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

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Lorilee - Posted - 04/10/2019:  08:03:43

Hi All!
I am a beginner 5 string player--going on 3 years now. I have learned so much but still have a very long road ahead of me. I never thought the banjo would be for me. I bought one for my husband around 30 years ago, and when he didn't touch it after the first day or two, it lived in my closet. My daughter took it for a while, but she didn't take but 1 or 2 lessons on it. She asked if we wanted her to sell it, and I on impulse said not to, that I might want to try. Well, after the finger pain subsided, and I started making a little progress, I was hooked. That banjo has moved on, and I now have a Deering openback and a Bishline Patriot. I practice on average around 2 hours every evening about 6 days a week. I never set out to practice that long ("I'll be about 45 minutes, Honey"), but it just seems that time flies by. Recently, after lurking on this forum for a while and looking at classified ads here on BH, I decided I'd like to try a tenor banjo. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on something I wasn't certain about, so I bought a used Gold Tone Cripple Creek 19 fret. I quickly learned that accessories (string sets, books, instructors, etc......) are in fairly short supply. So I ordered a reprint of Harry Reser's book, Mel Bay's First 20 Lessons, and Hal Leonard's Tenor Banjo (this one hasn't arrived yet). I will read through all 3 of them, but I was hoping that you all could give a very interested beginner some advice as to where to start, what to concentrate on, and some basic playing tips that will help me along on this journey. The tenor is currently at a luthier's shop as it had a fret or two that were sticking up too high, so when it gets back I want to spend some quality time getting to know it a little. I can't wait. Thanks, All, for any help you can send my way.

Greg72 - Posted - 04/10/2019:  09:14:58

I'm a beginner also. There are resources out there available for download. Google "McNeil chord system for tenor banjo". The university of Rochester has it on their website. Eddy Davis has a PDF book available on his website as well.

For me, there's no substitute for a good teacher. However, in this day and age, you may have to rely on Skype for tenor lessons.

Good luck! With that kind of practice discipline, you should make progress quickly!

Omeboy - Posted - 04/10/2019:  09:20:04


Regarding the McNeil System For Tenor Banjo. . . . .

Pages 16 and 17 are what you need to see right away.  That's the "key" to the system. Here's the link:

malarz - Posted - 04/10/2019:  09:26:36

Get in touch with to see if there are any banjo groups in your area. Ask many questions here. I’ve found the Mel Bay tenor banjo books to be a little simpler to follow than the McNeil system but its all the same information just a different presentation system. Watch the youtube tutorials by Eddy Davis (Mr. Greenmeat), Steve Caddick (banjopapa) and Jack Ray (Tenor Banjo Academy). Buy earplugs for your family.

Good luck!

malarz - Posted - 04/10/2019:  09:44:29

I should add that I have not gone completely through either teaching system so my above remarks are not based on a thorough study.

Omeboy - Posted - 04/10/2019:  10:15:43

Lorilee. . .

Here's some historical background on four string banjos you might find interesting:

L50EF15 - Posted - 04/10/2019:  16:56:32

Good stuff in the linked posts, Paul. I do take mild exception to Witt’s contention that the electric guitar replaced the banjo - I said as much directly on the Deering site. He leaves out the era of the acoustic archtop guitar, namely the Gibson L5 and its derivatives and imitations. It was these instruments that directly replaced the banjo in jazz band rhythm sections. Think Freddie Green and Allan Reuss for example.

The electric guitar, as exemplified by Charlie Christian and his disciples, became prominent as a lead instrument. As we know, electric guitar cut across all genres and styles later on. But to argue that things went from banjo immediately to electric guitar doesn’t fully capture the picture.

On the OP topic, I have one of the Mel Bay tenor books. It has helped me so far, two years into the tenor journey. I have also found mandolin chord charts to be helpful.

Lorilee - Posted - 04/10/2019:  17:10:11

Thanks, Everyone, for your help. Omeboy, that article about the history of the 4 string was really interesting. Malarz, I will check out for sure and maybe pick up some earplugs for the husband (ha!). I have seen a couple of Eddy Davis' videos, and I found Jack Ray's site, but Steve Caddick is a new name to me. I'll check it out. Greg72, thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement. I really appreciate them. I will download the McNeil system too. Thanks, Omeboy, for the link. I imagine I'll be bothering you all with questions as I travel this road. Hope you don't mind. :-)

hobogal - Posted - 04/13/2019:  10:57:52

Hey Lorilee - I am having Skype lessons with Steve Caddick and would definitely recommend him. He is very patient (he needs to be with my terrible fumbling!)

There is a lack of instruction for jazz tenor banjo compared to what is available for 5string and books will only get you so far. That said, I noticed there is a new book by Fred Sokolow for tenor

malarz - Posted - 04/13/2019:  11:24:11

Steve Caddick is a good guy. And patient.

Regarding the tenor banjo tutorial books: most if not all were written and published (as far as I know) during the heyday of the tenor banjo’s popularity, the 1920’s-40’s. I would really like to see a tenor banjo instructional manual which presents learning how to play by learning how to play more contemporary tunes and songs. I know Steve Caddick performs a few Beatles songs and even though those are from the 1960’s at least they are of a more contemporary point of view. Nothing at all wrong with the traditional songs and tunes, of course, but maybe if there were more recent melodies arranged for beginning and intermediate players it might spark more of an interest in the instrument.

Maybe there are and I just don’t know of any?

Veerstryngh Thynner - Posted - 04/13/2019:  14:15:40


Are you still playing your five string? If so, you might like to invest in a small, hand-held digital recorder mounted on a mic stand. Neither to break the bank, I assure you. 

Forming a duo with yourself is an excellent learning/practice tool.

Two features you may need:

1) at least two, but better three or four separately recordable channels/tracks: one for your 5-string, one for your tenor.

2) speed control: let's say that you're using your 5-string to record a simple comping track, speed control gives you the freedom of slowing down or speeding up your recorded comping track. Handy if you have just just embarked on a new  tune and you need your accompaniment track to play a little slower than originally recorded. And once you have got the hang of your tune , you can speed it up again.

Note: I think most handheld recorders have a slider that, with change of speed, also change pitch - but I'm not sure of this, to be honest. Good places to start anyway are Zoom and Tascam.

The Tascam brand resorts under TEAC. For an overview of Zoom model names, Google for Zoom forum index: Zoom's H series to your liking, perhaps, since powerful stereo microphones are all-in.

Alternatively, go for Audacity on your laptop or desktop. Downloadable for free. And it has separate speed and pitch controls. But you'd also need an audio interface, a good microphone, and a mic stand 

Furthermore, you are  learner. Moreover, you are a learner with terrific discipline. That's rarer than you think. So in order to keep up with that, you'd like banjo playing to be fun, I wager.

Well, here's some more advice from someone who's been around the block a couple of times:

- Learning from books is fine. Maybe there are even tenor banjo DVD courses, I don't know. Whatever your choice, these are rightly the basis of your progress. And yet:

- Start from chord shapes you can move down and up the fingerboard. Hint: there are at least five types

- Work out variations on and inversions of the former.

- Now figure out how to play a scale in C entirely in chords. Hint: your pinkie is invaluable, on your A string.

- Set yourself challenges to keep your learning fresh.

- Do not move to anything new before you have mastered the task you have set yourself.

- In this respect, be critical of yourself. Try not to be too smug too soon.

- Watch loads of YouTube clips of tenor banjo pros in action. Try to analyse what their chord hand is doing, bar by bar, and attempt to emulate this, bar by bar. Don't give up too soon.

- Dare to be experimental. Trying inspirations out of the box may well take you to places wholly unexpected. This helped me, anyway, to develop a highly individual style. Hint: your plectrum hand syncopation may be one skill you might like to improve.

- Dare to be unorthodox. For the same reason as above.

- Be kind to your instrument and treat it with respect.

Good luck.

Veerstryngh Thynner

Edited by - Veerstryngh Thynner on 04/13/2019 14:17:01

Lorilee - Posted - 04/13/2019:  17:25:32

@Veerstryngh Thynner, thank you for your kind reply. You gave me a lot of good advice that I will certainly pay heed to. Your advice about chord shapes is a great idea. I can play that C scale in chords on my 5 string, so I will work on that with the tenor. Chords on the tenor may be the death of me. The reach that some of them demand is really tough--but I'll get there eventually. As for recording myself, I have been told that before. I guess I really should look into getting that going. Again, thanks so much for your very kind and thoughtful reply. I really appreciate it.

Veerstryngh Thynner - Posted - 04/14/2019:  01:53:14


I'm largely autodidact. Classical piano gave me reading skill and theoretical grounding, but I developed an individual style almost wholly on my own steam.

I had to learn chords twice, over that course. My first banjo a mandolin hybrid with just four functional tuning pegs left, in soprano uke tuning. This helped me to a mean syncopative plectrum hand. But then my first "real" tenor banjo arrived, as a birthday gift - soon making my uke chords redundant. And so I had to start all over again.

I was thinking of those days, when writing my previous post. Suggestions offered there all working very well for me. I hope some of those will do for you, too.

Your remark on overstretching your fingers, on learning chords, puzzled me a bit, though. What you are experiencing, at present, I did not, when I was at the stage you are today. But then I was still growing, when setting out: just eleven. Maybe that's why the span between my left thumb and little finger is still enormous, I guess, in late middle-age.

Last year I saw some guitarist doing simultaneous octaves, on adjacent strings, and I tried to translate that to tenor. I found that playing, as a pair, open C plus C one octave up on G, for instance, is indeed feasible, but literally quite a stretch. Yet moving that double octave down the fingerboard quickly and accurately (and up again!) takes quite some practice. I haven't mastered that yet.

So I'll return to your magical pinkie once again. As well as to playing a C scale in chords.

- If you do so •on all four strings•, use your little finger to "walk" from chord to chord, as it were. All down the fingerboard.

- But you can do the same in reverse as well. From, say, your barré C nearest the pot rim. And from there all the way up.

Now, do whip out your chord chart and study closely those basic four-string chord shapes movable up and down the fingerboard. There's a simple way to approach these as •three-string• chords, instead as of •four-string• chords, on the way up again. Hint 1: something to omit, off and on. Hint 2: in this case, your little, middle and index fingers, in that exact order, are your friends. :-)

- Another change of perspective is on in-between positions 5 and 1. Once out of A string, how would you proceed from G to lowest C, still in chords? Again, you'll need to omit something. And hint 3: your •fingering•  is now key to your movable chord shapes, on your way to lowest C. But best, perhaps, is first to map your routing in single string, and then to work from there.

Right. That's enough "homework", I think, for now. One thing more, though, to end with: rather than spelling out chapter and verse, I like to set a challenge. I hope I'm not overtaxing you, but I think this latest batch of suggestions may help to forge a closer bond with your instrument.

Veerstryngh Thynner

Edited by - Veerstryngh Thynner on 04/14/2019 02:08:07

Veerstryngh Thynner - Posted - 04/14/2019:  02:20:36


I, too, like to thank you for those really interesting articles you linked to your post. But have you also noticed that banjomaker J.B. Schall, mentioned in the first one, died aged just 29?

Veerstryngh Thynner

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