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Mar 11, 2020 - 6:28 PM
65 posts since 2/16/2020

I am absolutely new to irish tenor banjo. I just bought a cheap 23" scale tenor and put the capo on the 2nd fret to create a 20" scale. Now I'm trying to learn things the right way. My hands are kind of average size.
I thought this might be an easy question about which fingers are used on which frets on the short-scale irish tenor banjo (17 frets), but am getting the idea that it is not universal. This is what I read as the 2 ways people play:
Diatonic (3 finger?) fingering: each finger covers 2 frets: first finger frets 1&2, 2nd finger frets 3&4, 3rd finger frets 5&6, 4th finger fret 7.
Chromatic (4 finger?): first finger frets 1&2, 2nd finger fret 3, 3rd finger fret 4, 4th finger frets 5&6 (and I guess fret 7 too).

At this point I need to choose to learn it one way. Is one better than the other? Robert

Mar 11, 2020 - 6:57:28 PM



833 posts since 11/30/2015
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No, one way is not better than the other, there are pros and cons to both methods. I have smaller, older, stiff hands and started with a short scale 19.75" 17 fret tenor and I used the 4 finger method. Shortly after getting started I had an instructor encourage me to try 3 fingers and another who used 4. I eventually settled on 3 finger. I now play a 19 fret 23" scale banjo and while not easy my hand has adapted to it. I do not stick exactly to the 3 fingers though. If the passage allows I will shift to make playing the high b easier, or if I have a long stretch between notes (f natural followed by 5th fret a or d) I will sometimes use the pinky on the 5th fret if it makes it easier.

I think a lot of it comes down to the high b.  If you use 4 fingers any passage that plays a then b you will have to figure out how to handle that.  With 3 fingers that is ideal as you can rock over the a to play the b.

Watch lots of YouTube videos and see how they do it. Darren Maloney had one of the best left hands I've seen.

Mar 11, 2020 - 8:12:41 PM

716 posts since 2/19/2012

Originally posted by DSmoke

Watch lots of YouTube videos and see how they do it. Darren Maloney had one of the best left hands I've seen.

He makes it look so easy.  I'm working more and more on keeping my fingers down close to the frets to minimize unnecessary movement, which takes some slow practice.  The hardest for me is hopping back and forth from frets 2 (F#) and 7 (B) on the E string.  For some tunes I can reposition for an entire phrase, and others require rocking/hopping back and forth.  I'd love to take a workshop with someone like Darren Maloney.
Mar 11, 2020 - 9:01:21 PM

65 posts since 2/16/2020

I read an earlier thread on "coming from mandolin" also discussing finger placement, and watched both videos. I noted in both videos the players were using 4 fingers for the first 5 frets. Of course the high b might be harder with 4 finger style, but don't know if it is that much harder.

But I looked at the intro lesson on OAIM and she was definitely using 3 fingers for the first 5 frets in that first lesson.


Mar 12, 2020 - 3:00:31 AM

259 posts since 2/15/2015

When I first started playing stringed instruments I had the useless little finger syndrome, but with a touch of persistence I learned how to use all four of my fingers and it really didn't take that long. Robert Fripp told me to keep all my fingers close to the strings as possible without sticking a little pinky too far out and hanging donut on it when sipping tea...

The only instrument that I know of where your fingers naturally fall on the right notes is the violin, that's several hundred years worth of perfecting that particular instrument from what it was originally.

Other than that you're going to have to work on employing all four fingers and to do this really only need two do a couple of exercises one finger one fret 1 2 3 4, 4 3 2 1, next string 1 2 3 4 , 4321, next string Etc and go up the neck one fret at a time thusly.

Fretting chords should not feel like playing twister there is a natural occurring  positioning of the fingers that causes the least amount of strain and economizes the movement. Look for chord charts with fingering labeled to help you along.

Over time your fingers will become more dexterous and you would probably make slight shifts to fingerings that are comfortable for your hand size. However, for dexterity sake the fingering exercises are paramount.

Also if you're using a pick (plectrum) start doing the up down up down up down on every note you play ... one Note is up the next note is down. I think it is  called alternate picking. so you need to alternate your picking...up down up down up down up down. And 1 finger to 1 fret... simultaneously!

What I've just explained are merely exercises to get your dexterity flowing. 

Dexterity is important. Many beginners in many instructors teaching beginners completely overlook the importance of dexterity and developing dexterity earlier, which makes the beginning students better quicker.

Edited by - geoB on 03/12/2020 03:11:00

Mar 12, 2020 - 8:28:46 PM

65 posts since 2/16/2020

Darren Maloney is definitely using 4 fingers on the first 5 frets. My little finger is not conditioned but still feels quite up to the task with a little work. I will work on the exercises as you suggest.

With a four finger approach I might take the capo off and go back to the full 23" scale.

Mar 13, 2020 - 2:20:10 AM

259 posts since 2/15/2015

I've tried several sets of strings from Irish tenor stings at .010 tuned to E, which I find to be a little to slack, and .009 tenor strings tuned to C.

Truthfully, for me the Irish Tenor strings tuned to A feels about right tension wise, so that's where I tune it. But, I'm mostly a livingroom solo player and noodle there with fiddle tunes, Irish flute tunes, and Bach. None (or very few) of which I play true to the rhythms scored. But give me the satisfaction of playing in a nontraditional style and suits my personal needs. A 17 fret shortscale would be interesting to try.

As for watching others play, i really enjoy Eddy Davis on his 17 fret shortscale OME openback with a 12" rim in C. He showcases many tunes on Youtube, and here on BHO. He is very inspiring. Mostly jazz from many periods and American songbook showtunes. Very instructional. If you're not familiar with Eddy, he is well worth a looksee.

Mar 13, 2020 - 1:10:07 PM



833 posts since 11/30/2015
Online Now

Robert, I would encourage you to play without the capo regardless of how many fingers you use. There are little kids all over Ireland playing 22" to 23" scale banjos that will blow your mind. If you learn to play with the capo you will only later have to learn to play without it. The length of the neck is very important to tone. That's why many of the best trad banjos are over 22" scale length. When I have more time I will try to dig up some videos of people playing with 3 fingers. But you have to find what works best for you, and you likely won't know that until you have much more experience.

Since it was mentioned above you should read or search back through old posts about picking for Irish Trad. Most instructors will teach that jigs should be picked Down Up Down Down Up Down. I won't elaborate here but do some reading.

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