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

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