Table of Contents
Do you struggle with banjo tuning? Stop the frustration and let us show you the way!
What is Banjo?
The banjo is a stringed instrument with a thin membrane that extends over a frame or cavity to form a resonator. Membranes are usually round in shape and are typically made of plastic or sometimes animal skin. The earliest forms of musical instruments were created by African-Americans in the United States.
The banjo is often associated with folk, bluegrass, and country music, and is also used in some types of rock, pop, and hip-hop music. Some rock bands, such as the Eagles, Led Zeppelin, and Grateful Dead, have used the five-stringed banjo in some of their songs.
Historically, the banjo was central in traditional black American music and rural white folklore before becoming mainstream through American performances, and 19th-century troubadour.
Along with the fiddle, the banjo is a mainstay of American musical styles, such as bluegrass and early music. It is also used very frequently in Dixieland jazz, as well as in Caribbean genres such as biguine, calypso, and mentor.
Understand the Instrument – Banjo
When you think of the banjo, you probably think of a simple stringed instrument, brought together by the will and skill of the player. However, banjos are actually extremely complex instruments with a bunch of interesting parts to take apart and thought about.
Each part has a specific role in creating the unique sound of the banjo, and without it, the entire instrument would fall apart.
Here are few steps that will help you master the art of banjo tuning.
1. Learn How to Tune a Banjo
Normally, it is only necessary to turn the adjustment pin slightly to change the adjustment. To start, turn one of the pegs slightly and play the strings at the same time. See if you can hear the pitch of the note rise or fall as you turn the handle. Once you know if the note is going up or down, you’re ready to try tuning the banjo.
Start by tuning one string, then when you’re happy with it, try another. The tuning pin can work in reverse on another chain!
As the string gets close to the correct pitch, you’ll need to adjust the pin slightly. It will take practice to be able to put the proper amount of pressure on the adjusting latch key and feel when the latch has rotated just enough. Don’t worry, you will progress quickly with practice and experience.
Keep your face away from the banjo while you tune, in case you break the strings.
2. Matching pairs of notes
- The first string is adjusted to D and is closest to the ground.
- The 2nd string is adjusted to A.
- The 3rd string is adjusted to G and is in the middle.
- The 4th string is tuned to a low D and is sometimes called the bottom string because it produces the lowest note.
- The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th sequences are called long strings.
- The 5th sequence is adjusted too high G and closest to the sky. It is shorter than long strings. It is also known as String of Thumbs because it is only played by RH Thumb.
A quick way to check your tuning
Open 1st string is the same note as 2nd string 3rd fret
Open 2nd string is the same note as 3rd string 4th fret
Open 3rd string is the same note as 4th string 5th fret
Open 5th string is the same note as 1st string 5th fret
3. Understand the Key Notes of Banjo
G, D, G, B, D
Tuning the most standard 5-string banjo. This is called an “open G” tuning because the banjo is tuned to an open G chord, which means that if you pluck the banjo without touching any strings on the frets, you’ll be playing a G chord.
G, C, G, C, D
Often used in Old Time music, it is called the “Double C” tuning because the banjo has two C strings.
G, C, G, B, D
This is called the “C” chord. It can also be called a “Drop C” tuning because coming from the open G tuning, the D string on the 4th string is reduced to C.
F#, D, F#, A, D
This is called the “D” chord. Earl Scruggs used this adjustment for songs like “Reuben”. You can also adjust the 5th string to be “A” instead of “F#” and still be at the “D” stage of adjustment. If you pluck the banjo without hitting any of the strings in that chord, you’ll be playing a D chord.
G, D, G, C, D
This is called the “G Modal” setting. This is a very popular tuning for old tunes like Shady Grove, Little Sadie, and many more. It is also sometimes called “Sawmill Adjustment” or “Small Mountain Adjustment”. This is very close to the standard G tuning, but the second string is tuned to the C note. This removes the third note of the G chord and creates the G sus 4 chord. By removing the third note of the G chord, creates a G sus 4 chords, you can’t tell if it’s a major or minor chord and make it sound modal.
4. Adjust the banjo by ear
What’s really important is developing your sense of pitch, i.e. being able to tell if your banjo is in tune. An electronic tuner is a really useful tool and highly recommended for beginners, but learning how to tune by ear is equally important. If you make sure to check your tuning every time you play, you’ll quickly see what “In progress” sounds like.
An electronic tuner is just a machine, it doesn’t appreciate music. The human ear is much more sensitive. By tuning by ear, you can go beyond what is possible with a tuner. When you hear a great musician play, you are listening to his unique and highly developed sense of tuning, as well as the notes and rhythms he plays.
For example, classical musicians playing in an orchestra will mostly tune by ear to achieve that delicate sound. The smallest adjustment of the tuning pin can make a big difference in the sound of something. Another reason for tuning by ear is that you want to play with people who aren’t in “concert tuning”.
This means that an instrument can be tuned by itself, but not by the equalizer. Many classical records from the 50s, 60s, and 70s were recorded before the invention of the electronic tuner. They tune by ear and adjust to each other. So the 3rd string of the banjo might be a bit flat (low) compared to the electronic tuner. If each string is exactly the same when flat, the banjo is still in tune, it’s just tuned to a different pitch.
We say banjo is “in tune with itself”. If you want to play old classical records, you’ll have to learn how to tune by ear. For example, many old Flatt and Scruggs recordings are tuned down to a semitone, so the banjo is tuned to g#d# g# c# d#.
5. Don’t let the Banjo get out of tune
If your banjo is out of tune, it will take you some time to tune it properly. Tune all the strings as best you can, then start over. It usually takes two or three turns to get a string instrument properly tuned. This is the same for experienced professional musicians as well as for beginners, and also note that the tuning can vary with temperature and humidity, so even your banjo you tuned in perfectly yesterday, you should tune in today too!
Keep challenging yourself!
Do yourself a favor and try something new this month. It doesn’t have to be wild or require your guitar to be tuned differently, but it should be something that motivates or challenges you. Maybe you like a certain area of your neck and could benefit from stepping out of that comfort zone. Maybe you rely on gains more than necessary to feel confident. It’s okay, no one is watching when you try these, so do it! Heck, if you’re super crazy, maybe the idea of trying something new in front of a live audience is your way out of your comfort zone… if so, you’re braver than me!