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 Playing Advice: 4-String (Jazz, Blues & Other Trad Styles)
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Banjo Bands and Banjo Orchestras

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Boogie Bogen - Posted - 11/10/2019:  14:51:02

I realize not everyone likes banjo bands, but I'm thinking of starting one in my town. Any advice? Who are the best banjo bands out there?

I'm considering starting with a core group before opening up to the public. Part of banjo bands is the various levels of players, encouraging people to learn the banjo, strengthening the banjo community, etc. I'd also like to make good music!

The core group will include plectrum, tenor, banjo uke, banjo mando, 5 string scruggs, 5 string clawhammer. Hopefully a cello banjo. There aren't many 4-string players here unfortunately.

If you were crazy enough to start a banjo orchestra, how would you do it??

G Edward Porgie - Posted - 11/10/2019:  15:25:05

Part of making good music with a banjo band is proper arrangements of songs. I suggest that if you don't have this ability yourself, that you find someone who does. That person should have some familiarity with all the types of banjos you wish to include.

Also, you might consider adding a couple of other instruments from time to time. A little percussion never hurts, and maybe a bass of some sort.

SunnylandBob - Posted - 11/10/2019:  18:38:52

With the expected diversity of instruments (and skill levels) involved, I'd suggest beginning with a fundamental core group of selected tunes which represent the styles/catalogs of tunes you'd like to play. I would also recommend some form of bass. Cello banjo might suffice, but an acoustic bass or similar low pitched instrument will offset the natural upper range bias of the instruments you listed.

Early string bands were known to play popular tunes including arranged ragtime pieces, marches, and specialty numbers (usually featuring dance and/or vocals) but there's nothing to stop you from reaching into folk or various pop catalogs, too.

Dynamics are sometimes an issue. Try to get the group to play controlled, keep steady tempos & hear each other well. Don't ever underestimate the value of being the best backing/support player each member of the group can makes the person you back up the best they can be and the group becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

In any case, as noted above it makes sense to have arrangements - likely a well written lead sheet & "roadmap" of breaks/repeats/verses or sections to start for most basic players - supplemented with specific harmony & accompaniment parts to be used by capable reader/players.

Joel Hooks - Posted - 11/10/2019:  18:43:00

Twice a year we have a "banjo orchestra" at the American Banjo Fraternity... it is the only time we can get a room full of classic banjo players together.

It is all 5 string instruments of the different sizes/voices-- Piccolo, Banjeaurine, Regular Banjos, and Cello or Bass Banjo. 

I'd love to do it year round but I have yet to find one classic banjoist in southern New Hampshire, let alone a dozen+.

For the most part we play arrangements that were published for this sort of thing, but we also play many arrangements by members.  All the parts much match for them to work.  It helps if all are reading notation too.  Free for alls tend to sound like a bunch of noise.

Dgbectrum - Posted - 11/13/2019:  05:52:16

I was in a band called "Banjobreakers", with a 5string, a plectrum, a mandoline-banjo and me on the contra-banjo (that you can see in my profile photograph).
It was a very powerful combo and, since there was different size and kind of banjo, the arrangement came out easily enough.
Unfortunately at that time there wasn't today's technology, so it last no video or record, but only few pictures.

blazo - Posted - 11/13/2019:  06:00:23

I have no affiliation with these folks but you might want to reach out to

Veerstryngh Thynner - Posted - 12/02/2019:  03:54:44

Hi all,


Although I’m coming in late, I’d like to thank OP Boogie Bogen for raising the subject of banjo ensembles & -orchestras. This is an area of great interest to me. Over several years past, I have been working on a banjo band that may hold a couple of unusual features, for some. And I have a hunch that this project of mine may well last until I’ll shuffle off this mortal coil.


The earliest beginning of it was a MIDI guitar displayed in a supermarket. I wondered then if a MIDI banjo could somehow be devised: some MIDI string instrument, anyway, to play banjo with, silently, over a laptop or desktop. That’s what I envisaged originally. Furthermore, I bought a second-hand 6-string three-quarter solid-body electric guitar, on a whim, and had it modified, eventually, to 4-string CGDA tenor banjo tuning. The next move on was then to devise some way of giving that instrument a more or less authentic tenor banjo sound by digital means. This led to years of experimenting. More miss than hit, really, upon reflection: most of my trials and errors didn’t work out too satisfactory, in the end. But not all. Some basics stuck.


At first I toyed with having a head built into my existing electric tenor guitar, but since decent tenor guitars are pretty hard to come by (that’s my impression anyway), this side of the planet, I ultimately decided against it. And from here, I ultimately moved towards an electric banjo of a design wholly specified to my own needs. To get there took a few detours as well. However, two sizes of prototypes are now likely to be built in January or in February 2020.


What’s more, though, the idea of a banjo band had also been buzzing in the background for a while already. But a modern-day emulation of a 40- to 50-piece 1920’s banjo orchestra does not enamour me, I confess. Personally, I find their overall sound often, well, clunky, I must say. I have watched a few, on YouTube, but found none, so far, that genuinely “sing”. And this is why I’d rather choose for quartet- or quintet form myself: quintet for jazz and quartet for all other musical styles. I’m thinking of this as a vehicle for radical change in tone, timbre, pace, and repertoire.


Small-group virtuosity at its most terrific comes from the New York Banjo Ensemble: That group doesn’t exist any more. All former members moved on to successful individual careers, in the meanwhile. But their legacy is still well-represented on YouTube. And another great inspiration of mine is Scottish multi-instrumentalist Rob McKiillop. YouTube clips of Rob’s quartet and quintet work are well worth studying, too. My own banjo quartet, though, is going to be one half “hardware” and one half “digital”, for the time being. And by way of aside: the OP of this thread did not mention whether his preference is for tenor- or plectrum banjo. My own choice of quartet line-up, for that matter, would be “piccolo”-, tenor-, and cello banjo, supported by an unusual upright bass instrument still in development, at the time of writing.  And those prototypes of before are central to it.


Tenor- and cello banjo are what I have in first instance in mind. For budgetary reasons, electric “piccolo” must follow later. The bottom line is, though, that all three banjos are, very practically, tuned CGDA. But as long as a “live” version of that bass alternative does not yet exist, I’ll have to make do with either digital representation of it, or simply with bass guitar. Besides, playing my acoustic “piccolo” banjo is  impossible, unfortunately, for now, due to left hand malfunction. This is not in any way irreversible, but presently “piccolo” banjo equally requires digital substitution, for a while anyway, until normal hand function has been restored. Therefore, my banjo ensemble won’t be a “live” one from starters.


That said, though, a “live” banjo band in due course seems to have potential still. Owning all four instruments myself, in another year (or two), as well as all the right recording equipment (some of which is already present), is, in my view, key to being in musical control. All I have to do then is matching persons with instruments. And with this in mind, I might be tempted to recruit three or four students of banjo, at some later stage, so as to pass on my playing style as well as my ideas on the theme of cello-, tenor- and “piccolo” interaction. Until that time, though, I’ll do all the playing and recording myself. 


However, intervening unpleasantly in all this, over the last three years at least, have been politics. Events completely outside of personal influence or control put my life thoroughly upside-down and, eventually, forced me to start from scratch all over again. Due to the pressures thereof attendant, no leeway for practical applications and manners of funding has been available for considerable time. Nevertheless a lot of thinking went into those matters still. And today’s reward is that outlines of new beginnings are now showing in this respect, too. However, there are a few ‘buts’ still.


This post comes to you from mainland Europe. Banjo manufacture, sales and service network as extensive as in the US does simply not exist here. Moreover, in number, banjo players may still be significant, over here (I don’t know), but simultaneously, banjo enthusiasts in Europe are increasingly senior overall: interest from below the age of 50 seems a rarity, just looking at the European contingent regular to BHO. And the same applies to banjo building expertise (f)actually at hand. A few old pros are still around, fortunately, but they, too, are rapidly nearing retirement. And there’ll be little to no follow-up, once they down tools, since nobody ever thought of that before, as one of the last standing heroes of banjo building in Germany once ruefully told me.


This is a growing problem. From where I live today, I must either travel to Belgium or to the north of Germany, for building, repair, or servicing. Now, if my next step is to be a commercial banjo production line, viability of it must be considered very carefully indeed. And additionally, finding the right level of musicianship required for my banjo quartet may also be a tough nut, I figure. But in the area I presently call home, mandolin orchestras happen to be popular. On one occasion, orchestra members kindly introduced the mandolo cello. And since this is also tuned CGDA, it’s a direct link to the cello banjo of my future banjo quartet. Moreover, tenor banjo chords are at once transferable to other types of mandolin generally, I notice.


If the OP is a tenor player as well, my suggestion would thus be to ask around in mandolin circles, too, for banjo band members. The best place to start, I think, may be the Mandolin Café. Besides, Mandolin Café has the further attraction of a tenor guitar sub-forum, if I remember correctly. To me, this convergence of related voices seems ideal for furthering banjo band plans. And one I’ll certainly consult myself, at some point, once getting together a live band of my own becomes requirement.


Good luck, and please keep us posted on further developments.


Veerstryngh Thynner

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