On our latest gear guide, guest blogger Emily Harris explains the differences between a Tenor Guitar and a Banjo - two very different instruments which however share some similarities and a history in common...
The history of the tenor guitar and the banjo goes back a century. In the early day of jazz, tenor banjo players were looking for a way to easily double on the guitar. The result? The acoustic tenor guitar, originally manufactured by Gibson and Martin.
The tenor guitar is having another moment in the spotlight. Affordable tenor guitars (even electrics) are being built by guitar builders (like Eastwood) and banjo builders (like Gold Tone) alike.
When talking about the banjo, it’s important to be specific. Banjos, like guitars, can vary in dramatic ways, including number of strings, scale length, tuning, and overall build.
The most popular type of banjo for modern playing is the five-string banjo, which has been popular in traditional folk and country music for decades.
The tenor banjo has a country and folk history as well, but also extends into early traditional jazz. It has four strings, like a tenor guitar. In fact, it was originally made for viola players to double on, which is why it’s typically tuned the same (more on that later).
Tenor Guitar vs. Banjo Comparisons
The nut width can also be defined as the fretboard width. A longer nut width means the distance from the first and last string will be farther apart.
Banjos and tenor guitars have very similar nut widths -- often about 1 ¼” for a tenor banjo and 1 5/16" for a tenor guitar. This, along with having a shorter scale length (detailed below), makes them very comfortable for players with smaller hands who may find navigating a full-sized guitar neck difficult.
The scale of a stringed instrument is the distance between the nut and the bridge -- the length that the strings resonate the most.
Scale between tenor guitars and banjos varies a little bit more than nut width, but the scales of tenor banjos and tenor guitars are almost always shorter than a standard six-string guitar. Stewart-MacDonald lists a normal tenor banjo scale length as 22.250", though they can be much shorter, even as short as 19”.
A standard Gibson five-string banjo scale length is 26.250”, which is actually longer than a normal six-string guitar.
At Eastwood, our tenor guitar scale length measures in at 23”. That’s shorter than a standard guitar, and shorter than many popular short-scale guitars, including the Fender Mustang, which boasts a 24” scale.
The five-string banjo is typically tuned in the Open G tuning (G, D, G, B, D). In other words, openly strumming a five-string banjo in its standard tuning will sound a Gmaj chord, and other major chords can be formed with simple barre shapes.
The tenor guitar is frequently tuned in fifths, like a viola (C, G, D, A), because it was made for viola players to double on. It can also be tuned like a mandolin or violin (also in fifths), but one octave lower (G, D, A, E), which is commonly used in Irish music.
Since the tenor guitar was originally designed for tenor banjo players, it makes sense that the most traditional tenor guitar tuning is C, G, D, A, although G, D, A, E is also popular. Tenor guitar can also be tuned in fourths like the top four strings of a standard six-string guitar (called “Chicago” tuning in the banjo world), D, G, B, E.
For more tuning info, check our Warren Ellis Series Tuning & String Guide
How They’re Played
Despite both being fretted, stringed instruments, banjos and guitars are often played in very different ways.
Guitars, even tenor guitars, are most frequently played with a single flat pick or plectrum, either strumming chords for rhythm or picking lead lines. Some guitarists play lead and rhythm at the same time via chord melody arrangements.
Tenor and five string banjos are also both lead and rhythm instruments. Banjos, though they can be simply strummed with a pick (also called a plectrum), are frequently played with finger picks while the player utilizes roll and drone patterns instead of flat picking. Many banjo players also implement the “clawhammer” technique, which is especially popular in bluegrass.
Tone and Timbre
Timbre is what makes one instrument sound different than another, and tenor guitars and banjos have remarkably different tone and timbre despite their similarities.
A tenor guitar sounds like, well, a guitar. An acoustic tenor will have that warm, woody sound, and an electric tenor will ultimately sound like the electric guitar sound you’re used to, and can be shaped by choice in amplifier, pickups, and effects.
The banjo has a unique, metallic sound. While a guitar body is built from wood, a banjo is essentially a drum head with strings. As a result, the soundboard of a banjo vibrates much more than a guitar, which a Nobel-Prize winning physicist recently discovered was the cause of the unmistakable timbre of a banjo.
Though it was built to be a jazz instrument, the tenor guitar can pair well with nearly any genre of music. It has seen players in jazz (Tiny Grimes,Eddie Condon ), folk (Nick Reynolds of The Kingston Trio), metal, country / Americana (Amanda Shires), and rock (Elvis Costello, Warren Ellis, Neko Case).
Banjo, however, is most frequently played in roots music circles. The tenor banjo (as well as the five-string banjo) has traditionally been featured in dixieland jazz, but banjo has primarily been featured in bluegrass, country, and various types of folk music.
Not many instruments have a history as intertwined as a banjo and a tenor guitar. Tenor guitars may not exist at all if not for the banjo, though tenor guitar players have carved out a nook in musical history all their own.
Watch: Tenor Guitars vs. Banjos