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 traditional jazz or Irish music and are traditionally played with a flat pick. In traditional jazz the majority of the time you strum the banjo and in Irish music you are generally playing single note melodies. 

What makes tenor banjos particularly appealing is that they are traditionally 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 - same as viola and cello (cello is an octave lower). Get strings for standard tenor tuning here!
Irish Tenor Tuning - G, D, A, E - same as mandolin and violin! Get strings for Irish tenor tuning here!

A third way to tune the tenor banjo that is popular among guitar players is to tune it in what is called Chicago tuning. This tuning is the same as the first four strings of a guitar - D, G, B, E. 

One of the great things about the tenor banjo when tuned in fifths is the wider chord voicings (the notes of the chord are spread out father in pitch) this creates. this allows each individual note of the chord to be heard and produces a clearer, fatter tone than when the notes of a chord are closer together. Another great thing the tuning of 5ths creates is symmetry across all strings when playing a scale, lick, or arpeggio. Find out more about the benefits of this symmetrical tuning here!

I play traditional jazz and I love the percussive nature of the instrument. When playing without a drummer, you really become the drummer of the band. After all, a banjo is just a drum with strings on it! 

I also like to use the standard tenor tuning because the first string tuned to a high A note really allows the top note of your chord voicings to cut through and makes it great for chord solos.


  • Paul Honeycutt

    What tuning do Mento players use?

  • banjocat

    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!

  • Jimmy Nycum

    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.

  • Nils

    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)?

  • Joel Mabus

    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.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.