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I have two tenor banjos both tuned in "Chicago tuning", DGBE, that is, like the four highest-pitched strings of the guitar. I am told, and I see from research on Teh Internetz that this is unusual. Typically tenor banjos are tuned in fifths.

Why is this? Is it because tenor banjo was viewed as a louder replacement for the mandolin or fiddle? Or is there an ergonomic reason?

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The following historical look at the tenor banjo is taken from the excellent work of late musicologist and musician, Shlomo Pestcoe (banjo artist and banjo historian):

The tenor banjo was first manufactured by the Chicago banjo maker J.B. Schall (1878-1907) in the early 1900s, following the designs of Prof. Louis Stepner, "the celebrated mandolin soloist." Schall originally marketed it to mandolin players wishing to crossover to the banjo.
((The shorter neck Tenor banjo was made to appeal to the hundreds of immigrant Americans (Italian, Scottish, Irish and English) who already knew how to play an instrument tuned in fifths--specifically the mandolin and violin.)) When the Argentinean tango hit the United States in 1914, the tenor was dubbed "The Tango Banjo" to reflect the new pop dance craze that was sweeping the world..... The tenor banjo became especially popular with ethnic vernacular musicians around the globe who played it as a melody instrument using mandolin playing techniques. A case in point is the role of the tenor in traditional Irish music.

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It's probably, as you suggest, an ergonomic reason: larger stringed instruments in general tend to have smaller intervals between the strings, because that makes scales easier to reach with the fingers. Smaller instruments (such as the tenor banjo) can afford to have larger intervals between the strings, which gives the instrument a greater range for the same number of strings. Same thing is true of the violin family: all are tuned in fifths except for the bass, which is tuned in fourths.

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Not exactly a replacement, as the tuning, although equivalent in terms of pitch class, is an octave below that of the madolin or fiddle (or violin, for that matter). But since the size of the instrument makes it possible to tune it in fiths, as explained by Scott in his answer, it makes of course all the sense to tune it in a way that can be immediatly played by those familiar with these instruments.

In fact there's a whole sub-family of banjo like instruments that share a tuning in fiths, the most relevant being:

  • The most close "cousin" of the tenor banjo (in terms of tuning only, as it has 8 strings and not 4), would be the mandola, a larger version of the mandolin tuned an octave below.
  • A four 4 strings banjo tuned like (in the same ocatve range of) a violin would normally be called a banjolin. There has been fretless banjolins too, but they are rare.
  • The 8 stringed mandolin-banjo was very popular throughout Europe in the first half of the 20th century, yes, as a direct louder replacement of the mandolin.

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