Friday, May 27, 2016

Tenner: Ten Years Playing Tenor Banjo

It was almost ten years ago to this day - Memorial Day Weekend 2006 - that I began playing tenor banjo.  Even though I had never played an instrument before, I decided out of the blue at age 32 that I was going to begin playing 4-string tenor banjo.

Ever since I received that first banjo and had it set up left-handed with new tuners in the "Irish" GDAE tuning, I have rarely wavered in thinking that the tenor banjo is the instrument for me.  What I have struggled with is finding the right music to play on it.  My favorite music to listen to at that time - John Prine, Neil Young, Ween, Phish, Grateful Dead - either wasn't fun to play or was too advanced harmonically to translate into single-note tenor banjo plucking.

I soon learned that I wanted to play instrumental melodies -- not strum and sing.  Irish music made the most sense: an endless repertoire of tunes - no chording required - in a style of music where the instrument I held in my hands was commonly used.  Delving in to Irish and old-time fiddle tunes forced me to learn about tenor banjo "flatpicking" and also a little bit about music theory due to my curiosity about the modes and scales.

Fast forward to's taken me about ten years but I finally think I've cobbled together a personal repertoire of tunes that I endlessly enjoy playing.  I like to think of it as an "East/West" repertoire.  East being music with an Eastern European sound, and West being music with origins in the West Indies and therefore a more Caribbean sound.

The core of the "Western" repertoire is the music from an album called Bonne Humeur by The Etcetera String Band.  Around 1990, this ragtime string band from Kansas City recorded an album of early Caribbean music - dance tunes and other melodies from the 19th and 20th centuries.  The lead instrument is a banjo-mandolin.  My favorites from this CD include:  Aurore Bradaire, Bad Woman, Carnaval En Margarita, Dessan Mouillage, La Douceur, Lisette, and many more.  The majority of the 18 tracks, actually.

The core of the "Eastern" repertoire are the faux ethnic original tunes recorded by the band Camper Van Beethoven, primarily those from their 1985 debut album Telephone Free Landslide Victory.  My favorites are Balalaika Gap, Border Ska, Mao Reminisces About His Days In Southern China, Payed Vacation: Greece, Skinhead Stomp, Tina and Yanqui Go Home.


Add in a few other East or West type tunes from these and other sources and there are well over 40 tunes I'm trying to keep up with!