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Buying Advice for an Irish Tenor Banjo

Buying a banjo can be a confusing and daunting task, especially when looking for an “Irish Tenor Banjo”. First you have to understand (if you haven’t already discovered) there is no such thing as an Irish tenor banjo.  A tenor banjo is a tenor banjo and they are used in a variety of types of music, from jazz to Irish. As we will see, the term “Irish” is simply a marketing term, developed sometime in the past fifty or sixty years, to sell a particular type of tenor banjo.


Unless you’re lucky enough to live in Ireland or you happen to be in a large city that has a large population of Irish musicians, you’ll find there are not many tenor banjos for Irish playing available to try. This means that finding a banjo will require a diligent online search and a little luck. This is exactly what I did, and how I learned. You know...the hard way. I am writing this to hopefully turn my experience and the knowledge I gained from it into a resource for you to use to make your buying experience a rewarding and less confusing process. There are many people who buy a new banjo from an online source thinking it is the best way to get into the music.  This couldn’t be further from the truth, and hopefully after reading this you will understand why.


This article will hopefully give you the insight you need to make a good buying decision, not only for your current needs but also to prepare you for your next banjo. Yes, you read that correctly, your next banjo. It is very common to start with an “entry” or “lower” level banjo before moving up to a higher level banjo.  There is also something referred to as “BAS”, Banjo Acquisition Syndrome.  BAS is a bit of an inside joke among banjo players, but it is very common for them to have more than one.  For example, I have a banjo I take camping with me, I have a heavy “well played” banjo that is perfect for sessions, and I have a nice collectible banjo that I enjoy at home.  They all have a different voice to them and I enjoy them all.


Let's begin by talking about price points.  I don’t like to classify banjos by title, but for this article I will, using the terms “entry”, “mid-level”, and “professional” as a way of generalizing the common price point. The following descriptions are not set in stone – keep in mind that some banjos don’t fit neatly into these categories .  That is where the expertise of your “technician” comes in.  

  • Entry-Level.  An entry level banjo should cost under $500.  Here, a banjo will usually be plainer in aesthetics and have a very simple or no tone ring.  The tone of the banjo will also likely not be as satisfying as the higher level banjos. In order to keep the cost low the manufacturer often used low quality hardware and tuners, possibly even friction tuners.  These lower quality parts often make the banjo harder to set up well.
  • Mid-Level. A mid-level banjo will likely cost somewhere between $400 and $800. This is an interesting category because it bridges the gap between the entry level and the pro level.  A banjo at this price point will meet the long term needs of most players. These banjos will usually have some added aesthetics elements, such as marquetry and fancier mother of pearl inlays. They will also have better tone rings, fingerboard materials, and might be offered in a variety of different woods.
  • Professional-Level. I use the term professional because any banjo in this category will be capable of providing the tone and quality a professional player would require.  These are the most popular models used for Irish trad playing around the world and will be priced $900 and up. They will feature a superior tone ring of various designs, higher quality wood, more intricate woodwork, sophisticated mother of pearl inlays, and often a resonator.

 

The most important aspect of the banjo is playability!  While a banjo’s overall condition and build quality will have an influence on its playability, a large part of it involves the person setting up the banjo. A badly setup banjo will be much harder to play and enjoy. If you are new to playing or are in the learning phase, a poor set up could lead to frustration, bad habits, and a slower progression.


The physical aspect lending to playability will mainly be the profile and length of the neck. There are some necks that just aren’t comfortable or are too wide or deep for efficient use of the fretting hand. The proper banjo setup will have the lowest action possible without buzzing. This takes a great deal of work to achieve including adjusting the neck angle, the bridge, and the nut. The frets will also be perfectly leveled to avoid any high frets that create buzzing. The fingerboard will be straight or with only a slight amount of relief. The proper strings, head tension, and bridge height will not only give a good tone, but also provide more responsive pick action and clearance above the head. Many people will never experience a proper setup until they’ve purchased a professional level banjo from someone specializing in trad setup. Playability is a very important aspect (if not the most important aspect) to consider when buying a banjo. Thus, the technician setting up your banjo must know the music and what your music calls for in order to deliver a playable instrument.


That leads me to the banjo’s tone.  The Irish tenor banjo is commonly tuned GDAE , an octave below fiddle and a convention introduced and popularized by the great Dubliners banjoist Barney McKenna. Because Irish tenor playing emphasizes melodic precision, an old plunky sound is not commonly desired. Rather, we want to make sure the notes produced are clear, clean, and loud. There are many parts to a banjo that together contribute this sort of tone. The physical construction (the wood used for the rim and neck, the neck length, and the tone ring) will always be the primary element that determines what a banjo sounds like. But the head, strings, bridge, and tailpiece all contribute to a banjo’s overall character. The choices one makes here offer us a good bit of flexibility when really “dialing in” maximum performance and tone. Once a player determines the sound they like and want to produce, it is the job of the technician doing the setup to select the right combination of parts to personalize the banjo for the player. This knowledge only comes from lots of experience testing and experimenting with different banjos. The choices made here will yield a banjo loud enough to be heard – or “cut through” – at a large and/or noisy session. Remember: it is easy to play a loud banjo quietly, but quite a different story when it comes to playing a quiet banjo loudly.


The neck often causes confusion to many people new to the instrument, and even some seasoned players. You will typically see two types of tenor banjos discussed, those with 17 frets, and those with 19. Sometimes you will also read about “short” and “long” scale banjos.  To make matters worse, short scale 17 fret banjos are often sold as “Irish” tenor banjos (see above)!  There is a lot here to mislead a player! Scale length and the number of frets are not interchangeable values, nor are they things that make a banjo more or less “Irish.” Rather they are two different values that describe the construction of a given banjo. The number of frets is just that, a number describing how many frets are on a neck, and that number can vary widely.  Tenor banjos can have as few as 16 and as many as 20 frets! The scale length is the length from the nut to the bridge and that length can range from 19” to 23.5”.  A 19-fret banjo might have a 22” scale, or it might have a 23” scale and one is not better than the other.  Taken together, these two values simply determine how the frets will be spaced and what the stretch will be!  In order to accurately determine an instrument’s scale length, one measures from the nut to the 12th fret, which is the exact middle, and multiply by 2. This measurement will determine the bridge location and is the starting point for determining an instrument’s proper intonation. For example a 22” scale length banjo will measure 11” at the 12th fret. 


Scale length doesn’t determine playability!  I often hear people new to the banjo argue , “I have small hands” or “I play mandolin” and shy away from longer scale instruments.  Bear in mind, there are young kids in Ireland who learn on and compete using 19 fret, 23” scale banjos that are almost bigger than they are.  You must remember that a longer neck will create a better tone. The neck profile will determine the playability. The “stretch” will come relatively easily with just a little practice, even for those with short or stiff hands.


Because this article is about buying advice, we must talk about making a good purchase. We have covered the information to determine what makes a good banjo, now let's buy smart.  Do you buy new, used, or vintage? 

  • New - The pro for new is just that, new and unplayed. This would come from a reputable builder who specializes in banjos for Irish trad. There are only a few of these builders and most quality banjos from them will be more than $2500.00. Because of that, a new banjo is often one that someone is stepping up to. There are a few cons for buying new.  The first one is that you will have to accept you are the person who will realize the depreciation of the instrument. Any new banjo under $1500 will depreciate and will be difficult to resell because there are many people buying these as their first instrument, only to find out later they desire a better or different instrument, so the market is flooded with these used instruments. A new banjo will take time for the wood to open up and deliver it’s best tone. The setup will probably settle in and need adjustment to maintain the builders desired setup. There is also a potential for neck movement (warp, bow, twist), but this possibility is less likely from a reputable builder who uses properly seasoned wood.
  • Used - I will use the term used for recently made banjos that have been previously purchased and played, and are now offered for sale. This is a good option when wanting to find your first or second banjo. The big pro for this category is that someone else already realized the depreciation. A smart buy on a used banjo will allow you to be able to sell the banjo for what you bought it for, as long as you maintain it. This basically allows you to rent the banjo for free while you get a feel for the banjo and what you desire. The con is that these are often found for sale by individuals and you don’t know the history, condition, and setup. The main things to know are the condition of the neck and the frets, if there are any breaks, and if anything has been modified. If you can find one from a reputable dealer who has given it a proper setup, you should be very happy with your purchase.
  • Vintage - This is the largest category and option for a good banjo for Irish trad playing.  The majority of the vintage tenor banjos were made in the United States in the 1920’s and early 1930’s and intended for jazz and big bands playing. There were also some manufactured in the UK (and elsewhere in Europe), but these were made in much smaller numbers. Many of these banjos are well suited to Irish playing and some models are more popular than others because of their tone, playability, and availability.  This category will deliver the best bang for your buck! Just like a used instrument, a vintage instrument can often be resold for a price similar to – and occasionally for more than – what you purchased it for. The biggest pro to vintage is options. There were many different manufacturers, and each offered many different models, from simpler, affordable designs, to ones that were elaborate and expensive. That provides a lot of opportunity to find a banjo that meets your needs for tone and aesthetics and fits within your budget. As you can expect with a banjo almost 100 years old, there are cons. The same cons apply as mentioned in used banjos.  In general, any cons can be addressed and corrected prior to sale by a reputable dealer, giving  the banjo another 100 years of potential service. Most of the time, the wood in these banjos has already aged and “moved,” meaning it’s less likely that the instrument will develop a bow or twist with proper setup and storage.

Now it's time to go find your new banjo.  I hope you gained a little additional knowledge from this to make your next banjo a great purchase, and one that will provide a wonderful feeling every time you grab it for some tunes.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions during the buying process, that’s the easiest way to determine if the seller is as knowledgeable about banjos as you are.  If you’re not sure you can do this alone, or can maintain the banjo, reach out to a friend in the music community, visit a local session, or find a good banjo technician.  We all love the music and the instrument, and will be more than happy to help you find a good banjo.  Best of luck and happy pluk’n!

Written by Dan Shingler, owner of Trad Banjo, 2021