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
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
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
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
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