Traditional Tenor Banjo

Raising The Standard

Introducing Standard C2

The most popular tuning used in Irish Traditional banjo playing today is without question Octave Violin tuning: (bass to treble) GDAE, which is so ubiquitous it is usually referred to as Irish Tuning, although jazz musicians in the USA were using it in the early 20th Century. It’s a great tuning, allowing banjo players to replicate the fingering of the fiddle player, and is also useful for any mandolin player (same tuning as the violin) to play the banjo, or vice versa.

However, many players are unhappy with the low G, which never sounds quite as good as the other strings. To get around this problem some players avoid using it as much as possible, while others tune it up a tone to A. Gerry O’Connor, widely regarded as the greatest-living Irish traditional banjo player, has another solution: he (mostly) uses what is known as Standard Tuning, as used by jazz and Dixieland tenor players: CGDA. This tuning becomes even more useful when a capo is used at the second fret – i.e. Raising the Standard (tuning).
I refer to this raised Standard tuning as Standard C2 – the C2 indicating a capo at the second fret.

So, to clarify: tune your banjo to Standard Tuning: CGDA (you will need to purchase a set of Standard Tuning strings – easily available) then place the capo at fret 2.

Now, there are pros and cons to using Standard C2…

Cons – The lowest five notes of Irish tuning are missing, from G to B. These notes are found in some fiddle pieces, naturally, as Irish tuning is the same as fiddle tuning, an octave lower.

Pros – Most of the repertoire does not utilise those missing notes. Plus, the high B, usually a ‘difficult’ note in Irish tuning, is now simply the open first string. The capo eliminates awkward left-hand stretches for almost the entire repertoire. The whole instrument sounds both brighter and sweeter – OK, a subjective opinion!

I’m not saying Standard C2 should replace Irish tuning – little chance of that happening – but it might suit many players who struggle with Irish tuning.

For £5 you can download a PDF of 22 Tunes in standard notation plus TAB for Standard C2 Tuning

Go to the Scores page of this website to order the pdf

 Here is one free score, to give you an idea of what to expect: The Congress Reel

The first PDF/TAB file in the book is the three principal scales used in traditional music – D, A and G Majors. It is a good idea to memorise these three scales as soon as possible, and practise them every day. Most of the tunes you play will use these notes. Try improvising with them and make up tunes – it’s not hard.

Enjoy, and send me your feedback.

Free Sound Files. The recordings are at a medium pace, free of ornaments, mainly for the sake of those learning these pieces, but also because I think most traditional music is played too fast these days – but I’m getting old!

Technical Information

Banjo: Vega Pro tenor (c.1910s), Clifford Essex Medium Standard Tuning Strings, Shubb Capo – cushion stuffed inside resonator! Gibson Extra Heavy Pick.

Recording: Rose NT4 Stereo Mic, Fostex FR2LE Recorder, WaveLab 6 Essential editing software – no eq or reverb added.

6 thoughts on “Traditional Tenor Banjo”

  1. Anonymous said:

    Rob, Many thanks for posting all your knowledge and much appreciated print out for tenor banjo, I love the jazz type tuning, i,e, CGDA. I’ve only recently started to play the Tenor Banjo, and, I must say, I’m really enjoying it.
    Do you have any books on the Tenor Banjo that are for sale? I would be interested to know if you have.
    Thanks again for your postings.

    Denver Smith.

  2. Hi Denver,

    Thanks. I have a Mel Bay publication which might be of interest to you:

    That’s all. Good luck!


  3. Been using “Irish tuning” for years & have now restrung & re-tuned as per your article. 1st impressions are excellent giving that retuning a 66 year old brain (very slow) has to be taken into account. Will advise if & when I manage to play aka Gerry but don’t think it a remote possibility. Thanks for the good advice.

  4. Anonymous said:

    Thanks Rob great concept and my banjo sounds better! We want more!!

    John Sheehan
    Boston, MA

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