the same, the G string isn't really used very often, and the high B (which is the highest note in a lot of Celtic tunes) would have been a serious pinky stretch on the longer tenor scale.

    I would have simply tuned the instrument to DAEB (rather than using a capo), but the appropriate gauge on the high B string would have been too light.




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    Registered User mikeyes's Avatar
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    I made the switch from mando to tenor banjo about two years ago (I admit, however, that I played tenor banjo in jazz bands 30 years ago) and there is a learning curve. #My first banjo was an Orpheum #1 from ebay and it was and is a servicable #instrument. #I use the 40-39-20-10 formula for strings and because of the 17 fret neck was able to use mando strings. (this saves money and you alreadyhave a supply of strings to experiment with)
    As I progressed (the Madfortrad CD is very helpful)I bought better instruments until I settled on a 1930 Vega Professional which costs around $800 or so. #This is a top of the line instrument with few ornaments - sort of like buying the cheapest best shotgun, all the guts are the same, just more gold and engraving. #This instrument is a 19 fret so the stretches are a little more.

    My lessons learned are as follows:

    1) Get the best instrument you can. #They are not that expensive and a lot better value for the dollar than mandolins or 5 strings for the classic instruments.

    2) Experiment a little and find the right set up including head, bridge and strings. #Some instruments will even sound good with the standard strings tuned down. #both of my Vegas (the other is a Little Wonder - killer instrument) willl do this without diminishing sound, volume or tone. #And they don't sound floppy in the G string.

    3) Learn from the best via CD, DVD, or lessons. #Technique is all important. #I learned that I needed to put aside my thick mando picks and use Dunlap nylon .60 picks and that my banjo will still be heard miles away and in a big session. #I also learned to tone it down in sessions as a banjo is a WMD in many cases.

    4) While there are standard techniques in Irish banjo, use your mando techniques too if it sounds good. #This is considered heresy in some circles.

    5) Enjoy and play the mandolin in Irish sessions too.

    Mike Keyes

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    8 Fingers, 2 Thumbs Ken Sager's Avatar
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    What a timely thread to find today. I just purchased my second tenor banjo last night. I wanted another to leave tuned to GDAE for variety, plus my first is a family heirloom I don't want to travel with.

    I found the new (used) one at a local music shop, Intermountain Guitar and Banjo, for a good price with a gig bag. It's a 20's Bruno (Vega, Weyman, etc.) openback in fair shape. It's sounds great and they're a blast to play.

    Thanks for the GDAE string guage suggestions, WITHAK. I'll give it a try.
    Less talk, more pick.

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    I second the recomendation on seeking out older tenors. They are less collectable than 5 strings and are available and affordable. I got an old Vega F-style on E-bay from a guy with a great rating (you must be careful). It was a bargain and sounds great. Elderly, Mandolin Bros., Vintage Instruments in Philladelphia, and Bernunzo's alway have a few choice old models pretty resonably priced. As far as playing goes, I found that the sustain is much less than the mandolin so in a short while my ear was guiding my fingers to use more triplets and ornaments. It has 'backwashed' onto my mandolin playing and I find I use more triplets with less effort there too, now. I spent a little to get a good set-up done and that was worth every penny, esp. as banjo set-up is relatively fast and cheap. I play Irish music and it was an adjustment to really being heard at sessions. It's a nice addition. There are some tunes that lend themselves more to the sound/attack of the banjo or to the mandolin. Kind of interesting to see what each instrument brings to the music. Just be prepared for all the jokes that will come your way.
    Mike Plunkett

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    On buying banjos on ebay and elsewhere:

    I have had very good luck on ebay but recently there have been more crooks and dummies selling banjos, esp the 5 string variety. One trick is to find a good vendor. Banjohaven, the ebay name for Vinnie Mondello, is a great source and he has had a few $1 sales of great instruments. One of his Vega Professionals went for $430 which is an amazing price. He guarantees every instrument and will take them back if you are not satisfied or if you want to trade them for another banjo. He is very well thought of by the jazz banjo crowd and if he says a banjo is exceptional, he is telling the truth. If he tells you he has a "suitable for Irish music" it only means that it has 17 frets and is a little less desireable for his jazz banjo crowd <G>. You can trust Vinnie (not financial stake here, just a satisfied customer.)

    I bought my last banjo at a local music store in Madison, WI, however because not only was it a great banjo (it is always better to try one out first and buy a good 'un for a few dollars more) but the price, $800, was right. And, and this is important, I will get service on the instrument from this shop (Spruce Street Music).

    Ebay can be a crap shoot and you have to watch the market closely to see if there are bargains. I bought a 5string on a very cheap "buy it now" and sold it later for 8 times what I paid for it, but for each of those there are crappy banjos touted as being great when they are not. After a while you will learn what is good and what is bad. Look at the feedback and see if the seller is knowledgable about instruments. Tenor banjos are usually not counterfitted nor scammed the way Gibson 5 strings are.

    And BTW, don't bother to buy a Gibson for Irish tenor banjo, they are way overpriced. Buy one of the good names as mentioned before - Vega, Weymann, Epiphone, Orpheum, Bacon and Day, Clareen, Paragon to name a few off the top of my head. And check out the local stores. I bought a B&D in Manitowac, WI and a Vega in Madison both at ebay or less prices. And I got to see them first.

    Mike Keyes

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    Thanks for all this great information...givin me alot to think about.

    I am absolutely allergic to e-bay, so that's just not an option for me, but now I know the good names to look for.

    Thanks again. Merry X-mas.

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    I just lucked into a "original owner" situation. An extremely elderly gentleman sold me his Vegas - two Little Wonders from the late 1920's for ten times what he paid for them - new. I still got a great deal on two gorgeous instruments. To me, what's interesting is the smaller one "seems to be" a Little Wonder - 8 inch pot, 22 brackets, 14 inch scale Piccolo tenor banjo, with an Elton after market resonator.

    I've been talking to Mike Holmes at Mugwumps and we're trying to figure out if Vega made this thing deliberately or if it's a modified Uke. The nut is cut for standard strings rather than reentrant Uke strings. The old Gent I got it from said his dad bought it for him when he graduated from High School in 1927 (!). And - it had always been set up to play as a small tenor.

    So - if this thing works as well as I think it may ... perhaps exploring used Banjo Ukes may be another option. Plus you can sneak the little thing into a session under your sweater and spring it on the unsuspecting players when they least expect it. This one needs a little work to make playable ... results will be posted later - when I figure out the combination.
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    mandolooter,
    Pooping up?

    (just giving you a hard time, that made me laugh.)

    (because I'm very immature.)
    Life is too important to be taken seriously - Oscar Wilde

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    Cafe Linux Mommy danb's Avatar
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    Mike, it wasn't a Weymann style 2 tenor was it? I traded that towards my national tenor guitar at Spruce Tree recently (1 year ago or so)

    String gauges for a 19-fret tenor banjo (weymann "orchestra" is my favorite type):
    .052 wound
    .035 wound
    .022 plain
    .012 plain
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    Having received a tenor banjo for Xmas, now dutifully tuned to GDAE, I have a question about frets & fingering in 1st position:

    So far my picking has used the same loose rules governing mando frets - 1st finger for frets 1&2, 2nd for 3&4, 3rd for 5&6 and pinkie for 7th and beyond. #However, I bought a Gerry O'Connor banjo tuition video which suggests the 'rules' are different on the tenor banjo. He seems to use his pinkie on 5th,6th, and 7th frets, with one fret per finger below that (1st finger=1st fret, 2nd finger=2nd fret, etc).

    Is this a matter of personal choice or is it recommended that one adopts an altered finger/fret mapping on taking up banjo?

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    To Dan,

    No, it was not a Weymann although I love those megaphonic banjos and would have bought yours if it was available. It is a Vega Professional circa 1930 and a cannon. Spruce Street Music as a great place to shop.

    To ManodNoob,

    Fingering an Irish Tenor is a matter of preference. I switched from the mando style fingering (using the pinky only on occasion) to the "cello" (or guitar) style as a matter of choice because I was going to get lessons from Gerry O'Connor last summer. He said that he used this style because it was more efficient but did not try to change anyone.
    Mando style fingering allows you to switch seamlessy from mandolin to banjo but has the disadvantage of being harder to use (i.e. it is a little slower)in my opinion on the GDA strings. Others think that the cello style is handicapped by having no way to naturally go to the b note on the E string. (You have to switch to what I consider second position - the first finger on third fret and play the b note with the pinky, or you can slide to the b note from the first position.) The intonation and licks from the cello position sound a little different and that is not acceptable to some.
    This is more like the endless arguments you see in shotgun magazines over 12 gauge versus 20 gauge - to each his own if you ask me.
    After about six months of trying and endless brain ##### trying to switch between mando and banjo I have been able to make the transition without problems and have progressed on the Irish Tenor. I use the cello fingering for my Octave Mandolin too. As a bonus, I am really much better with my pinky now on the mandolin.

    Mike Keyes

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    It could be personal choice but - it is a reality that the longer stretches at the nut end of tenor banjo (or similar scale lenght O/M or Bouzouki) kind of lock you into "1 finger, 1 fret" until you get up to about the seventh fret. Unless you have really large hands, the best you can regularly do is up to about the sixth with the pinky.

    That hurts though.
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    Mikeyes: Ah Vegas are lovely, those are my other favorite tenors. Main reason I like the Weymanns is that they have a nice plonky sound, and also that resonator pop-off trick leaves you with a banjo that won't spear your thighs!

    Good old Will. I bought my 2nd mandolin there (a Kay!), my 1st Weymann tenor, and now my National tenor guitar! I used to live 2 blocks away, dangerous.

    Mandonoob: The jury is kind of out on fingerings. I have very long fingers, so I use mandolin fingerings mostly, even on my 25" scale big bouzouki. On the tenor banjo or tenor guitar, I can *mostly* get away with mandolin fingerings, but some tricks vanish (use pinky to drone on the 7th fret while playing on 245 above, etc). If your tenor is a 17-fret model, you should be able to get used to mandolin fingerings. a 19-fret is just a hair longer, and will probably prevent most folks from using mandolin fingerings. Missed you at the Duke's Head these last couple weeks by the way, I brought the Reso-mando and rattled the windows
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    Thanks for the advice guys! I'll try to make an effort to use both fingerings equal amounts and see if one eventually becomes dominant and/or feels more natural.

    DanB: Yes, sorry to have missed you - I was ill one week, then I was there just before Xmas and you weren't, then these last two weeks I've been in t'North of England. I've been hearing very positive reports of what you've been doing there though! See you this coming Tuesday (Jan 6th) if you're there. I would still like you to meet Chris, the superhuman guitarist/banjoist I mentioned before. Maybe we can still co-ordinate a meet at a Lewisham session in the not too distant future.

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    This is a bit off the tenor banjo subject, but I have some questions about banjo in Celtic music. I noticed in the archives Tabedit files for CoMando that there are tabbed Celtic tunes for 5 string banjo. Do people (other than for personal desire) play a 5 string for Celtic stuff ever? I listened to the different tunes and can imagine them on the five string-terrific. I would be very interested in hearing different opinions about this. Suggestions to literature and info on the internet about this subject would be appreciated.

    I like traditional music and play some Celtic on mando. I have a 5 string and want to play Celtic on it. I just like the sound of a 5 string better than a tenor. Its a personal taste thing.
    Cheers and Happy New Year!
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    It works and has been done ... but to me, a five string sounds best in a Celtic setting if you play it clawhammer style. Plus the key changes in an individual set can drive you up the wall. The diatonic tuning kind of limits you to one or two keys.

    Oddly - the charactor who popularized the five string banjo originally in the 1840's was an Irish immigrant named Sweeney. Several companies offer versions of his scroll head five string. (A scroll head banjo envy is somewhere on the horizon.) There is a pretty neat young group called the "Mammals" which does a lot of celtic tunes on 5 string. Pretty skilled trio with an amazing heritage. I don't have their URL but - if you look up Jay Ungar there is a link to them.
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    At the risk of being laughed at you could always go for a mandolin banjo (shorter neck).
    Also the finger arrangements for each fret comes from the "natural" fiddle player don't it ??

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    Chris Grotewohl is a Kansas player who does *amazing* Irish stuff on 5-string, track down his record if you can, it's called "Under the Influence". Chris also plays an octave mandolin with a 5-string banjo neck on it. Really an amazing sound
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    Thanks I will look those suggestions up. #I have started working on the clawhammer technique and can easily imagine it in many different musical settings. Since I am so new to banjo I thought I would give those right hand rolls a try.

    Thanks for the info!

    Follow Up: #I found Chris Grotewohl's site. #Fantastic! #Lots of mp3's, sheet music and the like. #Love his swing and blues stuff too. #I really liked "The Drunken Landlady" and "Under the Influence"

    Chris's Site: #
    http://irish5string.homestead.com/chrisG.html






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    A lot of polkas work quite well frailed on a 5-string.

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