The Scottish Tenor Banjo

The Scottish Tenor Banjo

Much has been made of the Irish tenor banjo in recent years, and for many it has come to define the Irish traditional sound. Far from being an invention by The Dubliners, the banjo has been part of Irish culture since the mid-19th century, and that history has given some creedence to its use in Irish traditional music. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that the banjo has been played in Scotland for the same length of time (England also – and presumably Wales too), yet has arguably failed to develop a distinctive Scottish voice. This page demonstrates my attempt to do just that, and is based on my knowledge and experience of playing Scottish music on historical instruments which date back hundreds of years.

Here are a few videos of what I have in mind. The music is taken from Scottish lute manuscripts of the 17th-century, before the avalanche of jigs and reels took over. There is some beautifully soulful music here, as well as dances that would later develop into jigs and reels.

Regarding ornamentation, I have avoided the ‘treble’ (the same note played three times in quick succession) which has become such a defining sound of Irish tenor-banjo playing, but it can be used sparingly. I do use pull offs and hammer ons, sometimes with large intervals, as in pipe music.


A PDF of the music edition I have put together of this repertoire, containing 25 pieces in Standard Notation and TAB.
It is covered by the Creative Commons License, so must NOT be used for sharing.
Be Good 🙂 This took me many hours to compile, typeset and record.

Buy now – £5 – this link will take you to my Scores page.

The Banjo In Scotland
(an all-too brief survey, which will hopefully expand in due course)

The banjo is an instrument of African origin which spread to Europe and the Americas with the Slave Trade. Over decades it developed into a great variety of forms. The greatest boost to its popularity came in the mid-19th century with the touring minstrel companies, especially Christies Minstrels who travelled to England, Scotland and Ireland. They played for TEN sell-out evenings in Edinburgh’s Assembley Rooms – an incredible testament to their popularity among Scots, many of whom went on to form their own minstrel groups.

Further exploration brought evidence of banjos regularly appearing in the For Sale columns (presumably people were buying them).

The tenor banjo was created in America for use in the new craze of Tango bands. Its use quickly spread due mainly to its use in jazz and Dixieland music. The biggest boost for its use in traditional music came with the metioric rise of The Dubliners, whose banjo player Barney McKenna was a virtuoso as well as being an inovator who established the ‘octave violin tuning’ of GDAE. Using the same tuning as the fiddle brought great benefits for phrasing and decoration. Both fiddlers and banjoists could use the same fingering and read from the same scores. Now, we Scots know a thing or two about fiddle playing, and have an enormous repertoire to draw upon. There is no reason why the banjo cannot be used for Scottish music – not Scottish music played in an Irish way, as is becoming more and more common, but in a way which respects the Scottish tradition of playing string instruments. To help me I have gone back to the first great flowering of traditional music on plucked, fretted instruments: the Scottish lute and cittern manuscripts of the 17th century.

The 17th-century was an ‘interesting’ time for Scottish music. The king had buggered off to London in 1603, and we sold our parliament in 1707 for sweetie money. Some well-heeled people started writing down native airs and dances in their ‘commonplace books’, in tablature for the lute and cittern. By this time the lute had already been played in Scotland for over 400 years, and had developed a very distinctive Scottish voice. Likewise the cittern. The tablature books for these instruments total over 600 pieces, the vast majority of which are traditional tunes. Auld Lang Syne, for instance, makes its first appearance in a lute book from Fife, the Balcarres. Flowers of the Forest is another, from the Skene manuscript. There are hundreds more. Many of the pieces in the Balcarres manuscript are arrangements made from the playing of fiddlers – the titles tell us who they were.

I spent many years playing this music, and made quite a few CDs of the repertoire. Lutes, however, do not sit happily on a traditional music stage. They are a nightmare to amplify, and unamplified are inaudible against any other modern instrument. I made many arrangements for modern guitar, and these arrangements have been published. But of late I have been mesmerised by the sound of the banjo in its various forms, and have come to see it as a perfect instrument for updating the 17th-century lute and cittern music, while reminding us of our plucked-string heritage as we play more modern music.

Your comments (to would be most welcome…(see below).

Rob MacKillop


Very, very enjoyable! One more proof that 4-string ‘jos are really versatile, as are the folks who play them. Keep it up. Frailinaway

Excellent Rob! My favorite (or is it favourite?) tune of the vids was Rhona’s Tune . . . but all of them were great! Make more! Really liked it Rob! Tom Berghan

I really enjoyed those pieces! Very moody and beautiful. Drybones

Great work, Rob; I really enjoyed it….. Bill Rogers

Thank you very much. Your playing is always great. Poisoned Dwarf

4 thoughts on “The Scottish Tenor Banjo”

  1. I wish these commonplace books were more easily accessible. BTW, I’ve always thought the banjo and the lute went together – because the lute’s soundboard is so light compared with the heavier guitar, it sounds like a quieter version of the banjo. So it comes as no surprise that you find it a suitable replacement for the lute for on-stage playing. FWLIW 🙂

  2. Product nor available!!!!

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