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 Playing Advice: 4-String (Jazz, Blues & Other Trad Styles)

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PatDean - Posted - 04/09/2009:  19:45:46

I play 5 string banjo in an Irish group. Why do most Irish banjo players play with a 4 string banjo rather than a 5 string one? Are there any inherent qualities a 4 string has that makes it more prevalent in Irish music than a 5 string? Just curious.

Bill Rogers - Posted - 04/09/2009:  20:04:29

It's easier to parallel the fiddle with all the rolls and trills. You can play medleys that change keys more easily. And most modern Irish tenor banjo players follow in the footsteps of Barney McKenna, whose playing greatly influenced the place of the tenor banjo in Irish music. Unless you can play like Tom Hanway or Chris Grotewahl (and few can) you can't really keep up in an Irish session with a 5-string. OTOH, if you're in a group that primarily sings, like the Clancy Bros., that's another thing entirely.


My Golden - Posted - 04/09/2009:  22:14:28

I tried playing Irish tremolo with a pick on my 5 string, and I couldn't do it, cause when crossing over to other strings, the fifth gear and entire fifth string got in my way. Need 4 strings in a smaller more compact space to use a pick. There must be something to it, otherwise, the Irish would be plucking on 5 strings.

James McConnan - Posted - 04/09/2009:  23:26:10

For some reason 6/8 (jig) time is all but ignored by 5 string pickers, which is a pity since so many Celtic tunes are set in that timing. Listen to David Hum of the British group Huckleberries. He can do it too.

Jo Ban - Posted - 04/10/2009:  00:01:22

I play the 5 string banjo in an Irish group. At the begining, it was hard to use what I learnt in Bluegrass music. With a few work, I used backup rolls for arrangement. I play solo in some tunes.
Dave Hum, BHO member, is the good example for a good picking in traditional Irish Music ( some fine videos on BHO)
Tenor banjo is the most used in Irish music, but I don't want to learn it... still I love it !

Jo Ban play Irish music in Provence at

fergaloh - Posted - 04/11/2009:  03:08:09

4 string is more suited to dance tunes. Simple as. 5 string is more popular with ballad singers. Not too many have bothererd changing this as its just a general acceptamnce but there are accomplished 5 string players for tunes ie Tom Hanway, Chris Grotewahl and my personal favourite Leon Hunt

Tom Hanway - Posted - 04/13/2009:  17:06:47

I have a whole section devoted to this question in the introduction to Complete Book of Irish & Celtic 5-String Banjo. It's a fascinating topic. There are lots of reasons for this, and a lot of it has to do with ease of playing a tenor, tuned like the fiddle, and the fact that the tenor was brought over to Ireland by the Ceílí bands, who started using the popular jazz instrument in America. The 5-string was still getting its act together ... somewhere in the Tennessee hills ... at the time. Hahaha.

I have a few samples from my Mel Bay CD, including a catchy reel, ''The Mason's Apron' on my MP3 Archives. I've put in a Barney McKenna (tenor banjo) variation. Check out the fancy triplets, where I'm really going for the tenor feel. I also have other Celtic dance tunes plus O'Carolan tunes, which have a legato sound that is hard to get on a tenor banjo, which has a more percussive and staccato sound in general.

I think the way the tenor banjo cuts is part of what recommends it in Irish traditional music, though not all the top bands have one - most noticeably, The Chieftains, though I've heard that McKenna was once offered the chair but chose the Dubliners instead. I'm not sure if that's a true story or not.

When I recorded 'The Mason's Apron', We had to record something like 20 tunes that day, so there was no time to fix things or be fussy. So, no overdubs here. We were recording in 95 degree heat in a small garage, as I recall, so the beer cooler was kept well stocked. Everything is raw, live, foamy but fun. I had some terrific backers on those tracks - see the notes on my Files page. 68 tunes were all I could fit onto a 72 minute CD, but there are 101 in the book. Sometimes you just gotta put your head down and ... play.

Thanks to Bill Bay and Mel Bay for letting me share a few of these tracks here. They are copyright protected, folks, so you know the deal. This stuff is all relatively new for a 5-string, so it's still the learning curve for everybody, even me. Enjoy.

Happy pickin,

Tom Hanway

Please see my homepage and digital stores.

''Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.'' - W. B. Yeats

Edited by - Tom Hanway on 04/14/2009 07:40:40

speggy - Posted - 04/14/2009:  09:36:39

pecker dunne has a good grasp of the 5 string and incorporates it well into irish music!!

Yours, pickingly,


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