Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mandolin vs. Banjo

This time last year I was on a big mandolin kick.  Now I’m back to tenor banjo.  Here’s a comparison of the two.

Tuning and Scale Length
Both instruments are tuned in perfect fifths, ala violin or cello.  I actually tune my tenor banjo like a mandolin – GDAE – but one octave lower.  The 5ths tuning is probably more suited to (and a product of) the shorter scale length of the violin/mandolin, which is about 13-14 inches.  The longer scale of the tenor banjo – 21-23 inches – makes it impossible to play in some of the closed positions you can do on the mandolin, but with the right fingering technique you can work around this.  
Seeing as how the cello also uses a perfect fifths tuning means that there are more extreme versions of this standard tuning in use.  On the banjo you might use your pinky finger as much as the other fingers, rather than largely ignoring it as some mandolin players do.  The banjo fretboard is less cramped.  In first position at least, the fingering is more intuitive on tenor banjo.

Sound and Feel
The mandolin has a sweet sound, whereas the tenor banjo is more piercing.  Being louder, the banjo can usually make itself heard in an un-amplified jam session but a mandolin could easily be drowned out.  The skin-like membrane over the rim also makes the banjo more temperamental and therefore more unpredictable.  The unforgiving nature of the banjo works best when you don't worry about playing wrong notes and embrace those mistakes.  
I like the feel of plucking single strings, vs. the double course strings of the mandolin.  When I look at a tenor banjo I feel a certain affection, kinship and uniqueness that I don’t get from the mandolin.  Playing a tenor banjo is like Charlie Brown’s little Christmas tree all lit up and beautiful.

Style and Limitations
Whether true or not, mandolin is probably considered more versatile than banjo.  The type of 4-string banjo that I play is a more obscure instrument with its roots in jazz and now part of Irish traditional music.  Whereas mandolin is most closely associated with bluegrass.  Unlike its 5-string cousin, the tenor banjo has almost no relation to bluegrass music.  

The tenor banjo is like a blank canvas, with fewer precedents in the world of music.  You’ll run into more mandolin (and fiddle and guitar) players than you will tenor banjo players, and yet the tenor banjo contains the same 12 notes as those other instruments do and the same rules of music apply.  There seems to be more room for exploration with the tenor banjo, free from the baggage of genre implications that restrain rather than encourage creativity.


  1. I feel the same way - the tenor is so much easier on the left hand, and there are so few tenor banjo players out there, and there are no expectations as to what it should sound like. It is so unique, like a newly invented instrument in the word of 2015. I tune my CGDA, mainly for trad jazz, but it works for Irish and classical, and I suspect it can be played in so many unique.

    1. Thanks for the comment David. I agree about the no expectations benefit. Some day I might try a 4ths tuning instead of a 5ths tuning - like DGCF.

  2. From your experience do you think it is best to concentrate on just the tenor, or would playing both be OK? I hate to give up the mandolin completely. And to complicate matters, I recently bought (on a whim) a 5-string banjo. I quickly discovered that my brain does just does not "get" bluegrass, but clawhammer style is intriguing. Now I am thinking I should eliminate one of these but at this point am having trouble giving up the 5-string or the mandolin. What is your opinion?

  3. I think learning multiple instruments is beneficial. Maybe one instrument is more melodic, while the other is more chordal, and still another is more about the bass lines, which gives you a more complete picture of the music for a particular song and music in general. Switching from tenor banjo to mandolin is pretty intuitive, even if you use different fingering. It gets a little more tricky if you use CGDA for tenor banjo and GDAE for mandolin, but that also makes for good ear training because you can't always rely on the same patterns. I say play whatever instruments speak to you in whatever style you want. Don't ignore tradition, but don't be limited by it either.