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Banjo versus TV week 116: The question of the mandolin-banjo

Posted by jrjenks on Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 5/16/2010 through 5/22/2010.
Banjo 678 hrs, TV 667 hours

The Banjo versus TV project faces an existential question.

When I started this project I set out the rules that determine what counts as banjo time, what counts as TV time, what counts as both and what counts as neither.

But those rules didn't anticipate this question: What do I do about the time I spend on the Gold Tone Mandobanjo 850 that I just bought (for $267.77, cheap!) on eBay?

It's mandolin-banjo and isn't strictly a banjo. So should I count the time I spend on the mandolin-banjo as banjo time or not?

Arguments against counting mandolin-banjo time as banjo time

The mandolin-banjo...

mandolin-banjo really a mandolin...

...with a banjo head. It's got eight strings (four identically-tuned two-string courses) like a mandolin. It's got the same scale length as a mandolin. It's tuned in perfect fifths, g d' a' e'', like a mandolin (and like a fiddle).

And if it's a different instrument than the banjo then I shouldn't count time spent on it as banjo time, just as I haven't counted time spent on other instruments as banjo time. Since I started this project in 2008 I've played various jug band instruments: kazoo, washtub bass, washboard, spoons and bottles. I also took a couple of months of guitar lessons so I could learn to follow along with the guitar player at a jam. And I've never counted the time spent on those instruments as banjo time.

Arguments for counting mandolin-banjo time as banjo time

Consider the banjolin.


The banjolin is really just a Irish tenor banjo...

Irish tenor banjo

...with a shorter scale length. The banjolin is tuned to g d' a' e'', one octave higher than the Irish tenor banjo's tuning of G d a e'.

The mandolin-banjo is just like a banjolin except that the mandolin-banjo has four two-string courses of strings instead of four strings. Same scale length, same tuning.

So the banjolin is a shorter Irish tenor banjo and the mandolin-banjo is an eight-stringed banjolin.

If I were playing an Irish tenor banjo (which I don't own, yet) I'd certainly count the time as banjo time. If I were playing its shorter cousin the banjolin (which I also don't own, also yet) I'd count that as banjo time, too. After all, I've counted the time spent on my sawed-off banjo...

Comparing J.R.'s sawed-off banjo to a standard 5-string banjo. banjo time.

So I should treat time spent on the mandolin-banjo the same way I'd treat time spent on the Irish tenor banjo or the banjolin: as banjo time. The extra four strings shouldn't make a difference.


All things considered, I'm going to count mandolin-banjo time as banjo time. Welcome to the family, new mandolin-banjo!

Things I learned at this week's banjo lesson:

  • I've been working on that play-the-melody-on-a-single-string Alan Munde technique but I haven't been able to figure out what to do with the other strings. So we worked on that.

    I'd like to write up an explanation, but honestly I'm still processing it.
  • Also, of course, we talked about my new mandolin-banjo.

Also in the last week:

  • I've been thinking about that DrumDial that I saw demonstrated the other week and how it seems like a great way to verify even tension on a banjo head. So I bought one.

    I noted with interest a thread at the Banjo Hangout about tension readings. The thread was mostly about the readings for a Neary Drum Torque Wrench but a few people discussed the settings for their Drumdial. The Drumdial settings were 89 for a Gold Tone, 94 for an OME and 90 for some other banjo.

    I also found this advice (apparently from Tom at Janet Davis Music):
    For most Mastertone style banjos using a Remo Weatherking head, setting the head around 89 will give you a nice bass response with a clear treble, and going up to 90 or 91 will brighten the tone considerably. Different heads, like the 5-Star and Ludwig heads are thicker material, and will have better clarity around 92-93. Personal preference does play a role, so you can start with the tension around 88 and tighten the head evenly until you find the tone you like best.
  • A few weeks ago I ordered the banjo, mandolin and guitar DVDs and books from The Ultimate Beginner Series by Alfred Music.

    The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Banjo Basics book The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Banjo Basics & Beyond DVD The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Mandolin Basics book The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Mandolin Basics & Beyond DVD The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Guitar Basics book  The Ultimate Beginner Bluegrass Guitar Basics & Beyond DVD

    They've just arrived.

    I dunno about this series. On the plus side the instructions seem to be pretty good and I really like the way that all of the books feature the same songs. If you and some buddies are learning the instruments at the same time I can see that it would be fun to learn using this series.

    But the downside is it all seems kind of fast. The lessons don't have a lot of detail and they go through it very quickly. But the biggest speed problem is with the play-along-with-the-band portion of the DVD. Those guys are playing these songs waaaaay too fast for a beginner to keep up with.

    I followed the first few chapters of the mandolin book and the first half hour of the mandolin DVD with my new mandolin-banjo and I felt that I learned some good stuff. Nonetheless I have the feeling these books and DVDs are going to gather dust on my shelves for a while.
  • I just found out that one of my favorite comics, The Walking Dead is being made into a TV show for AMC. Cool.
  • I had to do without my iPhone for a while because I dropped it in a toilet.

    It made me aware of how much I use my iPhone for my banjo practice. I use a Metronome app...

    ...and the Omnituner app...

    ...a lot. But most often I use the included timer and camera to record my practice time.

    Those two images tell me everything I need to know for my practice log: When I practiced, how much time I practice for and what I was doing. See, that's the floor of my laundry room, which reminds me that I was working on chord forms while I was waiting on laundry. And these two images...

    ...tell me that I spent 20 minutes playing along with the Slow Jam With Murphy and Casey DVD.

Cross-posted at J.R. Jenks' blog

2 comments on “Banjo versus TV week 116: The question of the mandolin-banjo”

maryzcox Says:
Thursday, May 27, 2010 @4:43:33 AM

LOL :) I have an old Belltone banjomandolin from the 1930s that is in good shape and I have it under my bed--so pull it out and play fiddle and celtic tunes in the morning. It is great fun--but definitely is more of a mandolin even if it looks like a banjo. :)
Best wishes,
Mary Z. Cox

Cottonmouth Says:
Thursday, May 27, 2010 @8:26:54 AM

I have owned several Fairbanks-Vega mandolin banjos, Style K and Style S models. I suppose the Gold Tone offering, despite it's rather small head diameter, can qualify. Who is to say a 8-1/2" head or even a 12" head cannot qualify? There are definitely more parts involved with the rim portion of the instrument versus the neck part, leading most folks to believe the instrument is a banjo, however, it is played with a pick like a mandolin. Of course, some types of banjo are played with a flatpick, too, so I would give the edge to it's being a "banjo".

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