Saturday, May 2, 2015

Closed Position Scale Fingerings for Tenor Banjo

I took some lessons a while back from Dennis Elliott, who is one of the best stringed-instrument teachers in the Richmond, VA area.  Fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass, bluegrass, jazz, classical, theory - Dennis knows it all!

Dennis really helped me understand scale patterns by teaching a closed position scale fingering method for mandolin.  In a nutshell, this was basically:

Scale notes 1-2-3-4 (and 5-6-7-1) use a "whole-whole-half" pattern w/ fingers 1,2,3,4.
Scale notes 2-3-4-5 (and 6-7-1-2) use a "whole-half-whole" pattern w/ fingers 1,2,3,4.
Scale notes 3-4-5-6 (and 7-1-2-3) use a "half-whole-whole" pattern w/ fingers 1,2,3,4.
Scale notes 4-5-6-7 use a "whole-whole-whole" pattern w/ fingers 1,2,3,4.

This works great for mandolin, but on tenor banjo some of those stretches and reaches are damn near impossible to do.  So, I kind of ignored that method for tenor banjo since for Irish music you usually play in first position utilizing open strings, and I prefer a cello/guitar fingering of one-finger-per-fret.

But, to play in closed positions up the neck on tenor banjo you do need to figure this kind of thing out.  Just this morning I searched and found an archived 2010 forum topic on Banjo Hangout on 'Scale Fingerings for Tenor' where Andrew Roblin added a comment that happened to summarize Buddy Wachter's approach to this tenor banjo fingering dilemma.  I've indicated in red text where this fingering approach differs from what Dennis showed me for mandolin.

Scale notes 1-2-3-4 (and 5-6-7-1) use fingers 1,2,4,4*
Scale notes 2-3-4-5 (and 6-7-1-2) use fingers 1,2,3,4.
Scale notes 3-4-5-6 (and 7-1-2-3) use fingers 1,1,2,4.
Scale notes 4-5-6-7 use fingers 1,2,4,1 -- the last note in that 4-5-6-7 pattern is on the next higher string.

Roblin explained that in Buddy's method he slides with only the 1st and 4th fingers, and avoids whole steps between the middle finger and the ring finger because it is too awkward.  Further analysis may be needed to figure out work arounds for all of the potential occasions when a whole step might fall between fingers 2 and 3.

*I'm assuming that 1,2,4,4 would be Buddy Wachter's fingering pattern for closed scale notes 1-2-3-4. In Andrew's explanation of Buddy's technique, this is the only closed position example he left out.

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