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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: tenor banjo fingering

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SharonB - Posted - 08/10/2007:  01:57:01

I am playing a tenor banjo tuned C-G-D-A. Being a lapsed viola player (too long lapsed for it to do much more than confuse me) I am understand the instrument better musically if I finger it like a viola or violin - that is, with the first finger fretting the first two frets, the second finger fretting the next two, the third finger fretting the next two and the fourth finger on the 7th fret. But it's a difficult stretch for my hands. If a succumb to my hands and play the fourth finger on the fifth fret, I become very confused because (a) I think I'm playing the fifth when I'm only playing the fourth and (b) I think I'm playing a guitar, where the fifth fret is the same as the next string up...
What's the right way to do it? Stretching my hands like this is already giving me wrist pain and I've just had the darn thing for a month.

"You can't take yourself too seriously when you're singing about a chicken." - Ruth Ungar

mainejohn - Posted - 08/10/2007:  06:52:43

I'm a bit confused by your description, but what little I know about tenor banjo chords, the three basic chord formations involve no more than four frets at a time. I'm hoping that someone who understands your issue will chime in.

Scarborough, Maine

mikeyes - Posted - 08/10/2007:  11:40:38

If you are talking about playing single string, then the style you mention is actually a handicap. It is easier to use the finger assignment method of first finger on second fret, second finger on third fret, etc. Most people play chord melody on the tenor (assuming you are playing jazz) or use the finger assignment method which is the same way most guitar players play.

If you are looking to play an Irish style, I advocate the same method. Coming from fiddle or mandolin to banjo gives you a certain set of lick using the first style you mention, but it is harder on the hand especially if the instrument is a 19 fret one with a 22-23" scale. Go to for more information.

Mike Keyes

SharonB - Posted - 08/10/2007:  12:00:22

Thank you Mike. I am indeed trying to play jazz style tenor. Last night I tried using the regular finger-assignment method and it was MUCH easier on my hands! But here's my question - do we only play chord melody or do we do single note solos? And if we do single note solos, do we stick around the nut or go up? And if we go up, do we just slide on up there where we need to or is there an equivalent of "third position" on the tenor? AND if we are playing chord melody, do we play it throughout the piece or only during a solo??

"You can't take yourself too seriously when you're singing about a chicken." - Ruth Ungar

mikeyes - Posted - 08/10/2007:  19:44:44

The best way to start out is to get a teacher, barring that, get the Buddy Wactcher "Learning Tenor Banjo"" DVD to get an idea of what can be done. There are several members here who will comment also.

Watcher is an incredible musician who happens to be a good teacher and I recommend him highly. I use his ideas with my Irish tenor banjo playing and was surprised that I could.

Yes, you can go to third positionon the banjo, and fourth if you wish. Think of it as a sideways cello <G>

Mike Keyes

Edited by - mikeyes on 08/10/2007 19:46:39

Plectrum Banjoist - Posted - 08/10/2007:  20:39:45

Hello, Sharon:
You can do EITHER chord melody OR single note solos - and in the same song. They both sound good and are appropriate according to what song you might be playing. If you're just playing rhythm, chord melody isn't necessary throughout the song; just during your solo.
A single-note solo can be played next to the nut and sound okay, or you can go up the neck to the second, third or fourth position to play it - the tenor banjo is a marvelously flexible instrument (although I prefer the plectrum, myself).
What Mike said is true - Buddy Wachter is a wonderful player and great guy to learn from. Even better is to join a band or your local banjo club: most cities have one. You'll learn a lot very quickly from your collegues.
Good luck and keep plugging away at it.

Marc L. Bordelon

CageyK - Posted - 08/11/2007:  21:33:38

Originally posted by SharonB

I am playing a tenor banjo tuned C-G-D-A.


I'm just do the absolute pitches on the tenor banjo of C-G-D-A (or G-D-A-E in Irish Tenor) compare to the g-D-G-B-D pitches in standard G tuning on a 5-string?

For example, is the "G" in C-"G"-D-A (or "G"-D-A-E) the same as g-D-"G"-B-D, or is it higher/lower in tenor(Irish)?

I'm still learning all-that-is-banjo, so please be tolerant if this is obvious to you.

Thanks in advance!


SharonB - Posted - 08/12/2007:  18:05:58

The G and D strings are the same tone as on the 5-string and the others are arranged in relation to them - so the A is a fifth higher than the D and the C is a fifth lower. Its not like in horn playing where a note might be written as a C but really be an E-flat...One thing I find difficult about reading music written for tenor banjo is that it's written in the G clef instead of the alto clef (which I was used to for viola playing) and it's written an octave above the actual note, so you wind up with all these notes above the scale that are hard to read.l

"You can't take yourself too seriously when you're singing about a chicken." - Ruth Ungar

yellowdog - Posted - 08/17/2007:  19:58:58

I'm with you, Sharon. It is hard to read music written specifically for the tenor banjo. So I don't do it. I play the tenor banjo using piano music or "lead sheets" from fake books, usually playing from popular piano music (not "easy play") with a vocal line and with the names above the music to make forming the chords easier. - No chord diagrams needed or wanted - they're confusing! If the music calls for a C note in the melody I just play any C - the C that I like. Sometimes it is the one I can sing and sometimes it's the one lower or higher. Because I'm not in an orchestra there is no conductor to frown at me for playing the "wrong" octave. Besides, it is "right" to my ear and that's all that matters. Often the melody is on the next-to-higher string and that leaves the high string available for embellishments to polish up the solo. But you will have to learn the G clef and forget the alto clef unless you like to count! (I still count the bass clef to include a bass line.) Think of all the music that's available to you dirt cheap at book sales when you learn using piano music! Throw the tenor music away!

Frank Geiger

Cottonmouth - Posted - 08/19/2007:  20:42:37

Sharon, Might you consider differnt open tunings and utilizing a capo (ugh?), therefore reducing some of the span? My 17-fret tenor banjo is in GDAE and I use the open D tuning of ADAD and capo up the neck to desired keys. My fingers are very short, and this has made playing much easier. Age (mine) has brought on enough hand problems to force me to put down the guitar, but mandolin and banjo are still within reach!

mikeyes - Posted - 08/19/2007:  23:37:36

I don't think that short fingers are much of a problem. Angelina Carberry has short fingers (she is about 4'11" herself) and she has little problem using the finger assignment method on a 17 fret banjo. I'll have some videos of her playing in the Nov banjosessions if anyone is interested.

Also, about the capo, Mick Moloney uses one all the time to play in odd keys such as Eb when he accompanies an F or Eb instrument (mostly button accordion.) If Mick is OK with it, who am I to judge? He needs to use a Paige, though, instead of his guitar capo.

Mike Keyes

mikeyes - Posted - 08/19/2007:  23:38:49

That last post is assuming you are going to play single string. Alternative tunings are OK, but they lose the flavor of GDAE and are much less versatile, especially if you are going to play in Gm or Dm. A number of newer of newer Irish tunes are in those keys.

Mike Keyes

Edited by - mikeyes on 08/19/2007 23:41:43

ruraltradpunk - Posted - 08/20/2007:  16:37:42

Looking forward to those Angelina Carberry videos Mike! Been listening to alot of her stuff recently - definitely one of my favourite players.


Cottonmouth - Posted - 08/22/2007:  19:36:39

Trust me, y'all; small hands, with short arthritic fingers, are a problem for some folks. Those of you in doubt may live long enough to experience it yourselves, but I hope that you are not inconvenienced by it.

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