Thursday, April 30, 2015

Bill Frisell and Billy Martin played with Phil Lesh!

I'm a long-time fan of the Grateful Dead and even got to see them play a few times in 1994 and 1995 while Jerry Garcia was still alive.  Despite this, I don't often pay a whole lot of attention to the different lineups of "Phil and Friends" that Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh often puts together, although I respect his exploration of the Grateful Dead songbook and the way these various ensembles can find new paths of improvisation within these old songs.

When I saw a Tweet last week that mentioned that guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Billy Martin had performed two full sets on 4/22/15 (Earth Day) with Phil at his Terrapin Crossroads home venue in San Rafael, CA I took notice.  Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell is one of my favorite musicians, although I have never associated him with Grateful Dead music.  Drummer Billy Martin is definitely one of my favorite drummers and probably does have more of a connection to the jamband scene via the fanbase of Medeski, Martin and Wood - the esteemed improv trio that he is a member of.  Bill and Billy jamming with Phil was an unanticipated dream come true.

I was sure Billy Martin could sit in with no problem, but I didn't know how Bill Frisell would do in this setting, which might consist of unfamiliar material that is outside of his comfort zone.  I also wondered how he would be received by the Deadhead audience?  Watching the first set it seemed that Bill was a little unsure of himself and his role, and was not well acquainted with the songs.  But, as the first set progresses you can see Frisell learning what treatment the music calls for and gaining trust in his fellow musicians, especially in the more open, improvisatory moments.  As expected, Billy Martin's playing sounds very natural throughout, almost to the point where you forget that this is also his first time (?) collaborating with Phil Lesh.

To fill out the band, Phil employed his long-time cohort Rob Barraco on keyboards and a guy that I was unfamiliar with named Dan Lebowitz on guitar and pedal steel.  Having Barraco in the band helped provide structure where it was needed, and Barraco more than holds his own when things get more exploratory.  I was impressed by Barraco's playing abilities in a way that I never had noticed before.  Lebowitz is obviously familiar with the material and does a fair job in this highly-advanced musical conversation.  Perhaps he could have backed off a little bit at times and let the music breathe more?

The 2nd set began in the biggest way possible with a Dark Star that rose and fell and then rose again to unimaginable heights.  From there on the rest of the 2nd set consists of some of the best in-the-moment music making I've ever heard, with each musician reaching for the apex of his abilities.  As Bill Frisell gains more confidence he is able to add his "Frisellian" stamp to these songs.  The unmistakable sound of Frisell's voicings on these Grateful Dead themes is something I never thought I would hear.  When paired with the Billy Martin's drumming and Phil's quintessential bass, it's a wonderful mix.

Having read the setlist in advance I was looking forward to hearing the stand-alone When You Wish Upon A Star encore, while also being a little trepidatious, not knowing how that would go over.  Would it be a letdown that seemed in lieu of a more powerful encore such as a Shakedown Street or Help on the Way?  Never fear.  When You Wish Upon A Star is so exquisitely beautiful that it perfectly summed up the vibe of the music that had just transpired over the last 3+ hours, in a way that didn't need any addendum.

This seems like a once-ever occasion, but I would love to hear these guys get together again! There's an intimacy to this performance and a level of hear-a-pin-drop listening coming back from the audience that can only be achieved in a smallish room such as the one where this show took place.

Banjo Bursitis (Pain in Shoulder)

I never experienced any pain while playing an instrument until I started playing a 19-fret, resonator banjo.

After several years of playing a 21” scale 17-fret, open back tenor banjo pain-free, the switch to the 23” scale was enough of a difference in arm position to cause a pain in my (right) shoulder.  I almost immediately experienced shoulder pain upon playing this new banjo.  I’m left handed so my right shoulder is the right-handed person’s left shoulder. Basically, it’s the shoulder on the fretting arm, not the picking arm.  The additional weight of the resonator banjo probably didn't help.

A 19-fret tenor banjo is still a shorter scale than a typical 5-string banjo, so it's probably not as bad as it could be. I did a little bit of research and saw some suggestions to use a strap to support the neck and to also try positioning the neck at a lower angle, more parallel with the floor. (I like to hold it fairly upright at about a 45 degree angle).

This has definitely caused me to be mindful of any potential for inflammation and has also made me more conscious of how I hold my body and the banjo, and even how I reach out to the tuning pegs.  Lowering the neck still feels awkward and sometimes I unknowingly revert back to having it pointed more toward the ceiling.

The soreness is not there every time I play, but sometimes it does come back. I am hoping that it goes away altogether with time as my body adjusts. It is strange that such a small change from a 21” scale neck to a 23” scale neck has caused this flare up in the shoulder. The fingers on my fretting hand have been able to adapt to the longer stretch without many issues.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Q and A with Dr Daithí Kearney - Sliabh Luachra, Irish Banjo, Cork Trad and more

Ethnomusicologist, performer and banjo player Dr Daithí Kearney was kind enough to answer some questions pertaining to Irish traditional music. Read on for the Q and A.
Your Midleton Rare CD with John Cronin has been described as a celebration of the Sliabh Luachra sound. How is the music of Sliabh Luachra different than the music of other regions of Ireland?
I believe that the difference lies primarily in the rhythm. It is not just that polkas and slides play a more prominent role here than in other parts of Ireland as, even in the jigs and reels, there is a slightly different emphasis. There is a particular repertoire that can sometimes be described as 'deceptively simple' that has great life when played in the style.

How does the banjo fit into this style?
I think that it adds a great punch. Because rhythm is so important, the banjo can latch onto that rhythm and while it might not achieve all of the subtleties of what was primarily a fiddle tradition, it can listen to the dancers' feet and enhance the rhythmical feel of the music.

The area around Cork City/East Cork doesn’t seem to be recognized for Irish traditional music as much as, say, County Clare, for example. Is this a fair assessment? What is the status of Irish traditional music in Cork these days?
It is fair to say that East Cork is not as recognised for music as Clare or some other western counties but this hides the wonderful activities going on there. There are a number of great session pubs in East Cork and West Waterford and branches of Comhaltas, as well as some other teachers, are doing great work to promote Irish traditional music in the region. I myself studied music at UCC and spent a number of wonderful years in Cork City where I had a choice of sessions each night, not to mention regular gigs by great artists. Cork City is, in my opinion, exceptional for music and there are great musicians who play regularly.

For an adult improver, do you think there’s a “right way” (as opposed to a “wrong way”) to go about learning Irish traditional music?
Firstly, listening is key. Books are a wonderful resource and there are helpful online resources now also but, where possible, the best way to learn is to play with experienced musicians and learn from them. Summer schools are attended by a lot of adult improvers and there are more and more workshops offered, not just in Ireland. Sometimes it only takes a little bit of constructive criticism from an experienced teacher to overcome challenges.

Is the playing of Irish music really as simple as knowing how the tune is supposed to sound and then finding those notes on your instrument?
No, I don't think so. Despite some commentary that might suggest otherwise, there is still great diversity in the approaches to performing Irish traditional music and I would value a personal style of a musician who has taken the time to explore the potential of their instrument. I also believe that the stories of the music are an integral part of the tradition and knowing why a particular tune holds special meaning for people can add to the significance of the tune. Tunes hold memories and while one may perform the notes very well, placing these notes in the context of performances by musicians in the past is at the core of the meaning of 'tradition'.

For the visiting American musician who has an interest in taking part in sessions in Ireland, what are some things to be mindful of?
Try and get a sense of the session before joining in. It is too simple to provide one definition of a session. Some are essentially gigs and some involve people who will be more receptive to people joining in than others, regardless of who they are or where they come from. Taking the time to chat to the musicians or listen a little before joining in could make the experience more enjoyable for all involved.

Any plans for a follow up to the Midleton Rare album?
Midleton Rare was a wonderful experience that came about from playing regularly with John in Midleton, Co. Cork. Unfortunately, in this context, shortly after recording the album I moved to Co. Louth to take up a position at Dundalk Institute of Technology. I am delighted to say that I have settled into my employment here but this means that another album with John is increasingly unlikely. However, I continue to perform and have a number of projects lined up. I am currently working on an album inspired by the musical traditions of Co. Louth with Piano Accordionist Adèle Commins and also hope to record with the DkIT Ceol Oirghialla Traditional Music Ensemble (of which I am currently director) in the near future.

You can read more about music at Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) and the traditional ensemble there at:

Dr Daithí Kearney is a lecturer in Music at Dundalk Institute of Technology, Section of Music and Centre for Research in Music. His research is primarily focused on Irish traditional music but extends to include performance studies, community music, music education and the connection between music and place. His PhD concentrates on the construction of geographies and regional identities in Irish traditional music and his research interests include the negotiation, mediation and construction of identities through music and the relationship between music and place. In 2012 Daithí released an album with Cork accordion player John Cronin entitled "Midleton Rare", which is related to a wider research project on the music and musicians of the Sliabh Luachra region. In 2013 he performed with Southbound at the National Folk Festival of Australia. Daithí recently completed a term as chair of ICTM Ireland and is currently a committee member of the Society for Music Education in Ireland.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Gaining Your Musical Àccent

If you give a British person or a Southern (USA) person a sentence to read, chances are that he or she would read it with a British or Southern accent, respectively, even if he or she had never said those exact words before.  Along those lines, it's not too much of a stretch to also say that an Irish tenor banjo player (someone who plays Irish traditional music on the 4-string tenor banjo) can and should have an Irish musical accent, regardless of the tune he is playing.

So, last week I made myself a "listening tape" containing two or three sets of tunes from CDs by Irish tenor banjo players Angelina Carberry, John Carty, Kevin Griffin, Daithí Kearney and Kieran Hanrahan.  I tried to find tracks that featured the banjo as the lead instrument prominently in the mix, ideally with just a sparse amount of backup.  I wasn't necessarily basing it on common vs. obscure tunes.  
I also slowed down the recordings to 75% speed (good or bad idea?) to help hear the subtleties of the triplets and other ornamentation that these players were doing.  In the case of the John Carty CD "I Will If I Can", the tunes were all a half-step sharp so I lowered the pitch by a semitone so that Jim Ward's jig was in the key of G instead of being tuned up to G#, for example.  

The idea here is to not necessarily learn these specific tunes, but to get a better intuitive sense for the native sound of this music as a whole so that it can come through in anything that I play. It's similar to a voice over artist learning a new accent.  Presumably after gaining a familiarity with that accent the voice over person could make assumptions about how unfamiliar words or phrases would be voiced in that accent.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Irish Trad - Does It Help To Read Music?

Have you ever seen the lyrics to a favorite song and realized that you were mishearing some of the words? Did you benefit from learning what the correct lyrics were? One example that comes to mind is the Grateful Dead song Franklin’s Tower. I used to think that the words “If you plant ice you’re gonna harvest wind” were “If you play nice you’re gonna always win”. What I heard in my head was inferior to the actual poetic lyrics penned by Robert Hunter. Finding this out didn’t in any way take away from my enjoyment of this song that I already loved. It enriched it!

I think the same can be done with caution with Irish tunes. When people say that Irish traditional music is an aural tradition and you should learn by ear and not by notation that is true. You should strive to train your ear to learn this music via osmosis and resist the urge to “cheat” and look at the music too early in the process of learning an individual tune. However, glancing at transcriptions of the music can help clarify some muddy areas and help you grasp and remember the tune better, much in the same way that seeing the lyrics to Franklin’s Tower helped correct the faulty words that my mind’s ear was hearing.

I am trying to learn basic tourist French right now prior to a trip to Quebec this summer. I have some audio instruction “tapes” that I got from the library. Since I am a visual learner (and a fairly good speller) it really helps me comprehend the language better if I can pair the audio with the written. So for me, pairing a written phrasebook with the audio helps give me a more complete picture of the expression. The same holds for music: audio + notation vs. audio only.
Jerry Garcia said, “With records, the whole history of music is open to everyone who wants to hear it. Nobody has to fool around with musty old scores, weird notation and scholarship bullshit. You can just go into a record store and pick a century, pick a country, pick anything, and dig it, make it a part of you, add it to the stuff you carry around and see that it’s all music.”
This is definitely the approach I want to take as I continue to learn Irish music and tunes. By listening to the likes of Angelina Carberry, John Carty, Kevin Griffin, Daithi Kearney and Mick O’Connor (slowed down and pitch-corrected as needed) I hope to intuitively get the feel of this music as played on tenor banjo. Ideally, in my case, the years of listening to Jerry Garcia prior to ever playing an instrument can also come through the background of my unconscious when I am attempting to interpret tunes. No harm in that!

Jerry Garica also said “If you’re wondering why in an old-timey band you can’t understand the words very well, it’s because we don’t know them, and we can’t figure them out off the records, so we make up our own as we go along.”

When you can’t understand the exact words you replace them with words of your own choosing based on what fits or what you think it might be. The same is done as a player with your choice of musical notes. You may not like what you see when an Irish tune is written out and may prefer your own way of hearing it. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as your aural version is driven by purity of intent and not held back by your ignorance or skill limitations. You get to choose how “enlightening” you find someone else’s idea of what the notation should be. Use it as an aid, not as a crux.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Criteria For Ranking Favorite Bands

My favorite bands/musical artists tend to meet the following criteria:

One or more really strong individual album.  At least one totally classic album that is a desert-island disc or at least an all-time favorite.

A strong entire catalog.  The officially-released back catalog should be expansive, diverse and rewarding.

Great, non-duplicating live show.  Someone who doesn't play the exact same set every night, but varies up the order and selection of songs on a nightly basis.  And/or someone I would travel 3+ hours to see, and/or see multiple times year after year.

Re-watchability, Re-listenability. A favorite should be one of the go-to bands that I repeatedly search for on YouTube and other online streaming sites.

Here are some bands that meet this criteria.

Mary Halvorson
The album "Thumbscrew" that Mary was involved with continues to be a favorite, but I also like almost everything I've ever heard her do.  It's hard to keep up with her prolific output.  I've never seen her live, although if I was doing an NYC trip I'd be looking to see if she was playing anywhere.  At the moment, she's one of my favorite artists to search for video content of.

The Murphy Beds
It doesn't get any better than their 2012 "Murphy Beds" debut album.  That's the only one by this duo so far.  I'm optimistic that forthcoming releases will be good.  I just saw these guys live last week.  It was worth the wait.  If there were more high-quality content out there for The Murphy Beds I would listen to it.  I tuned in to their Concert Window performance last year which was cool.

Bill Frisell
"East/West", "Further East/West" and "Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian" are my current favorite Bill Frisell albums, although his whole catalog is worth seeking out.  Bill is always good live.  I search for his videos, interviews, and other performances quite a bit.

Dr. Dog
I listed Dr. Dog's "Easy Beat" as my favorite album of the 2000's (2000-2009) and it remains so.  I liked several of their initial albums.  Haven't paid as much attention to their last couple albums but what I hear/see in recent videos continues to be solid. I've definitely seen some incredibly good Dr. Dog shows, dating back to 2004.

The Jerry Garcia Band the best Jerry album "Cats Under the Stars" or "Not for Kids Only"?  All of his albums have merit. Finding video footage of a late 70's JGB show is always a great treat. Jerry is my all-time favorite musician. His guitar playing, singing voice, spirit and demeanor is 2nd to none. I got to see the JGB once - in Richmond, VA 1993.

The Hot Seats
The Hot Seats aren't really an album band, but all of their albums are good, if that makes any sense. They are a local favorite live band that I've seen a lot.  I would love to time a trip to Scotland when they are playing there. I enjoy seeing videos and listening to recordings of their European shows, just to see how they come across to those audiences.

John Prine
John Prine's self-titled first album has been on my all-time top ten list for 20+ years.  The only drawback to John's full catalog is it all starts to sound alike after a while. The few times I've seen John Prine have always been great.  He might be the best in the world for an around the campfire kind of guy.

Neil Young
"Harvest Moon" is probably my favorite Neil Young album.  After "Harvest Moon" there's "Zuma", "Tonight's the Night", "Comes A Time", "Greendale" - the list goes on.  There are still Neil Young albums that I haven't listened to at all yet.  "Trans", anyone?  The one time I saw Neil Young it wasn't the cosmic experience I was expecting.  I was sorta deflated afterward.  He was just some dude playing guitar and harmonica.  Which is ironically badass.  I love watching old Neil Young interviews.

"The Mollusk" is one of my all-time top 5 favorite albums.  Other great ones include "12 Golden Country Hits", "Quebec", "White Pepper", "Chocolate and Cheese" and "Pure Guava". There are some awesome vintage late 90's performances from what appears to be public access TV.

Gillian Welch
Every one of Gillian and Dave's albums are at least 4 out of 5 stars.  When you're at one of her concerts you're seeing one of the best of all-time.  She's got the mojo.  I like to find old concert recordings and unusual covers that her and David Rawlings have done.

Medeski, Martin and Wood
"Shackman" will always find its way onto my all-time favorites. "Friday Afternoon in the Universe" is not far behind.I like EVERY album that MMW has ever put out. They are at the tip-top of bands that I always want to go see live if they are anywhere within a 2 hour radius. I love to listen to their live concert recordings.  There are a lot of full-length, hi-quality concert videos streaming online now as well.

The Grateful Dead
While most would choose "American Beauty" or "Workingman's Dead", I happen to love "Reckoning" the most of any Grateful Dead album.  Their catalog goes as deep as you want to go.  I only got to see The Grateful Dead live six times before Jerry's death. At their peak in the 70's and 80's there was nobody better. I'd rather listen to a completely random Grateful Dead show from almost any year over almost anything else.

"Story of the Ghost", "Headphones Jam", "Junta" and "Rift" could all be desert-island albums.  I like the "Siket Disc" as well.  Phish's overall output is the most robust of anyone.  I actually like all of the studio albums they've released.  Their live show is unsurpassed. Phish's off nights are better than the next band's best nights. I love listening to Phish shows from all the different points in their career.  It's worthy of never ending analysis.  Seeking out the 20 minute - or longer - jams is fun too.

Friday, April 3, 2015

What Is "Irish Tenor Banjo"?

There's a lot of misinformation regarding Irish tenor banjo so I thought I'd add to that by offering my own take on this subject.  First of all, one has to assume that the term "Irish Tenor Banjo" is a real thing.  For the purposes of this post, I am willing to say that it is.  In a blanket statement, Irish Tenor Banjo is the playing of Irish traditional tunes using a 4-string, 19-fret, resonator banjo tuned GDAE, with a pick/plectrum.  None of this is codified as much as say Earl Scruggs bluegrass banjo, so there are many alternatives.  Below I will cover each of these aspects in more detail.

17-Fret or 19-Fret?
The idea that Irish tenor banjos are supposed to be 17-fret short-scale banjos is probably the biggest misconception when it comes to this style of playing.  While it's perfectly fine to use a 17-fret banjo with a 20 to 21 inch scale, the vast majority of top-level and/or professional players use a 19-fret tenor banjo with a scale length between 22 and 23 inches.  There may be some advantages to a 17-fret model for some players, but the idea that 17-frets is the standard seems to have originated in America and is related to marketing rather than reality.  As I have discovered recently, 19-frets is not that much more of a reach over the first five frets, but the extra scale length creates more tension on the strings, which can make them more responsive and easier to play.
Mick Moloney
Resonator or Open Back?
The resonator versus open back question gets asked a lot and the short answer is resonator.  Again, if you base it on popularity, most experienced players have always gravitated towards resonator banjos, with a couple recent notable exceptions such as John Carty (an open back 19-fret Ome nowadays) and Angelina Carberry (an open back 17-fret Oakwood).  These kinds of things can be subject to trends and the fact that some prominent players are currently using open backs may have a trickle down effect.  Resonators punch through more in a session setting, which may not be what you are looking for if you are a less than confident player.  An open back may allow you to blend in better (be less of a nuisance!) and they are also lighter, which has ergonomic benefits.  The resonator is more quintessential.

Tuning - GDAE or CGDA (or ADAE, et cetera)?
The 5ths tuning of GDAE (from low to high) is the standard for Irish tenor banjo.  This tuning, which mimics the tuning of a mandolin or fiddle but is one whole octave lower, suits the keys/modes most commonly encountered in Irish music. Outside of the Irish tradition, tenor banjo is still usually tuned in 5ths but those pitches are CGDA.  While beneficial for a lot of music, CGDA is not as versatile in Irish trad where there are benefits to using GDAE instead.  Since most sets of tenor banjo strings are designed for CGDA, you kind of have to assemble your own customized sets of heavier strings for GDAE.  There are some pre-packaged "Irish" sets, but there remains a lot of debate over what gauges to use and I am not qualified to comment on that here!  Another tuning that some Irish tenor banjo players use is ADAE.  By tuning the low G up a whole step to A you help solve potential string floppiness issues and also open up additional droning possibilities.

Melody or Chords?
This is an easy one.  Unlike the chordal style found in jazz banjo, Irish tenor banjo is quite purely melodic.  You won't find many examples of people using a tenor banjo as a long-term chording/rhythm/backup instrument in Irish music.  In the right hands, the tenor banjo is a melodic equal to the fiddle, flute, accordion, concertina, pipes or any other instrument used to interpret these classic tunes.  An Irish tenor banjo player plays the melody almost 100% of the time in unison with the other melody instruments present.  Unlike bluegrass where a guitarist or mandolinist might strum or chop until it's his turn to solo, in Irish music you basically solo all the time as part of the larger group, within the confines of the tune.  Some mindful advanced players are more supportive and responsive in the tenor banjo role, but are still playing the head melody in unison with everyone else.

4-strings or 5-strings?
This seems obvious but I was 30 years old the first time I recall seeing an Irish tenor banjo in action or even knowing that such a thing existed.  At the time I had never played an instrument before so I had no practical knowledge of music outside of being a listener.  I don't think I even noticed that the Irish banjo only had 4-strings, but yes it does.  With the 4-strings and GDAE tuning a better name for the tenor banjo might be octave banjolin.  The main thing that makes it a banjo is the skin-like material stretched over a rim.  The 5-string banjo as found in bluegrass, old-time, folk is something totally different.  Irish tenor banjo playing has more in common with mandolin than it does with 5-string banjo.

Plectrum or Fingerpicking or Clawhammer?
For Irish tenor banjo people use a pick (AKA a plectrum).  This is like the pick one would use to play guitar.  In fact, it usually is a guitar pick.  The cheap, grey nylon .73mm (or .60mm) Dunlop or Fender picks seem to be the ones most preferred by Irish tenor banjo players.  After a lot of experimenting I now use these types of picks as well.  For this reason, playing Irish tenor banjo is sort of like flat-picking guitar.  I have read that some people use a thimble instead of a pick, but I've yet to see it done in person.  Using your fingers - like on guitar fingerpicking or clawhammer banjo - or actually using finger picks - like the 5-string player Bela Fleck does - is generally not done in Irish music.  This doesn't mean that it can't be done, but it would be going against the grain to do so.

First Position or Up the Neck?
Irish tenor banjo players like to stay in first position between frets 2 and 5 except when having to reach up to that pesky high-B on 7th fret of the E-string or sliding up to the occasional 7th fret on one of the other strings.  The area beyond the 7th fret tends to be unexplored territory.  This is mostly due to the nature of the music (Irish mandolin players also stay in first position) but is partially due to the nature of the instrument.  On a guitar (because of how it is tuned) and on a mandolin (because of its shorter scale length) it is feasible to play almost any melody anywhere on the neck in a closed position without having to use open strings, but on a tenor banjo this is not as doable.  Some advanced Irish players are able to go up the neck in moderation, but it is not necessary and the technique can be quite complex for casual players.

11" or 12" Rim?
An 11" rim (with a resonator and an arch top tone ring) is the most common, i.e. traditional, but this could be just as much due to the lack of options as it is to a stylistic preference.  A few more players seem to be experimenting with 12" rims and liking the sound, and again this is something that can be subject to fads.  With more custom builders entering the tenor banjo market, the possibility for greater experimentation is there.  A larger rim will likely place the bridge more toward the middle of the skin which could be off-putting if you are used to it being closer to the tailpiece.

New or Vintage?
Here's where it starts to get murky.  A lot of people swear that vintage is the only way to go and that you need to have a Paramount, or a Silver Bell, or a Clifford Essex, or an Epiphone, or a Gibson, et cetera.  There are lots of different opinions and personal preferences.  I happen to like modern, newer banjos and being left-handed I can get side position dots on the left-handed side of the neck if custom ordered.  Some of the modern builders include Clareen, Emerald, Ome, Nechville and Deering, as well as smaller boutique builders like Romero, Franzke, Tommy George and JP Banjos.  It is often more cost effective to buy a vintage banjo over a modern one, except in cases where the price of the vintage model has been jacked up due to supply vs. demand.  Vintage banjos also have greater re-sale value.  However, with a modern banjo from a trusted builder you know you are getting something with a perfectly set up neck, a truss rod, upgraded tuners, and so on.  The price is also sometimes flexible with a modern builder if you can eliminate aesthetics like inlay without sacrificing other factors like build quality, sound quality and playability.

Triplets, Triplets, Triplets
Ornamentation is at the foundation of Irish music and the Irish tenor banjo player's number one ornament is the triplet.  Due to the tenor banjo's lack of sustain notes decay quickly.  I suppose the triplet is used to spice tunes up and cover for this.  The trick is to learn to pluck the triplets smoothly and use them tastefully, which is something that all Irish tenor banjo players grapple with.  It is more important to play the tune well than it is to add in a bunch of triplets.  I like the sound of players who use the triplet sparingly, and who also incorporate things like small-chord-double-stops, slides and even string bends to vary the melody.

Irish Tenor Banjo Players
There are several great players and I'm sure I will leave some out, but a short list includes John Carty, Angelina Carberry, Kevin Griffin, Mick Moloney, Barney McKenna, Eamon O'Leary, Enda Scahill, Kieran Hanrahan, Daithí Kearney, Claudine Langille, Dan T. Neely, Brian McGrath, Darren Maloney, Eamonn Coyne, Mick O'Connor, Gerry O'Connor, Stevie Dunne, Brian Connolly and Pauline Conneely.

No banjos were harmed during the writing of this message.