Understanding Tenor Banjos

Tenor banjos are 4 string banjos that have a shorter neck and come in two varieties, the 17 fret and the 19 fret. The name “tenor” has nothing to do with a lower pitch such as a vocalist who is a tenor or a tenor saxophone. No one knows for sure where the name tenor came from, but many believe it was a mistake somewhere in history as these type of banjos were used during the American tango craze of the early 20th century and were often called tango banjos. Tango then erroneously became tenor somewhere down the line.

Tenor banjos are generally used for jazz or Irish music. You can find them used in  a Jamaican form of music called Mento, a predecessor to reggae, and Moroccan music.  In both of these types of music you also see plectrum banjos being used or 5 string banjos without the 5th string on them.

Tenor banjos are tuned in the musical interval of fifths.  This is the same as the string family in an orchestra - violins, violas, and cellos (except the bass).

There are two common ways to tune them - both using fifths.

  • Standard Tenor Tuning - C, G, D, A
  • Irish Tenor Tuning - G, D, A, E - same as violin and mandolin only an octave lower

March 18, 2015 by David Bandrowski
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Joel Mabus

Joel Mabus said:

The “tango” banjos were usually much smaller than today’s tenor. In fact, the Vega company marketed a four string tango banjo the same size as their mandolin-banjo, tuned GDAE at the same pitch as a violin or mandolin. They called this a “melody banjo” and was meant to be the “soprano” to the larger “tenor” tuned CGDA, same pitch as a viola or mandola. In the banjo orchestras of the time (early 1900’s) the tenor banjo was indeed pitched below the melody, but an octave above the cello banjo.

The small size 4-string banjo (“melody” as Vega called it) was used in popular tango music, and in New Orleans style jazz. Often musicians would play banjo-mandolins with only 4 strings instead of 8. Many old photographs of street bands bear this out. They were piercingly loud and could compete with trumpets and clarinets. The tenor size was more useful for chords. But better yet for chords were tenors with longer necks, often tuned in “Chicago tuning” — DGBE, like the first 4 strings of a guitar.

Within a few years, archtop guitars took the place of chording banjos in jazz orchestras, and banjo’s when used for chords were usually plectrum size, tuned CGBD.

One of the places you still see lots of shorter necked tenors being played is in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade at New Years, a throwback to the early banjo bands of a century ago.


Nils said:

Does the tenor name perhaps come from tenor guitars, or from other tenor instruments that play on the alto clef (tenor viol comes to mind)?

Jimmy Nycum

Jimmy Nycum said:

It would be great if when you send out an ad it also included about 60 seconds or so of ‘real banjo music’ Live banjo is impossible to beat and makes the selling point. Jim.


banjocat said:

The tenor banjo got its name from the fact that it is a tenor instrument, using (originally back in the early 1900’s) the tenor scale. Think, tenor saxophone (as opposed to a baritone sax or soprano sax). A tango banjo is a totally different animal, a short-scale instrument kind of like a mandolin with only four strings, designed to play melody in a banjo orchestra (where you could also find cello banjos and bass banjos!) BTW, I tune my tenor banjo like a 5 string w/o the 5th string — D-G-B-D. Works just jazzy fine!

Paul Honeycutt

Paul Honeycutt said:

What tuning do Mento players use?


Banjobob said:

Can someone tell me what is a plectrum banjo and what does plectrum mean? Also, in the discussion of tenor banjos, where do Irish tenor banjos fit in the history?


Jim13 said:

Glad to see an article about the tenor banjo. Having grown up in Phila. PA we would watch the Hew Years Day Parade on TV that had the Mummers String Bands doing their routine in flashy costumes. The rythym section of thes bands were tenor banjos. I joined the mummers organization and learned to play tenor banjo. What fun! Deering and Bacon were the tops in banjos in the 1950’s to the 1980’s. The band I performed with was the 1st mummers band to ever open their 90 second routine before the judges with just the tenor banjos. Hope someone enjoys this comment.

Jeff Beal

Jeff Beal said:

My understanding is that guitarists were interested in playing rhythm like the tenor banjo, and thus invented the 4 string guitar, and gave it same kind of name.

Paul Baker.

Paul Baker. said:

If one has smallish hands & wishes to play plectrum banjo ( chord melody) you can tune a 19 fret tenor to CGBD & can make the big chords down the nut end—-have to increase the string diameters.

William Rose

William Rose said:

I’ve always used the standard CGDA tuning for my banjos – right from the beginning learning it back in high school –
the alternate tunings are fine for folk-related styles, but the “classical” banjo pieces, turn-of-the century banjo methods, and banjo parts for orchestral and wind music (think Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue” and the Kurt Weill “Three Penny” score) are written and voiced specifically for the standard tuning.

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