Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Blue Star Mandoblaster
When I originally chose to get a tenor banjo as my first (and only) instrument it was partially because despite being a relatively obscure and unique instrument, all you're really really doing with tenor banjo is playing an over-sized mandolin, or "banjolin".  Especially in the GDAE tuning, which is the same as a mandolin but one octave lower.

The longer tenor banjo scale length and potentially different fingering technique wasn't an issue or drawback for me initially.  For one thing, I had never played mandolin or any other instruments before getting a tenor banjo, so I had nothing to compare it to.  It seemed normal to me.

Secondly, the type of instrumental Appalachian and Celtic fiddle music that I chose to play on tenor banjo is key-driven and allows for lots of open strings.  In other words, a "D" tune is almost always played in D so you can learn it with open strings knowing that you won't have to transpose or play in a closed position.  Nobody at the session is going to suggest that we try that one out in "C" or "E" if it's always played in "D".

When I've tried mandolin in the past, it always felt awkward due to the shorter scale length and double course strings.  I was also a less of a musician then and didn't have any specific mandolin oriented exercises and drills to work on and keep me focused.  But now that I'm taking lessons from a mandolin player, I'm learning that there are mandolin-specific things that you just cannot do on tenor banjo.

Red Line Traveler
You can do closed position chords on a tenor banjo pretty easily, so that's not really an advantage that the mandolin has.  In fact, the shorter mandolin scale length makes the chords feel more choppy than I may prefer.  The real advantage of the mandolin starts to become clear when you move melodies up or down an octave, or to different keys, or to different positions/fingerings.

Soloing without the benefit of open strings becomes a possibility, which allows a lot of other patterns and concepts to come together. Of course, you can utilize open string notes just like you would on a tenor banjo, but you don't have to.  I also think that taking up mandolin will make me a better ear player, because it's so easy to transpose closed position arpeggios and scale patterns that your ear starts to make connections.

I still love that banjo sound, but maybe instead of trying to make the tenor banjo do it all, it might be better to reserve it for more genre driven techniques - such as "Irish" tenor banjo - and then use the mandolin as a tool to explore music in general.  They are both in the same tuning, so any "light-bulb" moments I have on mandolin can then be transferred to tenor banjo.

But, now I'm wondering - should I also learn how to play guitar???!!!













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