The Best Beginner Tunes for Irish Tenor Banjo and Mandolin
Published: November 2, 2020
Every musician wants to start out with the best tunes for their instrument. But how do you know which tunes work best?
No one wants to waste their time struggling to learn the wrong tunes when the right repertoire can be learned far more easily in half the time. Nothing will curb your motivation faster than starting with a tune that’s too difficult.
So, to help all our budding banjo and mandolin players out there, I’ve put together this handy guide. These tunes are specially tailored for the Irish tenor banjo and will happily set any beginner musician on the right path.
With these simple session tunes under your belt, you’ll be session ready in no time. So what are you waiting for? Let’s get started.
What Makes the Ideal Beginner Banjo or Mandolin Tune?
While the banjo has the same strings, tuning and fingering as the fiddle, it has a distinct advantage. Banjos don’t require the use of a bow. Mastering the bow can be one of the biggest obstacles beginner fiddles face when trying to master their instrument.
As a result, banjo players usually find themselves ready to tackle slightly more complex tunes at any earlier stage.
I’ve included three brilliant jigs below that will work well for any beginner banjo player. Jimmy Ward’s, The Leitrim Fancy and The Lilting Banshee.
These are three great session tunes. So once you’ve mastered them and are feeling confident, you can head off to a session and play along with your fellow trad musicians, to hear the music in its true glory.
Jim Ward’s Jig
Jim Ward’s, also known as Jimmy Ward’s or The Clare Jig (and not to be confused with Jim Ward’s Downfall) is a great tune for beginner banjo players. It requires a straightforward hand position and limited movement of the fingers. It’s also played using only the D and G string.
The long Gs at the beginning of the phrases can also be strummed as three separate notes, as you can see below. There are plenty of options to either simplify or develop the tune according to your ability.
Have a look at the video below to see how limited the hand movement is. It might be a little fast to play along to just yet, but don’t worry about that for now. Take your time and move at your own pace.
Here it is at a livelier pace again to give you a feel for how it would sound in a real trad session:
The Lilting Banshee
The Lilting Banshee is the perfect tune for beginner banjo players as it makes plenty of use of the open A and E strings – open strings are the strings of any stringed instrument with no fingers pressing down on the fingerboard. It also provides a nice little challenge in the stretch required to reach the high A.
This is a mighty popular session tune and one well worth learning:
The Leitrim Fancy
This tune requires a little more movement and finger action than the previous one but it will teach you useful patterns that you’ll encounter again and again in other tunes. So, it’s well worth the challenge.
Many tunes in the world of traditional Irish music share similar melodies. The opening bar’s GBG FAF pattern is one worth wrapping your head (and fingers) around, as you’ll come across it in more complex tunes. So, while it might be a little tricky right now, it’s worth spending some time on it. Once you’ve committed it to muscle memory, your fingers will automatically do the work for you the next time you encounter it, without even having to think about it.
Have a listen to this handy recording that plays the tune first at session speed, and then again at a slower, learner-friendly pace:
If you’ve mastered every tune included in this post, then you’re well on your way to being session ready!
To learn more about the Irish Tenor Banjo, I highly recommend Enda Scahill’s brilliant book Learn Irish Banjo Volume 1. You can find an extract from it int our Beginner’s Guide to Holding and Tuning the Banjo. Once you’ve mastered everything Enda has to teach you (and it’s a lot!) you can move on to Volume 2.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to get your hands on a new beginner banjo, why not have a look at our Online Banjo Store or Online Mandolin Store. You can browse our full range of beginner banjos and mandolins – each designed to cater for the needs of beginner musicians.