UK Banjo Suppliers FAQ's

 FAQ Page 3:  About Playing the Banjo

Questions Covered On This Page:
What banjo do I need for jazz?
What banjo do I need for Irish music?
Can I play tunes on a plectrum banjo?
What's minstrel "stroke" style banjo?
What's old-time banjo?
What's clawhammer banjo?
What's frailing banjo?
What's Bluegrass banjo?
What's a chromatic 3-finger banjo?

What banjo do I need for jazz?
Jazz players almost invariably opt for 4 or 6 string banjos.  The choices are short scale tenor, standard scale tenor, plectrum and guitar.

The short scale tenor (tuned CGDA) will give a nice bright sound and may well be very appropriate for "walking" work as they tend to be relatively light.  There may be problems with lack of volume but many short scales are surprisingly loud for their size.

The standard scale tenor (tuned CGDA) will give a bright, loud sound though some may be bit heavy for playing standing up. Resonator versions are much commoner and will usually deliver enough volume for most jazz bands.

The plectrum banjo (tuned CGBD, DGBD or DGBE) will give a rather deeper pitched sound but can be a very easy option for the guitarist converting to banjo.  It is often a very weighty instrument indeed and hard work for "walking" jobs.  Resonators are normal but there are occasional players who like the softer tone of a good open back.

The guitar banjo sounds like the easiest option for the converting guitarist but the inherent problems with this type of instrument make it less common than you might think.  If you feel you really need those two low strings, look for a very high grade banjo and consider tuning it 3 semitones sharp to concert pitch (an old trick from the days of the banjo bands).  A note of G on the 6th string is very much easier to live with than trying to get an E!!

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What banjo do I need for Irish music?
Players of traditional Irish dance music (jigs & reels) almost invariably opt for 4 or 8 string banjos though the 5-string can be an excellent instrument for accompanying traditional Irish song.  The choices are short scale tenor, standard scale tenor, mandolin or plectrum.

Have a look at the answer above about the differences between short and standard scale tenors.  Either type will work very well for traditional Irish music - try them both and see what suits you.

A good mandolin banjo can be joy for playing jigs & reels but you do NEED a good quality one - a poor example will drive you to despair.

The plectrum banjo has a lovely tone when tuned down to GDAE but you need either very large or very quick hands to be able to get round tunes on a 26" scale banjo.  Do try one if you feel that you are prepared to put in the necessary effort to acquire the speed and reach that you'll need.

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Can I play tunes on a plectrum banjo?
Yes, you can but it requires a good deal of effort.  You can tune it down to "Irish" pitch and keep practising until you can get round the fingerboard with considerable fluency.  Alternatively, you can use the old "chords & melody" CGDB tuning and learn to play in that style.  It is a lovely way of banjo playing and, sadly, seems to be slowly fading away. There are few exponents of this style who are under 70.

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What's minstrel "stroke" style banjo?
This is the earliest documented style of playing.  It probably derives from the style of playing practised by those from whom the earliest "minstrels" (Sweeney etc) learned their craft.  It is a very percussive style and works best on gut or nylon strung fretless banjos.  It is quite difficult to play complex melodies in this style unless you are very talented!!

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What's old-time banjo?
This is a generalised name given to most styles of banjo playing other than bluegrass.  It's not very accurate but it helps to draw a distinction of sorts.  Most styles of "old-time" banjo use open back banjos.  Some of the particular styles are discussed below.

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What's clawhammer banjo?
One of the most popular "old-time" styles involving playing the banjo with a fairly rigid right hand (usually thumb and first or second finger held a short distance apart).  Commonly thought to be descendant of the old minstrel "stroke" style.

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What's frailing banjo?
Another very popular "old-time" style not dissimilar to clawhammer but with a rather more relaxed right hand style.  There are almost as many variants on these styles as there are players but, in general, they are all rather more percussive than bluegrass banjo.

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What's Bluegrass banjo?
This is a topic which needs either a very short or a very long answer.  I'm opting for the short one:  a style of 3 finger picking on a resonator 5-string banjo deriving from the playing of Earl Scruggs and others.  It is a hard-driving, very fast style and requires a lot of practice to acquire the necessary speed.

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What's chromatic 3-finger banjo?
This is a popular style of playing which uses a technique not unlike classical guitar playing to play complex melodies on the 5-string banjo.  Bill Keith is perhaps the best known modern exponent.  The origin of this style lies probably in the classical banjo playing of the 19th century when guitar techniques were adapted to the banjo as an alternative to the minstrel "stroke" style.  It can be used to great effect and produces a much more melodic sound than most other styles.

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