Thursday, March 29, 2012

New Term: Octave Banjolin!

What do you call a banjo with four strings, tuned like a mandolin and played with a pick?  This is not a line from a joke; it's a question I ask myself when trying to figure out the name of the instrument I play.   

Tenor banjo is the term most people use, but I'm confused about where the name tenor was derived from. Some think tenor is a mispronunciation of the word tango.  But, tenor would seem to apply to the CGDA tuning and its relative pitch to baritone and alto. When you re-tune to the lower GDAE, as I do, doesn't it make the range too low to be called tenor?  By the same logic would you then call it a baritone banjo?
 

People often tell me that I play Irish tenor banjo.  However, I believe that phrase conveys a genre and playing style that I don't exactly adhere to. While I certainly enjoy playing Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes, I play at least as many or more tunes from the old-time/Southern Appalachian repertoire. Does that mean I also play old-time tenor banjo?  Also, the Irish tenor banjo playing style, which employs many triplets and other uniquely Celtic ornaments, is not a style I have adopted or necessarily aspire to mimic.  Two reasons why Irish tenor banjo might be a misnomer.

You'd think plectrum banjo would work. I do use a pick. However the name plectrum banjo has already been taken by an instrument with a longer scale and different tuning!  I suppose 4-string banjo fits, but it sounds rather nondescript to me.

Hence the words octave banjolin!  I use the mandolin tuning, one octave lower. Unless banjolin can only apply to an 8-string instrument?  I don't think it has to as evidenced by two vintage ads I found.  The first is from around 1885 and the 2nd is from around 1907. 
Farris Instruments banjo ad, circa 1885
Schall banjo ad, circa 1907
Both ads describe a 4-stringed banjo instrument tuned like a mandolin/violin and played with a plectrum/pick.  They use the words Banjolin and Banjorine.  Another interesting thing about these articles is the indication that the original tuning for a banjo of this type was meant to be like a mandolin and not like a mandola.  So now when we "re-tune" to GDAE we're not committing some act of heresy, but are actually honoring the instrument's roots!

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