Dirk Bertels

The greatest malfunction of spirit
is to believe things (Louis Pasteur)

Celtic music for the 5 string banjo

Last updated 24 July 2012


Celtic music on the 5 string
Basic Styles
Basic Tempos
Links and References


I am from humble Flemish origin (Northern part of Belgium). Though the Belgae were historically a mix of Celtic and Germanic peoples, my knowledge of Celtic culture is very rudimentary - hence this page is more about the 5 string rather than Celtic music culture.

I just recently rekindled my interest in Irish music, and since my current instrument of choice is the 5 string, it's just a logical outcome of circumstances...

There are 2 more pages covering different aspects of the 5 string banjo:

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Celtic music on the 5 string

Celtic (Irish) music isn't usually played on the 5 string and it can't really compete with the driving force of the tenor banjo. Nevertheless it's a very rewarding experience in the sense that you learn many techniques not usually associated with the 5 string.

The main difference lies in the unique way that sound is produced on the 5 string. Most other string instruments, including the tenor, use the right hand arm and wrist to produce their sound. The larger muscles give you more control over the sound than the individual fingers can accomplish on the 5 string. I know this because I learned my first Irish tunes from a tenor player, and while not bad myself technically on the 5 string I certainly could not compete on sound, accentuation nor speed with the tenor.

This unique technique makes it hard to 'jam' along with others. Melodic sequences are really patterns, and it takes a while for the 5 string musician to convert melodies to patterns on the fly.

That being said, those pattern-oriented melodies lend themselves well for sequential back-up licks. Some hard driving bands, such as Shooglenifty (which is actually Scottish) use a 5 string player to play sequential backing stuff.

Also on the plus side are some new techniques that the 5 string player acquires:

  • Non-standard Right Hand 'roll' combinations
  • Reno style playing
  • Left hand strength and synchronisation with RH
  • Many types of ornamentation
  • Lots of 6/8 and 9/8 rhythm and syncopation

While the tunes can be quirky, both in melody and rhythm, they generally consists of repeating short phrases, making them relatively easy to learn and remember. Learning the countless tunes enable you to build a great many phrases in the basic keys, thus extending your melodic vocabulary considerably.

The melody and chords from any tune can vary considerably, even to the extent that the modality may change from major to minor and v.v. The naming of the tunes also vary greatly, it's not uncommon to find, like 15 different names for the same tune.

Once you start learning your favourite tunes, the list soon grows as you try finding tunes to make up medleys. Medleys are often constructed because most tunes are quite short, consisting of just a few phrases. Constructing medleys is an art in itself, various effects can be achieved by combining keys, modalities and rhythms.

Even though most Irish tunes are in the key of D, I prefer to keep the banjo tuned in open G and not use any capos. This makes it possible to jam along in Irish sessions when playing meddleys. There just isn't the time to stuff about with capos and tunings - it's hard enough keeping up with the insane tempos as it is!

When playing Reels in swing style, the last note of a pair leads into the first note of the second pair at greater speed. This should be taken into account when deciding on the fingering.

Many Irish tunes are in D and Am. This brings some challenges to the banjo when it's tuned in open G. In General, the passing notes are now in the open strings while the chord notes are fingered. Also, the 5th string is the 4th of the key, thereby functioning more like an additional melody string rather than a drone string.

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Basic styles

While there are differences in style between, say Scottish and Irish, there are also many similarities. Many tunes are shared between the Celtic cultures, and sometimes the ethnic origin of a tune is ambiguous.

From what I read, Irish music as we know it originated in England during the 16th century. It was originally in 2/4 time. The main styles in Irish music are:

  • Jig - 6/8 - Musically, the Single Jig tends to follow the pattern of a quarter note followed by an eighth note (twice per 6/8 bar), whereas the Double Jig follows the pattern of having three eighth notes.(twice per 6/8 bar).
  • Slip Jig - 9/8 - Dance is performed high on the toes. Often considered the "ballet of Irish dance". Slip jigs are performed at a speed of 113 at feiseanna (Irish dance 'feasts').
  • Reel - Notated in duple time, either as 2/2 or 4/4. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar. A reel is distinguished from a hornpipe by consisting primarily of even beats.
  • Slide - The slide is a tune type associated with the jig family, in particular the single jig. It is in 6/8 or 12/8 time and the predominant rhythm involves the alternation of crotchets and quavers creating the feeling of long and short. The slide, along with the polka, is particularly associated with the music and dance traditions of Sliabh Luachra, where it is the brisk tempo of 12/8 tunes that dominates. [Liz Doherty, fiddler, editor of the revised O'Neill collection, and teacher at University College, Cork]

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Basic tempos

Here are some interesting notes from a post by Gary A. Martin on the TheSession forum

... Usually reels and hornpipes are counted at two beats (half notes aka minims) per measure. Normal speed for reels I'd say is 94 to 120 bpm. I've got data for about 340 sets of reels from commercial recordings. About 10 percent are below 94, about 10 percent are above 120. About 80 percent are between 94 and 120. Of course there's a huge difference in the feel of a reel played at 94 and one played at 120. About 60 percent are between 104 and 116.

Of the 90 hornpipes I have data for, 80 percent are between 70 and 107 bpm. (Again, two beats per measure, not four.) The middle 60 percent is 80-98 bpm.

Of 165 jigs, 105-139 bpm is the middle 80 percent. 112-132 is the middle 60 percent.

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Dance and performance


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