The following article was published in All Frets (An Official Publication of The Fretted Instrument Guild of America), January/February 2007 - Issue 50-01.
IRISH STYLE TENOR BANJO By Banjo Mike Mulready
I have been playing Irish Tenor banjo for the past seven years. Being of Irish descent, I was drawn to the instrument having appreciated its effectiveness in capturing the spirit and drive of Irish music by adding its uniquely identifiable and perky sound to the traditional Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes.
As a founding member of The Other Irish Band, in which I play both Irish tenor banjo and Irish bouzouki, I have endeavored to continue the efforts of many of the banjo greats to promote the tenor banjo as a serious and respected melody instrument in Irish music - consistently able to hold its own with the more well- known fiddle, flute, and pipes. I have written this article in the hope that it provides some insight into how this American-born instrument became deeply entwined into Irish traditional music as well as to offer an overview as to what the style is, and how to play it in the authentic traditional manner.
BACKGROUND & HISTORY:
The earliest banjo introduced to Ireland was not the four string tenor so prevalent today but rather the five string banjo played in minstrel style. This was in the early 1840’s when the Virginia Minstrels, led by Joel Walker Sweeney, (once widely, and controversially, credited for adding the fifth string, or chanterelle, to the banjo), toured Ireland. The five-string, fretless minstrel banjo was played in Irish music halls during the latter 1880’s in grotesque blackface caricature to chordally accompany songs with some simple melodies plucked with the fingers.
Things changed significantly at the turn of the 19th century with the invention of the tango, or tenor, banjo. The popularity of the tenor banjo at that time can be associated with the public’s fascination with the Argentine tango dance (hence the name “tango” banjo). The tenor banjo had a shorter neck of 17 or 19 frets, was tuned in fifths, played with a plectrum, and capable of being heard above the brass section of early American dance bands. In America at the time, the Irish dance halls of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other Hibernian-immigrant cities provided the avenue of entry for the tenor banjo. Subsequent to this, the tenor and plectrum banjos became popular in vaudeville or early music halls, eclipsing the five-string banjo in popularity as the “preferred” banjo. Interestingly, the five-string banjo would not regain its popularity until the bluegrass revivals decades later having been outdistanced by both the tenor and plectrum banjos.
The early 78 rpm Irish music “ethnic” recordings provided the gateway for the tenor banjo as an “Irish” instrument in the 1920’s. Most notably was Mike Flanagan, of the Flanagan Brothers, formerly of County Waterford. Along with his brother Joe (accordion) and Louis (guitar), Mike pioneered the tenor banjo to more than just strumming along to melodies, but rather as a solo instrument picking out jigs, reels and hornpipes decorated with perky ornamental triplets - so identifiable with the Irish tenor banjo style. During that period, the banjo was tuned in fifths (CGDA), higher in pitch than the lower “standard tuning” of GDAE prevalent in today’s Irish tenor playing. A hybrid instrument the bandolin, a part banjo, part mandolin instrument, also found its way into Irish music at the time as evidenced by the early 1920’s recordings of New Yorker Michael Gaffney.
The rise of the tenor banjo’s popularity in Ireland was in part due to the implementation of the repressive Public Dance Hall Act of 1935. This Act banned house parties, which were deemed sinful by the clergy, and limited traditional music and dance to parish halls. This new environment gave rise to the need for larger music ensembles, the “ceili bands”, and the tenor banjo fit right in because it could project above the louder musical clamor.
By the 1960’s, the ceili bands fell out of popular favor with the advent of “show bands”, that is, orchestras performing play lists consisting of American pop and country songs driving traditional music into the pubs. The banjo continued to make its contribution, initially with the folk music revival of the early 1960’s with guitar and banjo strumming folk singing groups like the Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem. Credit for bringing the present style of Irish tenor playing, falls to the musical advent of the Dubliners, an Irish musical group in the early 60’s, performing traditional jigs, reels and hornpipes with fiddle, guitar and vocals but highlighted by the dynamic tenor banjo picking of banjo virtuoso Barney McKenna. McKenna long considered the musical godfather of Irish tenor banjo, brought the Irish tenor banjo style to the forefront both in popularity as well as in defining the playing style using the “standard” GDAE tuning. Since then, the Irish tenor has grown in popularity with key exponents, such as, Mick Moloney, Gerry O’Connor and more recently Kieran Hanrahan, underscoring a more defining role for the instrument on par with the fiddle to convey the melodic spirit of Irish traditional music above and beyond simply chordal accompaniment. In fact, of all the tenor banjo styles, the most popular forum for the tenor banjo today is in the Irish tenor style.
THE IRISH TENOR BANJO STYLE:
The following presents an overview of the Irish Tenor style of banjo playing with the primary identifiable features of this style being:
a. Ornamentation – Triplets b. Rhythm and Accent - Getting the proper “lilt” c. Tuning, Strings & Picks d. Fingering & Hand Position e. Shorter Neck Banjos.
Ornamentation – Triplets:
There are several limitations in adapting the tenor banjo to Irish traditional music. The first is the banjo’s lack of sustain as well the inability to effectively slur notes together. Additionally, the fact that the banjo has frets places boundaries on pitch subtleties and ornamentation variations which are possible with the fiddle, flute or pipes. I have heard one experienced fiddler note that Irish banjo players often play the tunes at a faster clip as a means to counter the instrument’s inherent inability to sustain a note, that is, the sound of a note fades quickly after picking driving the tempo upward.
In Irish tenor playing, the triplet has replaced the roll as played on the fiddle, whistle or flute and ornamentation wise, really defines the style. Theoretically, the five note roll can be played on the banjo; however, as a practical matter, the entire musical beat it would take to accomplish can not be completed as smoothly and with clarity (the sustain thing again) as by a flute or fiddler. The most common triplet is three notes of the same pitch which can sound static if used to frequently. To add interest, and to sound more authentically closer to the traditional sound of the fiddle, flute or pipes, three different notes can be included in a triplet. Examples of theses stylistic variations are noted below in the following musical examples, first, played “straight” and then, with Irish banjo ornamentation. The first example illustrates how the reel “The Silver Spear” could be ornamented. The second is the well- known jig, “The Irish Washerwoman”.
Example #1 - Silver Spear (Reel)
A. Played Straight
B. Played Irish Style
Example #2 – The Irish Washerwoman (Jig)
A. Played Straight
B. Played Irish Style
Always be thoughtful when ornamenting a tune. Too much ornamentation, particularly with triplets, can mask, change or distort the melody and the flow (the lilt) of a tune. Remember, Irish musicians tend to not just play the melody but also to play with the melody by adding variations to it. Experience and listening to an array of traditional Irish music, not just banjo, but other instruments as well, will help in establishing a well-sounding level of interpretation and variation around the melody.
Other ornamental effects that can be employed are sliding into a note, or doubling up on a note by adding another note or an octave to it. For example, playing the G note on the third string, fifth fret can be played with the open G fourth string to create an octave harmony. A double stop could consist of playing the B note on the second string, second fret and adding the G note on the third string, fifth fret as a harmony note. Hammer-ons and pull-offs of notes are also possible effects. For an Irish Aire, tremolos can be effectively used for playing these slow, yet emotional, tunes.
Rhythm & Accents:
When performing ethnic musical, not just Irish music, the rhythm, particularly accenting correctly is key. Playing the correct notes is not enough, the correct feeling (the Irish call this “the lilt”) must be present or it will not sound right. Equally important are accenting the beats to bring out the authenticity of the music. For example, an Irish jig is in 6/8 time however, the accents are on the first and fourth beats with the first beat getting the stronger accent. Failing to do this makes the jig sound more like a practice exercise no matter how correct or clear the notes and technique. Knowing the correct way to technically accomplish this, that is, a down- up- down triplet picking pattern (so the accents will always fall on a down stroke which is stronger than upstroke picking) will provide the correct feel and accent to a jig. Refer back to the “The Irish Washerwoman” for an example of this. Listening to Irish music and attending seisuns (Irish jam sessions) can go a long way in developing a musical intuition of the proper rhythm and accent requirements.
Tuning, Strings & Picks:
The standard Irish tenor tuning is in fifths GDAE – an octave below the fiddle. When using standard gauge tenor banjo strings, the effect of this lower pitched tuning can be slack string tension resulting in poor tone and volume. One solution is to substitute a .042 gauge for the fourth string and from the standard string gauge set, use the fourth string for the third, the third for the second, and the second for the first (i.e., .016, .023, .030, .042). String selection will vary of course based on the banjo and the sound you’re looking to get. Tone rings also play a part. Experience and experimentation will provide the answer as to what is ideal for the individual player. Some players like myself prefer to use lighter gauge strings (i.e., . 011, .016, .024, .034) to lessen the neck stress from the thicker strings and avoid bowing the neck, particularly if you play an older “vintage” banjo. To me, they sound as good as thicker gauge strings if the banjo is set up properly.
As goes for all styles of banjo playing, the correct set up of the banjo is important to get the best sound from the instrument. This includes proper head tension, bridge placement, the right sound ring to avoid an overly harsh sound, and a reasonable distance of the strings from the neck to facilitate playing.
Picks are also important. Thin picks tends to be noisy against the strings and a harder pick may not provide enough flexibility. It should also be a nylon pick, such as those sold by Dunlop, to withstand the stress from playing without shattering the pick. I have seen many players using Dunlop .60mm gauge nylon picks. Since I tend to have a stronger right hand attack, I prefer using a lighter gauge Dunlop . 46mm so as not to overplay and tighten my right hand playing technique.
Fingering & Hand Position:
I find the more modern traditional Irish tenor players have gotten away from the mandolin fingering pattern consisting of using the first finger to play the notes on the first and second frets, the second finger to play notes on the third and fourth frets, the third finger for notes on the fifth and sixth and the pinkie for notes found on the sixth and seventh frets. I prefer to use almost a guitar-like approach, that is, the third finger pays notes on the fourth fret and the pinkie notes on the fifth fret. I think it provides for smoother playing and will probably result in less hand-related stain injuries in the future given the speed, particularly the reels, in which traditional Irish music is played.
Position playing is also important to minimize fingering difficulties and retain smoothness in execution when playing a portion of a tune consisting of higher first string notes. Somewhat similar to the second position for a violin, the first finger slides up so that it is at the third fret allowing the second finger to play notes at the fourth fret, the third, notes at the fifth fret, and the pinkie, notes on the sixth and seventh frets. Use what works for you but still retains the feel of the music and allows you to play it comfortably.
The right hand position is also critical, and like everything Irish, open to debate. Some players prefer to rest their right hand on the bridge, and while holding the pick between the thumb and forefinger curl the other fingers out of the way so they do not produce surface noise from the fingers rubbing against the banjo head. I find this uncomfortable and that it overly tightens my right hand so I use more of a guitar style resting the second, third and fourth fingers on the banjo head for stability. Surface noise has not been an issue since I do not place excessive pressure on the banjo head – just enough to allow for control of the picking arm. The key to playing fast, smooth and precise is not to tighten up the forearm or wrist but to try to stay steady and relaxed. Excessive tension will work against this and could result in some hand injuries over time. Be patient. Play slow at first, learn the tunes, the tempo and where to place the correct feel and accents. Remember – a steady, consistent rhythm and accenting correctly are critical elements to presenting traditional music in an authentic manner.
Shorter Neck Banjos:
Given the fast tempo of some tunes and the need to quickly stretch to execute the high B or above notes on the first string, Irish style players will use a shorter 17 or 19 fret banjo or a banjo that has been designed and built specifically for Irish music. I still have a preference for the earlier 1920’s American-made banjos. I use two banjos, both consisting of 17 frets. One is a Bacon & Day and the other a Vega - both ideal for playing this music. Set up properly, these early 1920’s American- made banjos sound great for Irish music.
If you are still set on obtaining a banjo specifically designed for playing Irish music, Tom Cussen, a founding member of the traditional band, Shaskeen, makes the “Clareen” model of the Irish banjo. Another possibility is the “Boyle Banjo” made by Dave Boyle of County Kildare, Ireland. Goggle up “Irish Banjo” and you find their websites as well as other useful links to other Irish banjo websites, music, strings, etc. You’ll also find Irish banjo tutorials that can help in the learning process.
IRISH BANJO PLAYERS & CDs
Given the on-going popularity of the banjo in Irish music, there are many great players to listen to and learn from. I have referenced several that have either historically contributed to the instrument’s evolution in Irish music to provide perspective, as well as some of the more recent solid exponents of the style as a means for learning the Irish banjo style and the ability to express it authentically.
- The Wheels of the World – Classics of Irish Traditional Music from the 1920’s & 30’s, Volume 2. (Yazoo – Shanachie) – Contains an early banjo recording of banjo pioneer Michael Gaffney.
- Strings Attached (Green Linnet) – Banjo and mandolin playing by banjo great Mick Moloney.
- Kieran Hanrahan Plays the Irish Tenor Banjo (Banner Discs) – Great banjo CD by Kieran Hanrahan, one of its finest players.
- Pick It Up – Enda Scahill (Sound Records) – More modern style player.
- Through the Round Window – Eamonn Coyne (Compass) – Somewhat eclectic, but still some fine banjo playing.
Hopefully, there is enough useful information in this article to get you started or to encourage you to continue your pursuit as an Irish tenor player. If you have any questions on the style, please drop me an e-mail at The Other Irish Band website (http://otheririshband.com) or (email@example.com).