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.
- Irish Tenor Banjo. The standard choice for Celtic music, tenor banjo was originally designed to for use as a solo instrument in a multi-piece band. It was built with a dominant sound in mind, and as a result the tenor banjo can be heard loud and clear over other instruments in an ensemble. Once banjoists in the sixties figured out a lower tuning (GDAE) that was a better fit for the repertoire, the tenor gained a more melodious and subtle sound and became capable of producing great results playing the fiddle parts on traditional arrangements.
- Five-String Banjo. Because it lacks the more complete tonal range of the tenor, the five-string banjo is not as capable as a tenor for use as a solo instrument. It’s used primarily as a rhythm instrument. On a tune whose notes fall within its limited tonal range, however, a banjo solo can sound every bit as fine played on a five-string as it does on a tenor.
- Plectrum Banjo. A four-string instrument like the tenor, the plectrum banjo has a longer scale. Its more mellow tone would seem an ideal match for traditional Irish tunes, but it’s really not used all that much. Unless you tune it like an Irish tenor banjo, it won’t have enough range to cover the standard repertoire—and if you do tune it like an Irish tenor banjo, playing involves challenging fingering and some truly awkward stretches.
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
Dubliners, first popularized the use
of the banjo for Irish tunes. Younger players tenaciously followed
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.