Adventures in Banjo

Is the ukulele a gateway instrument? I suppose many kids who learn ukulele in school move on to guitar, and that’s great. An instrument as easy to learn as ukulele can easily give kids an appreciation for music that can last a lifetime.

As James Hill once said, for middle-aged folk like me, ukulele can be a second chance at music. I started playing uke about seven years ago, and I’ve loved making music ever since. I know I’ll never be good enough to play professionally, but that really doesn’t matter. Ukulele has also been a gateway instrument for me. Ever since I was young, I secretly wanted a banjo. A couple of years ago, I satisfied my long-held desire, and added a banjo ukulele to my modest collection of instruments. As fun as ukulele is already, the banjo uke is even more fun. More recently, I added another banjo to my collection, a tenor banjo.

When most people think of banjo, they think of the five-string banjo, a staple of bluegrass music. While I love bluegrass music, I didn’t want to limit myself to that genre. To me, the four-string tenor banjo offers more flexibility when playing, allowing both strummed and picked styles of playing.

However, the tenor is not as common as the bluegrass banjo. You just don’t find many to choose from in the local music stores, if you can find any at all. I found an inexpensive Trinity River tenor in a local pawn shop, but one poster in an on-line banjo forum recommended against it. But a couple of months ago, while visiting Renaissance Music, I found two tenors, one a used Gold Tone tenor, which I ended up buying.

Note that there are multiple ways to tune a tenor banjo. (Heck, there are lots of ways to tune the bluegrass banjo too.) The standard way is CGDA. But other common tunings include mandolin tuning (GDAE) and “Chicago” tuning (DGBE). The latter is also how you tune a baritone ukulele. When I tried out that Gold Tone tenor in the store, I had a hard time getting what I thought was the A string into tune. When that string snapped at home and I got a new set of strings, I realized that the instrument was tuned to DGBE, not CGDA.

I noticed that CGDA tuning is similar to standard ukulele tuning, GCEA. When I installed the new strings, I reversed the C and G strings, and tuned the D up a whole note. This allowed me to play the tenor using ukulele fingering, while keeping the same range of notes as a standard tenor banjo. But that tuning sounded odd. The difference between the second and third strings was just too great. So I then took the original B string, and replaced the third string, tuning the new string to C. And so I ended up with a banjo tuned exactly like my low-G tenor ukulele. In the future, I may experiment with re-entrant high-G uke tuning on this tenor.

I still have a lot of practicing to do before I play my new toy in public. The frets are further apart and the strings closer together, making left-hand fingering a bit trickier. Like the banjo ukulele, any time you touch the instrument, it makes noise, which has to be controlled. But also like my banjo uke, my new tenor has a resonator that can be removed, which can make the instrument a tad quieter, useful when practicing at home.

Most every month, you can find me performing with my banjo uke at the Kingston Sing-along Society sessions, normally scheduled for the first Friday of the month, at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship. At some point, after more practicing, I’ll bring my new tenor.

Cheers! Hans