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Help on deciding - Old American tenor or New Irish tenor

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May 18, 2022 - 9:49:56 AM
4 posts since 5/18/2022

Hi all,

I'm brand new to BanjoHangout but I've read so many posts in researching what banjo to get that I feel like I already know it here!

I'm a guitar player looking to get back into playing Irish trad on tenor, I stopped when I was still a kid. I think I've decided to go with a 19 fret since I'm reading it's more versatile and you could always capo down to get that "17 fret feel."

The final question I'm facing is should I go for an older American tenor (Gretsch New Yorker) or a newer Irish made one (Koda FBJ2419)? My budget is pretty limited at ~$300-400 at the most.

I'm sure if I keep playing this will be the first of many-- my main concern is simply getting something of good enough quality that I can play right away to start learning on.

Any thoughts to help me out would great. Thank you.

May 18, 2022 - 10:28:55 AM

csacwp

USA

3035 posts since 1/15/2014

I'd pick the New Yorker over the Koda any day, but honestly you'd be better off saving up a bit more for something nicer. The Koda is Chinese junk (not Irish made), and while the New Yorker is significantly better, it's still a budget instrument. For a few hundred more you could get a much nicer vintage tenor.

May 18, 2022 - 11:38:48 AM

4 posts since 5/18/2022

Thanks @csacwp!

That's great to know -- I hadn't found much on the Koda except that it was only being sold in Irish music shops and defined as "a good starter tenor." Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places (Ebay, Reverb, Elderly), were there any specific closed-back models in mind that I should be looking out for?

May 18, 2022 - 11:44:12 AM

586 posts since 5/29/2015

$400 can buy a decent vintage tenor banjo with tone ring. The problem--and it is a problem--is finding one that does have the common need of a neck set. To me a Gretsch New Yorker tenor is a $150 to $250 banjo and slow seller in the upper range. I would buy a Harmony Reso-tone tenor banjo with the steel reinforced neck in the $100-$150 range before the Gretsch.

I just looked on Reverb and it is full of badly overpriced tenor banjos of unknown condition.

May 18, 2022 - 12:52:47 PM

csacwp

USA

3035 posts since 1/15/2014

quote:
Originally posted by irishplucky

Thanks @csacwp!

That's great to know -- I hadn't found much on the Koda except that it was only being sold in Irish music shops and defined as "a good starter tenor." Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places (Ebay, Reverb, Elderly), were there any specific closed-back models in mind that I should be looking out for?


If you follow Reverb, Ebay, or Craigslist and are patient, you should be able to grab a Vega tenor (with Electric or Tubaphone tone ring) or a B&D Silver Bell for under $1000. Also keep an eye out on Ebay UK and Gumtree for English makes like Clifford Essex and Weaver.

May 18, 2022 - 4:10:42 PM

4 posts since 5/18/2022

Thank you both, it's really helpful context when wading through all that's out there.

I'm eager to start but I'll look out for those models/sites until something right comes along then. Waiting a bit will also help my budget go up some to match.

May 18, 2022 - 4:26:24 PM
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DSmoke

USA

1191 posts since 11/30/2015

I specialize in the repair and restoration of tenors for Irish trad playing. I do have new Rover banjos that are fully setup and ready to play. I have sent a Rover banjo around the country to some great players who all agree that this banjo is great for the price and better than many of the new banjos in the $500 to $600 range. Below is a link to my website and more importantly a link to an article I wrote on purchasing a tenor banjo for Irish trad playing.

I also work with buyers to find vintage banjos to meet their needs and budget. We work together to find a banjo. It is sent to me for any repairs and a good setup, then I send it to you.

tradbanjo.com/collections/banjos
tradbanjo.com/pages/buying-adv...nor-banjo

May 18, 2022 - 4:40:53 PM
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rcc56

USA

4227 posts since 2/20/2016
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You might also want to consider a Vega Little Wonder, also known as style N. There's one in the hangout classifieds for $400 [listed under Fairbanks/Vega], and another [listed under Vega] for $500.  There are also a couple on reverb for $500 or less. If you can't scare up an extra $100, you can try making an offer.

Although Little Wonders are not as upscale as Tubaphones and Whyte Laydies, they are good banjos with tone rings and good quality construction, and are worth considering.  I consider them to be a lot of banjo for the money.

If you search for Vega, also search Fairbanks.   They can be listed either way.

Edited by - rcc56 on 05/18/2022 16:51:30

May 18, 2022 - 4:46:48 PM

935 posts since 2/19/2012

Where are you located, Sean?

May 19, 2022 - 10:02:56 AM

4 posts since 5/18/2022

Thanks everyone. I'm located in New York (NYC + family in the ADKs). As I mentioned, it's been a while since I played so I'm not sure what I'd be looking for on a higher end instrument. I think the next step I'm missing here is to get my hands on some different ones and see what feels right -- if anyone has any shop recommendations in my area for trying out new and vintage ones, I'd appreciate it.

That's a great article DSmoke, thanks for sharing. I'd be interested in chatting with you once I have a better idea of what I need.

The Vega in the hangout classifieds looks beautiful-- originally I thought they were out of my price range or that I didn't want a 17 fret. But maybe that'd be the way to go. Quickly realizing here I have a lot to learn!

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May 19, 2022 - 10:21:22 AM
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DSmoke

USA

1191 posts since 11/30/2015

quote: Originally posted by irishplucky
Thanks everyone. I'm located in New York (NYC + family in the ADKs). As I mentioned, it's been a while since I played so I'm not sure what I'd be looking for on a higher end instrument. I think the next step I'm missing here is to get my hands on some different ones and see what feels right -- if anyone has any shop recommendations in my area for trying out new and vintage ones, I'd appreciate it.

That's a great article DSmoke, thanks for sharing. I'd be interested in chatting with you once I have a better idea of what I need.

The Vega in the hangout classifieds looks beautiful-- originally I thought they were out of my price range or that I didn't want a 17 fret. But maybe that'd be the way to go. Quickly realizing here I have a lot to learn!

July 10 to 16 is Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham. I’ll be there with a few different banjos. There will also be many banjo friends there hanging out and playing tunes. I also know a few banjo players in the NYC metro, and they will also be in the Catskills. There will be many banjos for you to check out there. I will also have many of my tools with me so if you do find something before then and can make it to the Catskills I would be happy to check it out.

May 26, 2022 - 8:29:18 PM

17 posts since 8/24/2020

At the risk of offending traditionalists, i recommend that you check out the inexpensive composite banjos by Goldtone, Rover and Stagg for around $250. They sound really good and are an inexpensive way to get playing. I refused to look at them for years but was surprised when I played one. They are lightweight and new. If you change your mind on the tenor, you can use it as a canoe paddle. I just ordered the new Goldtone fretless five string. Its the sound you are after. You can always upgrade later.

May 26, 2022 - 9:32:24 PM

rcc56

USA

4227 posts since 2/20/2016
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I don't know why a lot of the current players insist on 19 fretters or considers them to be "more versatile."
No one plays up there, or at least not very much. 


The longer scales associated with 19 frets might make for a banjo that's 5 or 10% louder, but any good tone ring banjo is loud enough, and a shorter scale makes for easier fingering for tunes. 

But in America in 21st century, bigger is better.  "Faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, more money" -- Tom T. Hall

I had a simple 17 fret short scale Vega style M Tubaphone, no frills, no resonator.  If anything, it was too loud, at least for playing alone around the house.  I suppose I should have kept that one.

May 27, 2022 - 10:26:18 AM
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DSmoke

USA

1191 posts since 11/30/2015

quote:
Originally posted by rcc56

I don't know why a lot of the current players insist on 19 fretters or considers them to be "more versatile."
No one plays up there, or at least not very much. 

I believe it is because many of the Irish players are looking for banjos with a resonator.  When this playing took off in Ireland (1970/80's) they were playing vintage banjos, it was the only option.  They soon discovered that the vintage tenors with the good tone rings and resonators were mostly 19 fret and 22" to 23" scale.  The new banjos then copied Gibson design and scale length (Clareen, Dave Boyle, Emerald).  I also believe that back in the 1920's the longer scale allowed a narrower neck which is very important for Irish playing.

I had a simple 17 fret short scale Vega style M Tubaphone, no frills, no resonator.  If anything, it was too loud, at least for playing alone around the house.  I suppose I should have kept that one.


I have 3 banjos that I play.  An Epiphone Recording A (19 fret, 23" scale), a Weymann Orchestra 4 (19 fret, 22" scale) and a Vega Special, which is a large pot Tubaphone (16 fret, 20-3/4" scale).  I can play them all without any difficulty.  This was not possible when I started out and thought I had to play a short scale for a variety of reasons, which I proved were myths.  I've setup and played many, many new and vintage banjos that are ideal for Irish.  I own my banjos based on the tone, obviously they must meet my criteria for playability, but it's the tone.  That short scale Vega is a monster and has a thinner neck profile than others I've played.  It's a dream banjo.  

I had a Gibson TB3 ball bearing that was a short scale.  I found a long scale neck and made the 2 interchangeable.  This was to test does the neck length matter that much to the tone and volume.  Yes, the longer scale was better, in my opinion.  It was a few years ago and not sure how much I documented.  I think one of those reasons of the tone comparison of short vs long is bridge placement.  Do the new builders have the neck length measurements of the short and long correct so that the bridge is in the same location.  The vintage banjos were not made for GDAE tuning and some of the older short scale open back just feel like they are running at 80% which probably falls on the overall design and bridge placement. 

Just sharing some of the thoughts always running through my head.  In the end, if you play enough banjos one will say "this is the one".  Unfortunately, most of us on this forum are in the US and rare to find a place with a few GDAE tuned tenors to test out.

May 27, 2022 - 12:54:20 PM
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935 posts since 2/19/2012

I have a 17 fret (20-3/4 inch scale) that is fun and easy to play, but I find the longer scales are easier to tune, my Little Wonder being the longest at 23 inches. The longer strings are more elastic and easier to get on pitch, plus I think they intonate a little better on the first couple of frets. Were I to build a short scale banjo, I'd adjust the distance to the first, maybe even second frets just a little.

May 27, 2022 - 4:26:58 PM

rcc56

USA

4227 posts since 2/20/2016
Online Now

If you're having tuning problems on the short scale banjo, try going up .001" on the gauge of each string. That will compensate for the lower tension that is a result of the shorter scale, and might solve your tuning problems.

May 28, 2022 - 9:38:19 AM

310 posts since 5/14/2007

I recently noticed a couple of Tenors on our local Minneapolis Craigslist. I would look for a 19 fret. You will still need some heavier strings …. Or I should say “I” need heavier strings. Tenors get a little sloppy when tuned to GDAE.

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