Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lesson Two: Anatomy of a Banjo


So let's start with the banjo itself. 
 
There is no such thing as an Irish tenor banjo.  There is an accepted tuning (GDAE) 
that most Irish tenor banjo players use, but the instrument itself is just a tenor banjo 
using that tuning.  You will find “Irish Tenor Banjo” advertised which refer to a 
short scale banjo, usually of 17 frets, like the one that Barney McKenna used in his 
career.  But this is more of a sales pitch than anything else.  Long scale tenor banjos 
around 23 inches are the standard for most performers mostly because they are easier 
to tune and they have more tone (or at least more people like the tone.)  It is not very 
important which of the scales you get but most players end up with the 23 inch scale. 
 
On the other hand, there is a significant difference brought on by the GDAE tuning. 
It is a lower registered tuning, an octave below a mandolin and in the guitar/bouzouki 
range, compared to the standard cgda jazz tuning that the tenor banjo started with 
during the Jazz Age.  Banjos for ITM are set up differently with higher actions for 
individual string work and most of the intonation is in the first seven or so frets. 
Any tenor banjo will do, but some are better for this tuning.  So if you are 
contemplating a used banjo for ITM, keep this in mind as you will have to slightly 
modify any jazz banjo you find.
 
The next question always asked is “What pick should I use?”
 
That's easy, start with the standard Rock and Roll pick, the Dunlop Nylon .60 mm. 
It is light gray and very cheap.  From then on you can start to experiment until you 
find the one that suits you. Pick selection is the subject of endless speculation and in 
the end you will find one that you like.
 
Third question asked: "What strings should I use?”The common answer is 
40/30/20/10 referring to the string diameters which are actually .040/.030/.020/.010 
but you get the idea.  No one sells a set like that, of course, buy you will find similar 
sizes at a variety of online stores.  Basically each banjo is different and you have to 
find what works best.
 
Tenor banjos come in a variety of sizes, ages and shapes.  They have long and short 
scales but they never have more than 19 frets.  If they do, then they are either a 
plectrum banjo or a five string (tenors have four strings.)  You can do the math.
 
There is no one banjo that is suited for ITM.  Unlike the way bluegrass banjo players 
view their instruments, almost any tenor banjo can be used for ITM.  What is more 
important is playability, that quality that allows you to play the banjo without pain
or having to spend too much effort.  Basically if you are playing a banjo and wish 
you were somewhere else, the banjo is not playable.

The main factors for playability are action height (Goldilocks style, not to high, not 
too low), and comfort with the banjo.  The first factor is usually a job for a luthier
if you are not handy with tools, but the second part can be fixed using a good banjo
strap.  The strap supports the banjo and keeps it in the same place as you play.  Get
a decent strap when you buy your banjo.

Here is a video showing Gerry O'Connor teaching.  Note he is wearing a strap which he does 
whether he is standing or sitting.  His banjo is made in Ireland by Dave Boyle based on the 
Gibson model.  It is an archtop banjo, typical of Irish banjos and has a distinctive sound. 



video
 
His banjo has an 11 inch head, is made from available parts and set up by Tom Cussen, 
another  well known Irish banjo maker.  It is a typical banjo for ITM.

There is no magic in the banjo, it is an assembly of parts carefully put together.  You could,
if you wished, make your own with a few hours work as long as you had the parts. 

Gerry plays several different styles in this video, by the way, and if you listen closely, you can
hear them.  And if not, he tells you anyway.

Next Lesson:  Learning a Tune.

Mike Keyes

Lesson One: Beginning the Irish Tenor Banjo

 
Lesson One: Beginning Irish Tenor Banjo

One of the most difficult things about learning a new instrument is that you get bombarded 
with information right off the bat - most of which is not germane to the level of skill that you 
have.  Children and teens are able to handle this chaos, but adult learners have a harder time 
with it.  I hope to simplify things a little by starting with the very basics. 
 
If you have Enda Scahill's books (and I urge you to get them) or any of the other how to play 
books out there, you will see that they too start from the very beginning , the music. 
 
Tenor banjos have been around about a century now but it was not until the 1960s that the 
tuning of GDAE was used in Irish traditional music (ITM.)  Barney McKenna popularized this 
tuning when he worked with the Dubliners and it has been the standard ever since.  The
techniques used have evolved ever since and you can even find distinct schools of thought
regarding how the instrument is played.  But the one thing that has remained constant is the
music itself. 
 
Irish traditional music is dance music that has migrated to the stage and to sessions. It is still
used in dances but mostly it is played in sessions by the majority of players.  It's important to 
know this because while the music is mostly the same, the three venues are distinct from one 
another due to their purpose and as a result the way the music is played is different. 
 
Dance music is for the dancers, not the musicians, and it has to reflect the needs of the dancers 
including tempo and duration.  Playing for dances can be fun, but there are often boring periods
of waiting or repetition if you are in the band.  If you stray from the tempo and the particular
drive that each dance needs, you are doing the dancers a disfavor.  Nonetheless, this music 
started out as dance music and it should retain a lot of what makes it dance music. 
 
Stage music is strictly performance and it usually is quite different from dance music in both
presentation and tempo.  In a stage performance you have to keep the interest of the audience,
the majority of whom are not dancers or musicians.  This means increasing the tempo, adding 
interesting and often non-traditional variations, and changing techniques to reflect the 
difference.  The vast majority of musicians on stage are experts at their trade or are trying to 
be. 
 
Sessions are groups of musicians who are playing for their own enjoyment.  This doesn't mean
 that there are no audiences or dancers around, but their happiness is not the main goal of a
 session. 
 
Sessions also tend to be individualistic, even eccentric, and have a set of rules that are not
 apparent to the first timer at the session.  These rules have to be learned by experience with
 each session but most of the time they are common sense politeness.  It helps if you can play
 the tunes, too. 
 
Beginners have to take account of all these variations on ITM.  As a newbie you probably were
 drawn to the music by listening to well known performers or by attending a session or a 
dance.  A large number of players are drawn in after they have been playing in another style
 because they found that they enjoyed the music.  As a result there is a wide range of talent,
 experience, and motivation amongst those who start trying to play ITM. 
 
One thing they have in common, however, is that unless you have grown up in the music, you
 are really not familiar with it.  I grew up surrounded by country music, old time fiddling, 
blues, rock and roll, and classical music.  They are practically in my DNA, but ITM was not
 when I started and is still not so automatic that I think of any music in that way.  I had to 
listen, play, then listen again in order to find the soul of ITM as I am still not a native speaker. 
 
The lesson here is not that you have to be born in Ireland or of Irish musician parents, but that
 you have to listen to the music a lot in order to fully appreciate it and to have the most fun 
playing it. 
 
This is probably the most basic lesson you have to learn if you want to play Irish music and 
especially the banjo. 
 
Here is Brian McGrath playing the jig "Up Letrim"  at the 2011 Zoukfest.
 
 
Brian is teaching this jig as if you are going to play it on stage or individually.  He wanted to
 show a variety of ways to play the jig and he is very inventive.  Jigs have a specific rhythm and
 emphasis that can be subtle if you've never heard it before. Jigs are a type of dance in 3/8 time
 and the music has to sound like the dancers dance. This is the kind of stuff you have to learn
 if you want to play Irish traditional music.
 
I urge you to go out and listen to a lot of this music and think about why the music is there in 
the first place.  Another aspect of this video is the variation that I mentioned above.  Variation
 makes the music interesting.  Dancers are not looking for variation and in a session you can't hear them but for the musician they make the music sing.   
You will learn how to play variations as time goes on.
 
So much for the first lesson.  You didn't learn a thing about technique, but I hope you learned
 something about the music.
 
Next: Lesson Two, Anatomy of the Banjo 
 
Mike Keyes