The Tenor Banjo


The Tenor Banjo: A Harmonious Journey Through Music’s History

The Tenor Banjo, an illustrious member of the banjo family, has contributed profoundly to the world of music with its rich history, unique features, and diverse applications. This article embarks on a musical journey, revealing the evolution, distinctive characteristics, extensive usage, educational and professional importance, and the enduring charm of the Tenor Banjo.

Stringing the Past: The Genesis of the Tenor Banjo

The Tenor Banjo’s origins intertwine with a fascinating tapestry of musical traditions, encompassing African, European, and American influences. It emerges from the early banjo-like instruments carried to the Americas by enslaved Africans, eventually evolving into the instrument we know today.

The modern Tenor Banjo, with its four strings and distinct playing style, gained prominence in the early 20th century. Its adaptation marked a significant departure from traditional banjo styles and introduced a captivating voice to the world of music.

Anatomy of Sound: Unique Features of the Tenor Banjo

The Tenor Banjo boasts design elements that set it apart from other banjo variants:

  1. Four Strings: Its most distinguishing feature is its four strings, typically tuned to C-G-D-A (Chicago) or G-D-A-E (Irish) tunings, contributing to its signature sound.

  2. Shorter Neck: The shorter neck of the Tenor Banjo accommodates the reduced number of strings, making it easier to play complex chord shapes and melodies.

  3. Chording and Melodic Play: The instrument excels in chording and melodic playing, making it versatile for various musical genres.

  4. Open Back or Resonator: Tenor Banjos come in both open-back and resonator models, allowing for tonal variations. Open-back banjos offer a mellower sound, while resonator banjos provide enhanced projection.

In Harmony with Music: The Tenor Banjo’s Applications

The Tenor Banjo’s versatility allows it to find a place in various musical genres and settings:

  1. Traditional Jazz and Dixieland: The Tenor Banjo is a key component of traditional jazz and Dixieland bands, where its rhythmic strumming and melodic capabilities enhance the music’s vitality.

  2. Celtic and Irish Music: In Celtic and Irish music, the Tenor Banjo contributes its unique timbre and spirited melodies, adding a touch of authenticity to traditional tunes.

  3. Folk and Americana: In folk and Americana music, the Tenor Banjo’s adaptability shines through, allowing it to provide both chordal accompaniment and lead melodies.

  4. Recording Studios: The instrument’s distinctive sound makes it a sought-after choice for studio recordings, adding character and depth to musical compositions.

Bollywood’s Tryst with the Tenor Banjo

In the world of Bollywood music, where melodies have the power to captivate millions, the Tenor Banjo has made its mark in various songs and compositions. Though not as prevalent as other traditional Indian instruments, it has added a unique flavor to Bollywood’s diverse musical landscape.

One notable Bollywood song that features the Tenor Banjo is “Ye Shaam Mastani” from the movie Kati Patang. This evergreen track, composed by R.D. Burman and sung by Kishore Kumar, showcases the Tenor Banjo’s melodic prowess. The gentle strumming of the instrument in the background adds a touch of nostalgia and romanticism to the song.

“Ye shaam mastani, madhosh kiye jaaye.”

While the Tenor Banjo may not be a central instrument in Bollywood music, its occasional appearances remind us of its versatility and ability to complement a wide range of musical genres, including the enchanting melodies of Bollywood.

This Bollywood reference highlights how the Tenor Banjo, with its unique charm, can seamlessly integrate into diverse musical traditions, including the captivating world of Bollywood.

Harmonious Strings: Songs and Lyrics Featuring the Tenor Banjo

To illustrate the Tenor Banjo’s influence, here are a few songs and lyrics featuring this captivating instrument:

  1. “When the Saints Go Marching In”: This beloved gospel and jazz standard often features the Tenor Banjo’s spirited strumming and melodic lines, creating an uplifting atmosphere.
    “Oh, when the saints go marching in.”

  2. “Whiskey in the Jar”: In traditional Irish music, the Tenor Banjo adds a lively and rhythmic dimension to songs like “Whiskey in the Jar,” creating an infectious energy.
    “Musha ring dum-a do dum-a da.”

  3. “I’ll See You in My Dreams”: In the realm of popular music, the Tenor Banjo lends its melodic prowess to classics like “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” enriching the song’s harmonic palette.
    “I’ll hold you in my dreams, till I can hold you in my arms.”

Conclusion: A Timeless Echo of Music’s Heartbeat

In conclusion, the Tenor Banjo, with its illustrious history, distinctive design, and melodious allure, echoes as a timeless testament to the heart of music. This versatile instrument, celebrated for its adaptability and unique voice, has woven itself into the fabric of traditional jazz, Celtic tunes, folk songs, and more.

As we traverse the harmonious landscapes of musical traditions, the Tenor Banjo’s resonant chords remind us of its enduring power to evoke emotions, bridge generations, and unite diverse cultures through the universal language of music. It stands as a symbol of the instrument’s ability to find its voice in various genres while preserving the essence of its musical roots.


1. What is a tenor banjo? A tenor banjo is a four-stringed instrument that resembles a traditional five-string banjo but is tuned in fifths, making it well-suited for playing melodies and chords in a variety of musical styles.

2. How is the tenor banjo tuned? The standard tuning for a tenor banjo is usually CGDA, similar to the tenor violin or viola. This tuning allows for playing in a wide range of keys and facilitates chordal accompaniment as well as single-note melodies.

3. What is the history of the tenor banjo? The tenor banjo originated in the early 20th century as a response to the rising popularity of the four-string banjo in jazz and other musical genres. It became particularly popular in Irish traditional music and jazz ensembles.

4. What styles of music is the tenor banjo commonly used in? The tenor banjo is versatile and can be found in various musical styles, including traditional Irish music, Dixieland jazz, swing, folk, and sometimes even in contemporary pop and rock music.

5. How does the tenor banjo differ from other types of banjos? Unlike the five-string banjo, which typically features a shorter neck and an additional drone string, the tenor banjo has a longer neck and lacks the fifth string. This gives it a deeper, richer tone and allows for different playing techniques.

6. What are some famous tenor banjo players? Some notable tenor banjo players include Barney McKenna of The Dubliners, Eddie Peabody, Dixieland jazz musician Eddie Condon, and contemporary players like Gerry O’Connor and Enda Scahill.

7. Can the tenor banjo be played with a plectrum or fingerpicking? Yes, the tenor banjo can be played using either a plectrum (pick) or fingerpicking techniques. Plectrum playing is common in jazz and fast-paced styles, while fingerpicking is often favored for folk and traditional music styles.