The 4-string Tenor and Plectrum Banjos
From the dawn of the 20th Century we see the arrival of banjos with only four strings – one fewer than the regular classic banjo. These instruments became popular in the early jazz movement where the added projection of a plectrum instead of flesh finger pads was needed in order to cut through the sound of brass wind instruments. Chord strumming began to be developed (where the 5th string of a classic banjo would have been a hinderance) and single-note scale passages at lightning speeds were developed by the top virtuosi.
I have decided to explore the early tutors and repertoire, much of it either adapted from 5-string scores, or newly written by composers associated with 5-string music, such as Emile Grimshaw, whose exercise for 5-string fingerstyle banjo I have explored HERE.
The Difference Between The Plectrum and Tenor Banjos
Both instruments have four strings, but their tuning and string length differs considerably.
The Plectrum banjo started life as a regular 5-string banjo with the short 5th string removed to enable strumming with a plectrum. Its tuning and string length is therefore identical to the four stopped strings of a classic banjo: (bass to treble) CGBD. There was an early period where one could play both fingerstyle ‘Classic’ 5-string, and Plectrum 4-string on the same instrument, especially if the bridge was adapted so that the short 5th string was lowered by angling the side of the bridge, as in this illustration from Grimshaw’s Plectrum Playing for Modern Banjoists:
The Tenor banjo is tuned as a viola, or an octave above a cello: CGDA, and has a shorter neck. It is therefore a higher-pitched instrument, the higher frequencies being useful for cutting through an ensemble.
The Plectrum and Tenor Banjo Music of Emile Grimshaw
Emile Grimshaw (1880-1943) was a leading player and composer in early 20th-century England. He wrote four brilliant tutors for the banjo:
1. The Banjo and How To Play It
Despite being written for the fingerstyle player, Part 5 is entitled ‘Plectrum Playing’ for Plectrum Banjo, or regular 5-string banjo where the short 5th string is not used. It commences with a study of tremolo technique, both single notes and chords. Some typical popular rhythms are discussed, such as the Fox Trot and Waltz. A later edition adds solo pieces such as Lazy Rhythm by Bert Bassett:
2.How To Excell On The Banjo
Again, principally a 5-string fingerstyle tutor, with Part 8 containing ‘Exercises in all styles of Plectrum Playing’. There are a number of exercises to develop plectrum control – scales, arpeggios, chords and tremolo. It also includes a few ‘Banjo Breaks’. Part 9 includes three duets for Plectrum banjos.
3.Plectrum Playing for Modern Banjoists
Finally, Grimshaw devotes an entire volume to the Plectrum Banjo, with material for complete beginners through to advanced levels. I do not have a first edition copy, but I do have an undated later copy which includes a ‘new section’ by Roy Burnham on playing in DGBD tuning, which had become more popular with some players.
This was my first attempt at three studies from Emile Grimshaw’s Plectrum Playing for Modern Banjoists, Exercises 21, 26 and 25.
Here I am playing a tenor banjo with plectrum banjo strings:
All these books were published by Clifford Essex Music Co. Ltd, which, after an absence of a few decades, has reformed (www.cliffordessex.net) with plans to reprint these books. The current owner, Clem Vickery, is Plectrum banjoist of renown, and he will be expanding this volume, bringing it more up to date.
4.How To Master The Tenor Banjo
Here Grimshaw turns to the tenor banjo, an instrument he played superbly well with The Savoy Band and Orchestra. Despite a chapter on ‘Dance Orchestra Playing’, Grimshaw’s early experience as a fingerstyle, classic-banjo maestro comes through, with quite a few of the exercises here being reworkings of exercises from his earlier fingerstyle books.
IN SUMMARY – Grimshaw’s books are excellent publications, providing the student with a good technical grounding, and good sight-reading skills, but he was writing in a period before the Plectrum and Tenor banjos really took off as solo instruments, finding their own voices as musical fashions changed. They can be used by modern banjo players as a supplement to modern techniques and styles, and they are also of great interest to those of us interested in historical playing styles.
If you know the dates of their first publication, please let me know.
More about Grimshaw HERE.
Here is Emile, third from left, with the Savoy Quartet, described as an important transition group between Ragtime and Jazz:
[More info about this photo at THIS site]
And here is a recording of Emile Grimshaw’s Banjo Quartet playing
Line up: (Left to Right) Stan Hollings, Emile Grimshaw, Ivor Mairants and Monty Grimshaw.
The quartet included the famous guitarist, Ivor Mairants, on tenor banjo. Although Mairants studied banjo with Emile Grimshaw for ‘only 12 lessons…his interest in my career went far beyond that of a teacher…my guardian angel.’ (See Mairants’ autobiography, My Fifty Fretting Years).
Other recordings with Emile Grimshaw:
Jerry Hoey on Picadilly
Jack Hilton on HMV B1838-B5575 and C1021-C1616
Cecil and Leslie Norman on World Echo A1001-1040 and B1004-1016
Savoy Dance Orchestra on Columbia 2971
Savoy Quartet on HMV B692-B1154
The Tenor Banjo Music of A. J. Weidt
Albert J. Weidt (1866 Buffalo, New York – Newark 1945) was a leading banjo composer in America from around 1900 to 1930. His first publications were for the classic 5-string banjo, such as That Banjo Rag (mp3 performed by Rob MacKillop) and the effervescent Pink Lemonade (video link with animation by my daughter!). Weidt embraced the new tenor banjo, publishing at least five books of tunes of new compoisitions and arrangements. In style, the pieces cover ragtime, classical and jazz.
By far the biggest problem in performing Weidt’s tenor music is over whether to play swing style or ‘straight’. A straight rendition brings out the ragtime qualities of the music, while a swung style reveals a strong jazz influence. My Banjo Hangout friend, Beezaboy, made a copy of an article Weidt wrote for, Cadenza, an early 20th-century banjo magazine, where Weidt discusses technique. Two things seem appropriate here:
1. the 16th notes are too short to be played with a down stroke. This shines a (not very bright) light on swing or no swing. In swing, the 16th note would be longer, and there would be more time to recover the stroke to do another downstroke afterwards. This may be an indication that Weidt’s music is NOT to be swung. Admitedly, it is not conclusive!
2. When he refers to adding a little ‘jazz’, he does so in the contect of harmony, not rhythm. We too often discuss the rhythmical aspects of jazz. Clearly it is the harmony that is ‘jazzy’ to Weidt. And these pieces do sound more harmonically ‘advanced’ than most rags, in my experience.
I try to do what feels ‘right’, but often I could do the exact opposite and it would still feel right. Here are a couple of videos, played on an inexpensive Grafton short-scale 17-fret banjo:
The Plectrum Banjo Arrangements of Frank Bradbury
Frank Bradbury [Vermont, 1896, 1981] was a leading banjo performer of the 20th century, and author of a very popular tutor for the 5-string classic banjo, Mel Bay’s Banjo Method, C-Tuning – Concert Style. He is less known for his work promoting the four-string Plectrum banjo. More of that below, after a short biog, courtesy of banjo researcher, David Wade:
Frank Charles Bradbury was born in Bethel, Vermont in 1896, his father was a banjo player and teacher of stringed instruments. His father was his first teacher and then as a teenager Frank spent several summers studying with Fred Bacon. When he had finished High School he formed “The Venetian Trio” and toured most of the United States. He served as a marine in WWI and afterwards returned to Connecticut to take up teaching music. In 1920 he married Ann, an accomplished pianist, who naturally became his accompanist.
Frank’s first tutor book was first published in1926 as “the Bradbury Modern Method for the Banjo” this was followed shortly by “Bradbury’s Method for the Plectrum Banjo” published the same year.
Frank was one of the original members of the American Banjo Fraternity when it was formed in the late 1940’s. He was responsible for the instigation of formal programmes at ABF rallies in 1961. He also organised The Bradbury Quintette which included his wife Ann and son John which played at many ABF Rallies and recorded 3 lps under the title on the “Pyquaug Pickers”. Half of the pieces were solos performed and half were performances of the group.
The Mel Bay Banjo Method was originally published in two volumes in 1967 – it is one of the best banjo methods and still selling. Frank drew on his vast teaching experience to write a clear, logically progressive set of lessons with superb arrangements. He was justly proud of his achievement!
Frank was made honorary president of the ABF in 1968, a position which he held longer than any of his predecessors.
Frank passed away in September 1981 at the grand age of 85. He is remembered as one of the great professional banjoist of the 20th century. [David Wade, with permission.]
I picked up the Sam Fox Collection of Plectrum Banjo Solos Volume 1 on ebay, which contains ten arrangements by Bradbury of music by various composers. It is unclear if the originals were for 5-string classic banjo or some other instrument(s). Here are the contents:
1. Ole South – J. S. Zamecnik
2. Sparklets – Walter E. Miles
3. The Drum Major – Jacob Henry Ellis
4. Butterfly Dance – Walter E. Miles
5. In A Canoe – J. S. Zamecnik
6. Sunflower Babe – Fred Heltman
7. Fair Debutante – Jules Reynard
8. Gavotte Piquante – Wm. T. Pierson
9. Flirtation – Budd L. Cross
10. Zouave – F. Jackson
The arrangements suit the Plectrum banjo perfectly, so well it is hard to conceive they were not written with plectrum in hand. A classical music influence is prevalent, but elements of ragtime, proto jazz and popular music can also be traced.
If anyone finds Volume 2 – please let me know!
Moyer’s Superior Method for Plectrum Banjo (1927)
There are 74 pages, culminating in “Jazz Strokes”, but little of the book would be of use to jazz players. It’s a good method book for learning to read CGBD tuning, as good as any I’ve seen. The repertoire is popular-style melodies, waltzes and mazurkas. Some duets for two plectrum banjos. It even has things like “Arkansas Traveler”, “Turkey In The Straw”, etc, which gives another field of play for the plectrum banjoist. And why not? I feel the plectrum banjo could play in many more styles than it does
Juanita and Ballade:
Waltz in Eb:
Paramount Method for Tenor Banjo, by Wm. Foden (1922)
Free pdf: Foden
William Foden was mostly famed for his guitar and mandolin playing, and is rarely mentioned in banjo circles. Yet this is a fine tutor book, worth study. He does like his tremolo, and was acclaimed for the practice by mandolin players.
COMMENTS – please add your comments below…
Rob, you are truly a star in the string world! You sound great and your research is really wonderful. Keep up the great work, I’m enjoying it enormously. The sound and playing are wonderful! The third one (Grimshaw, Plectrum book, ex. 25) is right on the money. I absolutely love your passion. Eddy Davis (The Manhattan Minstrel and Woody Allen’s banjo player)
“Rob brings many things to the table that the four-string banjo world desperately needs: A high level of music education/knowledge, a proven, critically-acclaimed performance record on several fretted instruments, a strong sense for historical preservation, a delicate musical touch on an instrument mostly known for loud and fast entertainment, and—the thing I personally need the most—a swift kick in the pants! He is raising the musical bar for all of us, and I for one look forward to the hard work ahead just to try to keep up.” Ron Hinkle