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The Irish Banjo

If your experience with banjo music is limited to old-time recordings of bluegrass banjo wizards (Earl Scruggs springs immediately to mind), it may be hard to imagine how the distinctive twangy sound of a banjo could possibly be compatible with the other instruments used for Celtic music. The right banjo in the right hands, however, is perfectly suited to the Irish tune repertoire.

There are three types of banjo used in Celtic music; one for solo work, another that’s best for rhythm accompaniment, and a third that is kind of a wild card.

The classic playing techniques and style for the Irish tenor banjo are extremely relatable to those of the octave mandola, mandola, mandolin, cittern and the Irish bouzouki. Players who have mastered one of these instruments are generally able to pick up another quite easily. Should you encounter sheet music, tutorials or arrangements for any of these instruments, you may find these materials to be directly transferable (and just as useful) across the whole range of stringed instruments in this group.

The banjo itself has come a long way from its origins in Africa. Its first journey was to America, aboard slave ships bound for the West Indies. Well over a century ago, primitive gut-strung forms of the banjo made the Atlantic crossing from the States to Ireland and were used only for basic accompaniment, but it took the Celtic music revival of the 1960s to awaken interest in the banjo as a featured instrument in Celtic music. Barney McKenna, tenor banjoist of The Dubliners, first popularized the use of the banjo for Irish tunes. Younger players tenaciously followed McKenna’s work and copied just about everything he did, from his playing style to his GDAE tuning. Today, the Irish tenor banjo remains very popular both as a solo instrument and as part of the traditional Irish music ensemble.