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What Is a Tenor Banjo?

H. Bliss
H. Bliss

A tenor banjo is a four-string banjo with a short neck. Once a popular instrument in swing, ragtime, and dance club bands, it is now most often found in Dixieland jazz music. This type of banjo is usually played with a pick, and often an ordinary guitar pick, but it can also be strummed with the fingers. These banjos are often up to 9 inches shorter than the standard banjo length. When it is used in standard tuning, this banjo can be known as banjo alto.

In contrast with the typical banjo, a tenor banjo sounds an octave lower than the written note. Its range goes from one octave below middle C to the A above middle C. On a piano, a middle C is the C note in the center of the piano. Though it used to be common in Tango and other dance bands of the 1920s and 1930s, the tenor banjo is now most commonly heard in Dixieland-style jazz, a style of jazz music that originated in New Orleans.

Banjos come in a few sizes and forms, but they all have a circle-shaped, drum-like body. A banjo is generally a four- or five-stringed instrument with frets. Rarely, some banjos have six strings. The tenor banjo has four.

A tenor banjo has four strings.
A tenor banjo has four strings.

Strings on a banjo are stretched from the pegs on the head of the banjo over the neck and across the circular body of the instrument. Frets are the raised metal rods that help a stringed instrument player finger the notes in tune. Modern banjos most often have five strings and player usually play with their fingers, primarily plucking or strumming, rather than using a handheld pick.

The tenor banjo is used in multiple types of tuning. Standard tuning for a tenor banjo is C, D, G, then A, counting from the lowest string to the highest string. In popular music, the banjo is commonly tuned to match the fiddle, using the notes G, D, A, and E instead. Another popular tuning, called the Chicago tuning, parallels the tenor banjo strings with the top strings on a guitar, which use the notes D, G, B, and E.

This type of banjo is a mid-ranged instrument. There are two lower banjos than the tenor banjo: the cello banjo and the bass banjo. The deeper cello banjo sounds an octave lower.

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Discussion Comments


@Logicfest -- true, but tenor banjos were fairly common until around the 1970s when country music zoomed to popularity and took that five string, finger pickin' banjo right along with it.

Prior to that, you used to see tenor banjos pop up from time to time. Jerry Van Dyke used to pop up with one regularly (think of the smarmy character he played in "Mclintock" for example).


These things look and sound downright odd today due the prevalence of the standard, five-string banjo in country music. We're used to seeing people finger picking banjos instead of strumming them these days and that, again, is due to our familiarity with country music.

Still, you do see these pop up from time to time and the fact that it is common to tune tenor banjos in a similar manner to a guitar makes it a great transition instrument for guitarists.

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    • A tenor banjo has four strings.
      By: schankz
      A tenor banjo has four strings.