A happy Banjo Friday, friends! We have a special post today that features not one, but two—count ‘em, two!—superb banjo players! Today’s post also addresses the fact that not all banjos come equipped with five strings.
Yes, it’s true—while what most people picture in their minds when they hear the word “banjo” is a 5-string instrument—& the sound of the 5-string, especially playing bluegrass, is probably what the majority of people hear as the prototype banjo sound—there are two other popular forms of the banjo that only have four strings & are played very differently from their 5-string cousin. These are the tenor banjo & the somewhat less well-known plectrum banjo.
I spent several years playing the plectrum banjo, & I still have one (see pic!), tho it hasn’t made the trip to Oregon yet. I’ve also dabbled on the tenor banjo, but sold mine along with several other instruments before I moved—mild regret on that score, but I didn’t feel as much affinity with that instrument as with others.
Both the plectrum banjo & the tenor banjo were developed around the turn of the 20th century as part of the banjo orchestra phenomenon (yes, whole orchestras composed of banjos of various shapes & sizes!) & also as part of the burgeoning hot jazz scene. The 5-string banjo is not especially suited to playing the more complex chord progressions of jazz tunes because the 5th string is a drone & would be a discord in songs with more complex harmonic changes. The plectrum banjo is essentially a 5-string banjo without the drone string. The standard tuning of a plectrum banjo is CGBD, which used to be standard for a 5-string too, with the addition of the high G as the drone string. Plectrum banjos also are sometimes tuned to DGBE, like the four highest-pitched strings of a guitar—this is called “Chicago tuning” or “guitar tuning,” & was developed to allow guitar players to more easily double on the instrument. In fact, that’s the way I always tuned mine. As the name suggests, the instrument is typically played with a plectrum or pick, not with the fingers or fingernails as is the case with the 5-string banjo.
The tenor banjo most likely developed when the mandolin orchestra phenomenon morphed into the banjo orchestra phenomenon, sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. One of the members of the mandolin family is called the mandola, & the standard tuning of a mandola is the same as the viola—CGDA. From what I’ve read, the tenor banjo was developed to allow mandola players to switch easily to a banjo sound, since the standard tuning of the tenor is also CGDA (tho the tenor has been adopted into Celtic music, & in that context its often tuned GDAE like an octave mandolin.) As you can see in the video, the scale length of the tenor banjo is also considerably shorter than that of a plectrum or 5-string banjo. Again, the tenor banjo is typically played with a pick.
The two players in the video are top-notch performers on their instruments, Cynthia Sayer is one of the best plectrum banjo players going. She is a member of Woody Allen’s New Orleans Jazz Band, & has both consulted & provided music for some of his films. Her most recent album, Attractions (Plunk Records) featured her duets with jazz guitar giant Bucky Pizzarelli. I recommend it!
Steve Caddick, meanwhile, is also a top-notch performer on tenor banjo. He’s recorded seven albums between 1987 & 2007, & he performs with both The Red Suspenders & Avalon. Going back to my earlier point about the tenor banjo & the mandola, Mr Caddick also played mandola for a couple of years with the Providence Mandolin Orchestra.
“Bye Bye Blues” is a great old standard, & Sayer & Caddick take the tune on a delightful romp (admittedly, the spoken intro may go on a bit longer than is ideal, but hang in there.) Enjoy!
Pic at top of the post shows my 1930s Stromberg-Voisinet plectrum banjo!