The tenor banjo is an incredibly diverse instrument. With a rich history spanning over a century, this particular four string instrument has found its place in two worlds that at first, seem total opposites: traditional Irish music, and jazz. How did this happen? Well, let’s get into it.

The Origin of the Four String Banjo

At their inception, banjos were initially five-stringed instruments, focused on playing genres such as folk, and bluegrass. However, towards the early 20th century, jazz started to become popular and as such, the banjo started to evolve to find a new place in this genre. 

Five string banjo players at this time started to lean into the banjo’s percussive nature (as the banjo is essentially a drum with a neck and strings) and began to strum the instrument like a guitar with a plectrum. The twangy timbre of the tenor banjo, mixed with the resonator design, made it popular. This is thanks to its sound cutting through the sound of a full Dixieland jazz band. 

During the innovation process though, musicians found that the fifth string of the banjo was getting in the way of the chords being played and so, the fifth string was removed and the four string plectrum banjo was born. The pitch of the instrument was also lowered and so, the banjo as a tenor made its debut.

How Did Tenor Banjos End Up in Ireland? 

Well at this point in history, bands playing in dance halls were using the banjo frequently in their ensemble in the USA. However, over time, England began to copy America’s dance hall music  and use of the four string banjo. Eventually, this influence spread to Ireland as well. As the banjo settled in Ireland though, it started to be used more and more in Irish music during the 1920s and eventually made its transition from a rhythm/percussion instrument, to a more melodic orientated one. Its popularity in dance halls and céili bands stemmed from the same reasons as it was loud enough to cut through the sound of the other instruments.

The Irish tenor banjo’s popularity grew even more until it reached its peak during the 1950s and 1960s where it was played in trad sessions that usually popped up in pubs at the time. Nowadays, the Irish tenor banjo is one of the most recognisable instruments used in traditional Irish music today.


One of the main aspects that separates four string tenor banjos from their four or five string counterparts is, of course, the tuning. The tenor banjo has a couple of different variations when it comes to how it’s tuned in accordance with how it wants to be played:

  • Standard tenor tuning – CGDA: This is the same tuning as a viola and a cello, but an octave higher.
  • Irish tenor tuning – GDAE: Based a fifth higher, this tuning is the same one used for mandolins and violins.
  • Chicago Tuning – DGBE: A rather interesting tuning as it’s the same Open G tuning used on a five-string, but without the fifth string present. This tuning lends itself well to guitar players as it mimics the last four strings of a guitar. However this tuning is not particularly common in Irish music as Irish banjo players tend to prefer the other two for their extended range. 

If you were to ask me which tuning is better though, I wouldn’t be able to give you an honest answer. Truth is, all of these tunings are more than adequate for playing all sorts of music, but it really comes down to a couple of things. 

Firstly, some songs are written using a particular tuning and such, the tuning normally has to be matched on your instrument if you want to play the same tune in the original key. Secondly, it also comes down to player preference. If you prefer the high range associated with GDAE, that’s perfectly fine. Equally if you like the lower register that comes with the CGDA tuning, that’s also perfectly fine. 

Certain tunings might suit your banjo best though depending on the gauge of strings used, the kind of action on the bridge, the intonation, and the scale length, or how many frets it has. All of these aspects influence how the tenor banjo is tuned and played.

The Different Styles of Playing the Tenor Banjo

As I’ve already briefly mentioned, the tenor banjo is usually played with a plectrum (guitar pick) and by strumming chords or picking melodies. But these are not the only ways in which a tenor banjo can be played. The typical ways in which five string banjos are played can also be applied in four string banjo playing as well, such as: the “clawhammer” style and the classic “Scruggs Style”:

  • The Clawhammer style (a.k.a ‘frailing’): This technique has you use your thumb, index and middle finger to pluck the various strings in a claw-like way, hence the name.
  • The Scruggs Style (named after the legendary Earl Scruggs): This style involves alternating between the thumb, index, and middle fingers as well, but wearing finger picks instead in order to play the banjo strings in rapid succession.

Who is Known for Playing the Tenor Banjo?

Throughout history, there have been many musicians who’ve dawned the tenor banjo as their signature instrument. Some of these include:

  • Barney McKenna: The iconic banjo player and last original member of the legendary Irish folk group ‘The Dubliners’. 
  • Enda Scahill: Hailing from Corofin, Co. Galway, Enda as an artist, made himself known originally as the four-time All Ireland Banjo-Playing Champion and is renowned for his virtuosity and skill. To learn more about Enda specifically, make sure you check out our blog post on his music.
  • Gerry O’Connor: Another renowned tenor banjo player, Gerry has been on the go for many years, collaborating with the likes of Christy Moore, Michael Flatley, Mary Black, Luka Bloom, and many more. According to the Wall Street Journal’s music critic Earl Hitchner ‘Gerry O’Connor may be the single best four string banjoist in the history of Irish music”. 
  • Elmer Sowden: an artist and a pioneer of the jazz banjo in its early days, Elmer was responsible for recording the album “Harlem Banjo” in the 1960’s which is considered one of the finest jazz banjo albums ever recorded. He also played alongside the likes of Count Basie, Roy Eldridge and Chick Webb.

How Much Do Tenor Banjos Usually Cost?

The price range of the tenor banjo does tend to vary depending on the brand and construction quality of the instrument. Quality of certain parts such as the pegheads, scoops and inlays and the wood used will affect the price. 

That being said, the price range of a good quality beginner tenor banjo usually stems anywhere from €200-500 typically. An excellent quality banjo that we can recommend is our very own McNeela Celt Four String Tenor Banjo that comes in both 17 and 19 fret versions. This is a must have banjo for all beginner players as it’s made from the highest quality materials, and is capable of supporting your playing development even through the intermediate stage.

Intermediate tenor banjos can be a little more expensive going from €600-900 or even higher, and the advanced ones don’t really have a limit as they go from €1500-2500 normally, but can go even higher if they’re particularly high end.

More Information About the Tenor Banjo.

If you’re looking to find any more information about the unique instrument that is the tenor banjo, or on any other tenor instruments, be sure to check out our other blog posts on the banjo and all things Irish music related:

Interested in Buying a Tenor Banjo Yourself?

If you’re in the process of searching for a suitable banjo to learn or improve upon your playing skills, we’ve got you covered. At McNeela we’ve a number of the finest, high quality banjos for sale! We sell a range of beautifully crafted Four String Tenor Banjos perfectly suited for Irish music, as well as excellent Five String Banjos catered towards bluegrass. 

We also have an extensive range of books and CDs designed to take your banjo playing to the next level! All of these are totally available on our online store, or feel free to swing by us in person to test out our world class instruments in-person.


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