tenor banjo

Also:       tango banjo       

Title: Encore--After the Loving; Jazz Incredibles, John Becker, tenor banjo. Label: private. Format: CD. Catalogue#: CD 122529. Track: 8.

Contextual Associations

The tenor banjo is a strummed spike-lute chordophone of the United States that was derived in the early 20th century from the five-string banjo. During its brief period of popularity (the 1910s and 1920s), the tenor banjo was used by professionals in dance bands and vaudeville pit bands. In those pre-amplification times, it could hold its own against louder instruments. A few virtuoso soloists emerged by developing complex melodic and harmonic styles. The tenor banjo was also adopted into an amateur musical pursuit that dated back to the late 19th century--the BMG (banjo, mandolin, guitar) movement. University and community groups comprising of players of these three forms of plucked, fretted lutes were quite popular across the country. Though the five-string banjo was initially used by such groups, the tenor banjo eventually came to replace it. Unlike the five-string banjo, the tenor was not associated with blackface minstrelsy or even with the ultimate origins of the banjo in Africa--it was most strongly associated with the popular music of white America. Today the main context in which to hear the tenor banjo is Dixieland bands, a tradition that is a 1940s revival of 1920s jazz, a genre that only sparingly made use of the tenor.


The banjo’s resonator shell is in the form of a ring made of plywood laminated with burled maple (see first detail image). Twenty equidistantly-spaced metal brackets are bolted to the outside wall of the shell. Two square holes, 0.7 inches per side, are cut into opposite sides of the wall to receive the neck spike. Resting on the shell rim over which the soundboard will be attached is a metal hoop with the same diameter as the shell. A mammal skin membrane attached to a flesh hoop that has a slightly larger diameter than the hoop on the shell rim is placed over the shell opening. A steel counterhoop ring 0.2 inches thick, 0.5 inches deep, and with the same diameter as the flesh hoop, is lapped over the flesh hoop. The counterhoop has a shallow trough inscribed in its upper rim into which fit the hook ends of twenty metal rods. Each rod passes through a hole in one of the side-mounted brackets located around the shell, and a bolt is screwed onto the threaded bottom end of each rod. By adjusting the pressure of these bolts against the brackets, downward force is applied to the counterhoop to achieve the desired amount of tension for the membrane soundboard. The pegblock/neck/spike component of the banjo is carved from a single piece of solid maple. The neck section has a shallow and rounded back except for its heel, which is much deeper. The top face of the neck is laminated with a flat piece of ebony wood with grooves cut across it to receive seventeen metal frets. Mother of pearl dots are inlayed into the fingerboard to mark the fifth, seventh, tenth, and twelfth frets. At the top end of the fingerboard a wood nut (a raised ridge) is inserted into a groove cut across the neck and marks the division between the fingerboard and pegblock sections of the neck. From the heel end of the neck a long, 0.7 inch square spike is carved. The spike is inserted through a square hole in the resonator shell and its terminal end is inserted into a square hole dug into the inside of the opposite wall (see first detail image). Metal hardware is used to secure the spike to the shell, and the hardware to which the instrument’s metal tailpiece is connected is bolted through the shell wall to the terminal end of the spike. The instrument is strung with four single course metal strings, the two lowest-pitched ones being overwound. A noose at one end of each string is looped over a tab on the metal tailpiece. The strings then pass through slots in a low wooden pressure bridge (the tension of the strings holds the bridge feet against the membrane soundboard) and, in a parallel plain, pass just over the soundboard and the frets on the neck until they make contact with the nut. After passing through slots in the nut each string is threaded through and wound around the exposed end of a back-mounted metal friction peg with which the string’s tension is adjusted. All four strings have the same vibrational length (the distance between the bridge and the nut) of 20.6 inches. A pan-shaped wooden reflector designed to direct the sound of the banjo outwards from the performer is attached to the instrument with metal hardware located on the neck spike (see second detail image).

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The tenor banjo is typically played by a seated performer with the side of the resonator on the right thigh and the pegblock end raised to about a 45-degree angle, the soundboard facing outwards. The player mostly strums, but can also pluck, the strings with a pick held in the right hand and stops the strings against the fretted fingerboard with the fingertips of the left hand. It excelled as a strummed, strongly rhythmic, chordal instrument. The standard tuning for the tenor banjo is: C3 - G3 - D4 - A4 (interval pattern of P5 - P5 - P5, same as the mandolin and the violin). Its range is C3 - D5 and is fully chromatic over this span. In comparison to other acoustic plucked lutes, the tenor banjo is a loud instrument. The distinctive timbre and considerable volume of the tenor banjo are largely due to the responsiveness of its taut membrane soundboard and the pan-shaped acoustic reflector attached to the back of the resonator. 


Introduced in the 1910s initially under the name ‘tango banjo,’ by the 1920s the four-string tenor was the most popular banjo model in America. It was one of many hybrid banjos that makers had been experimenting with since the late 1890s. One of those hybrids was between the banjo and the mandolin--a four double-course instrument tuned in fifths like a mandolin but with a banjo body. While both the banjo mandolin and the tenor banjo obviously derive from the popular 5-string model of the 19th century, they are different from the 5-string but similar to one another in having four instead of five courses (double on the banjo mandolin, single of the tenor), shorter necks with fewer frets, and tuned in fifths (though the tenor is tuned a fifth below the banjo mandolin). As a result, most players of the new tenor banjo were previously mandolin or banjo mandolin players rather than 5-string banjo players. By the beginning of the Great Depression the heyday of the tenor banjo was over, in part due to the creation of a new generation of even louder plucked lutes--resophonic (see dobro) and the electric (see semi-acoustic guitar) guitars.

Bibliographic Citations

Gruhn, George, and Walter Carter. 1993. Acoustic Guitars and Other Fretted Instruments: A Photographic History. San Francisco: GPI Books.

Linn, Karen. 1991. That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Noonan, Jeffrey J. 2008. The Guitar in America: Victorian Era to Jazz Age. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Odell, Jay Scott. 1984. “Banjo.” NGDMI v.1: 151-154.

Odell, Jay Scott, and Robert B. Winans. n.d. “Banjo.” Oxford Music Online, accessed October 15, 2014: http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/01958?q=banjo&search=quick&source=omo_gmo&pos=2&_start=1#firsthit


Instrument Information


Continent: Americas

Region: North America

Nation: United States of America

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.312 chordophone--spike box lute or spike guitar: the resonator is built up from wood, the body of the instrument is in the form of a box through which the handle/neck passes

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - spike

Resonator design, chordophone: ring with membrane soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: pressure bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: bushing peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)



Primary Materials

membrane - mammal skin
string - wire




May Bell

Entry Author

Roger Vetter