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.