Irish tenor banjo?

When I tell people that I play the tenor banjo I usually get one of two reactions, they either screw their faces up into hideous George Formby impersonations and start singing ‘When I’m cleaning windows’, or they ask if I can play ‘…that brilliant tune in the film about the hillbillies…’

Clareen Special - made by Tom Cussen

Clareen Special - made by Tom Cussen at Clareen Banjos, Co. Galway

As soon as I try to explain that I play an Irish tenor banjo their eyes glaze over. It’s all too complicated to understand that there are lots of different types of banjo, all played in different ways.

For anyone who needs to know the details…

The Irish tenor banjo is basically an adaptation of a four string banjo used by jazz musicians throughout the 20th century. Due to the penetrating volume of the instrument it became popular in the Irish Ceili bands of the 50’s and 60’s, particularly when it was restrung for standard fiddle tuning, G, D, A, E.

The Irish tenor is almost exclusively used to play melody lines with a plectrum. The playing style is characterised by the use of rapid, rhythmic triplets as ornamentation. As with the fiddle ‘double stops’ are also used to add partial chords.

When played badly the tenor banjo is almost impossible to ignore, thankfully there are a growing number of musicians combining great technique with some very thoughtful interpretation of traditional music.

My favourite trad banjo player is Angelina Carberry. Angelina’s CD’s are recommended listening for anyone interested in hearing great traditional Irish tunes, thoughtfully arranged, and expertly played on tenor banjo.

Angelina kindly agreed to let me add MP3’s of tunes from two of my favourite sets on her CD’s, An Traidisiun Beo and Memories from the Holla:


Pauline Conneely’s / Finbarr Dwyer’s (Reels) MP3

The Starry Lane to Monaghan / Unknown (Source Michael McGoldrick) (Reels) MP3

There’s a lot more of this great music from Angelina and her husband Martin Quinn, dad Peter and a whole host of other talented musicians, just click here


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