The Ultimate Irish Tenor Banjo Buyer’s Guide
Published: December 16, 2020
So you’ve decided to learn the king of Irish string instruments – the Irish tenor banjo. (Don’t tell the fiddle players I said that!) Excellent choice. And now you’re faced with the daunting task of choosing a banjo. Don’t worry, you’ve come to the right place.
Choosing a new instrument is no easy feat. As a result of the banjo’s popularity across so many genres, there’s an abundance of banjos for sale online and in music shops. Not all of them are suitable for playing traditional Irish music however.
So how do you know which banjo is best for traditional Irish music? How do you choose the best banjo for a beginner? And more importantly, how do you pick the best banjo for you?
Keep reading and I’ll tell you everything you need to know. I’ll share my knowledge and teach you the basics of banjos so that soon you’ll be able to make an informed purchase that you’re 100% happy with. I want you to be confident in any purchase you make and walk away with the peace of mind that you’ve chosen the right banjo for you.
So let’s get started…
The Quick Answer
If you just can’t wait to get your hands on your new beginner banjo, then here’s a quick summary of what you need. The ideal beginner banjo for playing traditional Irish music should have:
- 4 strings
- 17 frets
- GDAE tuning
- A resonator (backless banjos don’t create as much volume)
The Origin of the Banjo in Ireland
The Irish Tenor Banjo first became popular in traditional Irish music from the 1920s. It made its way to Ireland from the American dance hall scene where it was mostly used as an accompaniment instrument.
Players would play chords and strum it in a similar fashion to a guitar. Irish musicians soon began to adapt its use to play the melodies of traditional tunes instead.
It wasn’t until the revival of traditional Irish music from the 1960s and 1970s however that the banjo started to gain the popularity it still holds today. This is due in large part to the influence of the iconic players Ronnie Drew, Barry McKenna and Tommy Makem.
Today the Irish tenor banjo is an important part of any céilí band lineup and commonly found at any good session. Banjo playing in Ireland has been revolutionised in the hands of a wealth of masterful players including Kieran Hanrahan, Gerry O’Connor, Mike Moloney and Enda Scahill.
Irish Tenor Banjo Tuning
The banjo is primarily used in traditional Irish music as a melody instrument. As a result, Irish banjo players typically tune their strings to GDAE.
This tuning is the same as the Irish fiddle – just an octave lower.
CGDA tuning – with each of the strings tuned a fourth higher – is popular amongst bluegrass, country, folk and jazz banjo players who play more chords than melody. It’s possible to play Irish trad music using this tuning but I wouldn’t recommend it for a beginner player.
In the trad world GDAE is considered ‘standard’. Beginner Irish banjo players should always start out with GDAE tuning.
With GDAE tuning, popular Irish music keys like G, D, and A are easy to play in. You also get a lower range than CGDA (as the strings are tuned a fourth lower).
It’s important to know that most modern tenors, especially those marketed as Irish tenor banjos are specifically built to use GDAE tuning. Most vintage tenor banjos aren’t however.
If you’re buying a secondhand or used banjo built for CGDA and want to use GDAE, some modifications will need to be made to the nut and the bridge. These modifications may already have been made however, so it’s important to check with the seller.
17 Fret vs 19 Fret: What’s the Difference?
A 19 fret banjo has two more frets than a 17 fret banjo, meaning it has a longer neck and fretboard.
As you can imagine, more frets also means more notes. This can be helpful in opening up opportunities for new repertoire or ways of playing tunes. Due to its larger size, the strings on a 19 fret banjo are usually wound to a higher tension. This creates a slightly brighter tone and more volume.
Don’t worry though, this slight difference in tone is not always evident. A well made good quality 17 fret banjo will still create a clear, strong tone.
17 fret banjos are typically more compact and have a shorter neck. This makes them an excellent starter instrument for beginners. A 17 fret banjo can also be played using the same hold as a fiddle in the left hand, so it’s an excellent transition instrument for those looking to make a change.
Some players argue that the smaller, more accessible size of a 17 fret banjo allows for faster playing. It does give smaller hands an easier reach up to high B for example. I would argue however that most professional banjo players play 19 fret banjos, which they wouldn’t do if it slowed them down.
A 19 fret fingerboard does require a bigger stretch of the left hand. It also demands a slightly different hand position as well as more movement. This is all easily accomplished though, once you get to the right stage of your playing. Really, the choice between the two comes down to personal preference.
Four Strings vs Five Strings: Which is Best?
Comparing a 4 string and 5 string banjo is a little like comparing a button accordion with a piano accordion. They’re both technically the same instrument, but they operate slightly differently and require a different playing technique.
Five string banjos are more commonly associated with North American folk music such as bluegrass. They’re typically used as accompaniment instruments, to strum chords, rather than as melody instruments.
Standard tuning for a five string banjo is GDGBD – a little different to the standard GDAE used in Irish music. Luke Kelly of The Dubliners famously played a five string banjo, using it to accompany his iconic ballads.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend one to a beginner banjo player, they’re a brilliant instrument to invest in a little further down the line, if you want to explore a different style of playing.
If you want to learn to play traditional Irish jigs, reels, hornpipes and other tunes however, a four string banjo is best.
Beginner Banjos €200 – €500
Banjos, like fiddles, are instruments with very accessible price ranges for beginners. So the good news is, you can buy a good quality beginner tenor banjo from €200 upwards.
If you’re looking for a good quality student banjo at an affordable price, I highly recommend our McNeela 17 Fret Banjo. It’s ideal for beginners.
With a mahogany neck and head, rosewood fingerboard, maple bridge and Remo top, this is a well crafted, high quality instrument that would suit any beginner or intermediate player.
It offers all the advantages of a 17 fret banjo for a beginner player. The shorter neck and fretboard mean less stretching for small or inexperienced hands. It’s also lightweight and comfortable to play.
Alternatively, if you’d prefer to start out with an instrument better suited for intermediate players, read on…
Intermediate Banjos €500 – €1,000
Intermediate level banjos can vary in price, but typically cost approximately €500 to €1,000, depending on your needs. For this price you’ll find a banjo that caters for your additional musical needs as your playing progresses.
Like our 17 fret version, the McNeela 19 Fret Banjo is another high quality banjo at an exceptionally affordable price.
It’s made of the same quality materials but features a longer neck and fretboard, offering greater range and more notes to play. A 19 fret banjo will fully allow you develop your playing and bring it to the next level.
Alternatively, Clareen Banjos’ Clarinbridge banjo is a nice mid range option for players who are improving but haven’t yet reached that advanced stage.
If you know that the banjo is truly the instrument for you and want to make a long term investment in your playing, then you might like to know more about instruments suitable for advanced playing.
Advanced Banjos €1,000+
Any banjo player who’s thinking about their future will want to invest in a good quality instrument. The right banjo will take your playing to the next level and help your musical growth.
At this level and price range you’ll notice that many of the instruments on sale are vintage models. As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to make sure you’re buying an instrument that is suitable for the tuning you are using (GDAE for Irish music).
We have an extensive range of high quality vintage tenor banjos available in store or online at McNeela Music but you’ll need to act fast. These one of a kind finds fly off the shelves. Get in touch if you have your eye on one and we can offer any guidance needed.
One of my current favourites is this beautiful Framus Nashville Vintage Banjo. I’m a sucker for detail and the black eagle veneer on the back of the resonator is the selling point for me. Not only does this pristine condition Nashville banjo from one of the best banjo makers in the world sound good, it looks good too.
Another beauty that’s caught my eye is this Vegavox Vintage II Banjo. These exquisitely crafted instruments are prized by both collectors and player alike. Featuring intricate gold metal plating, and a stunning pearlescent finish on the resonator, this banjo would turn heads at any session.
If you’d prefer to invest in a new instrument however, Dave Boyle banjos are played by some of the greatest banjo players in traditional Irish music and come highly recommended.
Once you’ve decided on the right banjo for you, don’t forget to invest in some banjo picks.
Expert advice: buy more than you think you’ll need. Banjo picks, like socks emerging from a washing machine, have a way of vanishing into the ether.
Choosing the right banjo picks is also an important task. Overly thin picks tend to be noisy against the strings while harder picks may not provide enough flexibility.
Nylon picks will best withstand the stress of playing. Anything from 46mm to 60mm should see you right.
The good news is that banjo picks are relatively cheap and you can invest in as many as you want until you find the right style for you.
You’ll also want to pick up some extra banjo strings. As with any string instrument, the strings on your banjo can wear with use, and snap. It’s best to have backups to prepare for this inevitability.
On Your Way
Now that you’re a banjo expert, why not put your newfound knowledge to use and take a look around our Online Banjo Store. You can browse our full range of Irish tenor banjos for sale and see if one catches your eye.
With a new instrument in hand you’ll be on your way in no time. For advice on how to get started, check out my handy blog A Beginner’s Guide for Tuning and Holding the Banjo.
[Images: johndal, Chris Fithal, Gerald Moore, Mike Kelly, CC BY 2.0, CC BY-SA 2.0]