Plectrum vs. Tenor Banjo: (What’s The Difference?)

In the world of banjos, there are two main body shapes: plectrum and tenor.

The distinction between these two types of banjos are their size and shape, though they have different uses in music. 

In this article, you’ll learn about the differences between these two types of banjos so that you can decide which one is right for you!

Main Differences

Although they are similar in size, plectrums and tenor banjos have a few key differences. In terms of their appearance, they are almost identical–but their sound is where they differ. 

  • Tenors tend to have a deeper and louder tone than plectrums. They also tend to be tuned higher than plectrums and can play tunes that take up more space on sheet music, whereas plectrums usually can only play tunes that are 2-3 spaces wide on sheet music.
  • Tenor banjos may use strings of different materials in comparison to plectrums, as well. Plectrums typically come with gut strings while tenors usually utilize nylon or metal strings.

If you’re trying to decide between a tenor and plectrum banjo, make sure to consider how you plan on using it before committing to one particular option. Do you need an instrument for small gatherings or performances? A tenor might be best for you if so. 

But if you plan on playing your instrument at home or in quiet spaces, then opting for a plectrum might work better for your needs! 

Playing Style

Plectrum Banjo Playing Style

Playing a plectrum banjo is quite different from playing a tenor banjo. They’re both incredibly versatile instruments that can be used in all sorts of styles, but one is more suited to certain types of music than others.

It’s important to have a grip on your style before picking up a plectrum banjo. 

Plectrum banjos are primarily used for bluegrass and blues, so if you like those genres or want to learn them then by all means grab yourself a plectrum and enjoy!

Plectrums typically don’t produce as much sustain as tenors do either – which could be considered an advantage or disadvantage depending on what style of music you’re looking to play.

The first thing you should do is think about your playing style and decide if a plectrum banjo will suit it. 

No one can say whether a plectrum banjo is better than a tenor – they just suit different styles of music better, so if you want to learn bluegrass and blues then go for a plectrum! You won’t regret it.

Tenor Banjo Playing Style

There are a few different playing styles, such as clawhammer and three-finger style. 

Clawhammer is played with a thumb pick and using only downstrokes, instead of alternating up and down as in traditional finger-picking.

Three-finger style is where only your index and middle fingers are used to pluck.

Tenor banjos are generally smaller than other versions, which makes them suitable for people with smaller hands (like children) or for use as traveling instruments.

However, they have shorter necks so some of your picking range is taken away – you’ll need to learn finger-picking techniques rather than flat-picking (which would be impossible on such short strings). 

All tenor banjos (and similar models) will produce a pretty similar sound quality when being played by themselves-the big difference comes from how they feel when being played.

The choice between various types ultimately depends on what feels right when in use; ideally, choose something that feels like an extension of yourself!

So which style is right for me?

Well, that depends on what type of music you want to play. Plectrums have a lighter sound and really come into their own with light finger-picking bluegrass and folk music such as Irish tunes or Celtic ballads.

If you’re more into heavy rock ‘n’ roll then an all-around tenor banjo might be best for you. 

Just bear in mind that if you’re new to playing then it may take time before your skill level catches up with your enthusiasm – so don’t blow all your money on an expensive instrument if you don’t know how long it’ll take for that particular style of playing to come naturally.

Strings

Plectrum Banjo Strings

It is common for plectrum banjos to have 4 strings. However, they can be built with 5 or 6 strings as well. In both cases, it is most common for these to be tuned like a guitar: G (4th), D (3rd), A (2nd), E (1st). 

Some builders are now building them with 8-string necks, which allows them to play bass lines using what would normally be called an A string on a plectrum banjo. 

Because of their construction, there is no difference between standard plectrum banjos and resonator models. Only in shape, not size. 

Tenor Banjo Strings

A tenor banjo also has 4 strings. In general, a tenor banjo has smaller strings than a plectrum. Since they are thinner, they’re easier to push down and therefore can play faster notes. 

They also produce a higher-pitched sound which is suitable for playing both in traditional bluegrass style or jazzier arrangements.

If you’re looking for that extra sonic brightness, go with tenor banjo strings. You should be able to find them at any local music store and they don’t cost much either; around $20 per set. 

Some people say they aren’t durable enough but if properly taken care of and replaced before it gets worn out, they should last for quite some time. 

Which One is Easier to Play?

If you’re new to playing banjo, getting started with either of these instruments is very possible! It all depends on what your intentions are for picking up a new instrument–and whether or not you want something that is portable. 

Tenors feature lower frets than other banjos (17 total), which makes them great options for beginning players because they are easier to hold down compared to regular frets.

On top of that, tenors have shorter necks, making them lighter and smaller than plectrums–which makes them convenient for travel purposes.

Plectrums are essentially larger versions of tenors in terms of their size and style. They tend to have more frets (22) than plectrums do and also have longer necks, meaning they’re slightly harder to travel with but will be useful if you plan on performing in bigger venues at some point. 

Despite having a higher neck position, it can be somewhat hard for beginner players to utilize plectrum banjos since their strings may be out of reach depending on their height–but once players get used to holding notes longer due to those extra frets, then playing on plectrum becomes much easier over time. 

Both plectrums and tenor banjos are really easy to play, but they’re also both significantly different instruments. Even so, one of them is still a lot easier to learn on than its counterpart. 

If you’re trying to decide which type of instrument would be better for you, keep in mind that if you’re just getting started in bluegrass, folk music, or country music then you’ll definitely want a plectrum banjo. 

That said, if your main interest is learning and playing ragtime or rock music-then it might be worth learning on a tenor banjo instead.

The truth is most people will do well with either type because they’re so similar, but these differences are important when choosing which kind of banjo will suit your needs best.

Conclusion

Plectrum and tenor banjos both make excellent instruments, but they are different in a few key ways.

A plectrum banjo is usually pitched slightly higher than a tenor banjo, meaning it has a little more zing to its sound. Plectrums tend to have louder volume, too. 

When it comes to construction, plectrums and tenors share many of the same parts (the resonator being an obvious example), so it really just depends on which you prefer.

If you’re not sure, I’d recommend trying out both types of banjos before making your decision!

After all, that’s how you’ll learn what works best for you!

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