02 03 Nerd Lunch: The Tenor Banjo: An Elegant Weapon of a More Civilized Age 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

The Tenor Banjo: An Elegant Weapon of a More Civilized Age

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Well, I've been shopping around for a new musical instrument for a year or so, and haven't been able to make up my mind. And then a buddy of mine digs out his old tenor banjo and makes a gift of it to me. It's not quite as snazzy as the one in this picture, but it's serviceable, and I was able to convert it for left-handed use with no problems.

Unlike the more familiar five-string banjo used in bluegrass, the tenor is a four-stringed instrument usually played with a flatpick (as opposed to a thumbpick and two fingerpicks). They were invented around 1900ish for the use in banjo orchestras (I assume this meant fifty guys with banjos and handlebar mustaches in the same room, which is awesome) and were essential in early Dixieland-style jazz. Once amplified guitars became available in the 1930s, the tenor banjo fell out of favor in jazz circles.

At some point, however, they made their way over to Ireland. With their piercing tone, high volume, rapid attack and lack of sustain, they proved ideally suited for picking out Irish tunes. While they are uncommon in American old-time music (and downright unacceptable in bluegrass circles), most fiddle tunes are going to lay real nice on a tenor banjo . . . Appalachian, Cajun, Scottish, you name it.

While a number of different tunings are possible, for now I'm working out of CGDA. This is similar to a fiddle or mandolin (but a bit lower, like a viola or mandola), so what little I can play on mandolin is carrying over nicely. My daughter has been accompanying me on washboard. Life is good.

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