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A Wonderful Second Instrument for Irish Tenor Banjo Players

Posted by yellowdog on Monday, December 13, 2010

    A few weeks ago our Irish Beginner Session had three visitors stop by from the coast of Mississippi.  One of them played an octave mandolin and asked if I would like to play it.   I said, "sure", because I knew that an octave mandolin is tuned the same as the Irish-tuned tenor banjo that I was playing at that moment - GDAE, and that the scale length of the octave mandolin,  (which I learned later was exactly 20-3/4 inches), was the same as a tenor banjo.  But I was still surprised by its very loud volume, strikingly beautiful tone and amazing sustain that seemed to last as long as I held my fingers on the strings.  After playing one tune I said to him, "This is going to cost me some money!"  Which it did.  I ordered one from Amazon three days later.   The cost was about $460 with an excellent hardshell case and with free shipping.

   The instrument that he had and that I ordered was a Trinity College Brand Model M-325 octave mandolin which is the least expensive of several models offered by that company and made in China.  The best website to see and hear the instrument is probably, which has several videos.  There are several videos of this same instrument being played on Youtube also.  The workmanship was excellent and it was well packed, however there were no instructions.  The bridge was not installed and there was no mark on the instrument to show where to place it.  This wasn't a problem for me because I was experienced in placing bridges on banjos, but it certainly would have been a major problem for a new or inexperienced players since they would probably have to haul it to a music store for set up.  Amazon also had an incorrect picture shown for the instrument in their ad.  Amazon's picture for the M-325 showed an oval sound hole and was probably Trinity's slightly more expensive model, while my instrument had a round sound hole.  I was happy though because mine was exactly like the instrument that I had played that was owned by our session visitor from Mississippi.

   I took my new octave mandolin, which everybody calls an "OM" for obvious reasons, ("octave mandolin" is a mouthful), to our intermediate Irish Pub session the following Wednesday and alternated playing it with the banjo.  At least that was the plan, because I had so much fun playing it that I played it most of the time. 

    The OM was no trouble for me to play either single string or in chord melody solo style because that is the way I play a tenor banjo, but I have a lot to learn because I've never played chord accompaniment on the tenor banjo.  All three of these styles work on the OM but the sound of our group would benefit if I were better at playing just chords, especially after our guitar player came in late, without her guitar, and announced that it had fallen from her soft case and shattered on the frozen pavement!  I tried to fill in for the absent guitar with a mix of chords, double notes and single notes but pure chords would have sounded better.

     So now my thick notebook of Irish tunes has three wooden clothespin bookmarks instead of two, to mark where I left off in my practice sessions.  One clothes pin is marked "B" for banjo. A second is marked, "V" for violin (I call it a "fiddle" in our sessions like everyone else, but in my home it is always, "the violin".)  And the new third clothespin is marked, "OM" and is clipped to page 26 of Book 1 of the Comhaltas Foinn Seisiun Series of Irish Tunes.  The clothes pin marked "OM" is moving through the book at a very fast clip.   (Sorry, couldn't help the pun.)

     Naturally, I tried to improve the sound and did so with a new mechanical amplifier and tone enhancer which I will post on my website soon and also show pictures of here. The new device for OM, which I named, "Mando Shark", also works on regular mandolins and f-hole guitars.  It is an  adaptation of our new "Fiddle Shark" amplifier/tone enhancer for fiddles.  Like "Fiddle Shark", the amplifier and sound emitter on "Mando Shark" is in the sound chamber of the instrument.  However, unlike "Fiddle Shark". the sound emitter in "Mando Shark" is suspended on its retrieval thread about 2-1/2 inches below the sound hole. The thread is locked in a narrow cut on a small, brown, plastic-coated thread holder that is stuck to the side of the mandolin with sound surface wave insulating tape.  The special tape, which won't damage the mandolin, protects the thread from sound surface waves on the side of the mandolin from degrading the sound.  (Sound surface waves on the side are badly out of phase with waves at the sound hole and therefore badly degrade the sound.)  The thread holder also holds the thread up 1/8" above the mandolin's top side edge and so away from the top of the mandolin, insuring that the thread only picks up sound surface waves from the edge of the sound hole for sending to the audible sound emitter.  This avoids distortions caused by surface waves away from the sound hole on the mandolin top which are also a bit out of phase and therefore degrade the sound.  I sent one of the new "Mando Sharks" to the OM player in Mississippi who kindly let me play his octave mandolin and so started this whole thing.  I'm anxious to hear how he likes it.  (His wife, who plays fiddle, is using our new "Fiddle Shark" in her fiddle.)  Now if I can just sell $460-worth of the new "Mando Sharks" I will almost break even!  - Moneywise, that is.  I am already a better musician and a much happier person for starting to play the octave mandolin.  So I highly recommend the OM as a second instrument for any Irish tenor banjo player looking for a second instrument.

   BTW, the chord forms are the same on the GDAE-tuned OM as those used on a CGDA-tuned tenor banjo, although they have different chord names because the GDAE tuning.  Many are shown graphically in my book, "Build Any Chord, Anywhere" which is a free download from the links page of my website,  Use tenor banjo chord forms and not mandolin chord forms because not all mandolin chords will work due to the greater stretch distance required by the OM.  It is easy to use standard tenor banjo chords.  Just line out the letter in the name of the tenor banjo chord shown with the chord diagram and write in the equivalent chord letter names for GDAE tuning, (Example: A "C" chord on the tenor banjo is the same as a "G" chord on the OM, etc.)   To determine the equivalent GDAE-tuned OM chord letter name from a given CGDA-tuned tenor banjo chord, simply locate any note having the letter shown in the tenor banjo chord on a tenor banjo fingerboard, (or in your mental image of a tenor banjo fingerboard), and move that note's location one string over toward the lowest string at the same fret.  For example, locate any G on a tenor banjo fingerboard and you will notice that a C is always one string over at the same fret in the direction of the lowest string.  So every C chord on a tenor is the same as a G  chord on the OM, etc.   An easy way for tenor banjo players to understand the OM GDAE fingerboard is to imagine removing the low C string from the tenor fingerboard, then add a high E string above the A which is normal mandolin tuning, and then lowering all strings down one whole octave below the mandolin tuning.  To make it even easier there is also a 9-page booklet of OM chords  (five chords per key) available as a free download from and you can probably find others on the web.  If you play tenor banjo you will recognized the OM chord forms immediately and you can learn the new names through use.

   It is my impression from what I read on the web that the octave mandolin is growing in popularity among Irish traditional music groups.  I don't know if that is true but if it is it is certainly easy to see why it should be after playing one in a session.  I love it!

1 comment on “A Wonderful Second Instrument for Irish Tenor Banjo Players”

Brooklyn Irish Banjo Says:
Tuesday, December 14, 2010 @8:04:50 AM

I enjoyed your blog!!

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