Tuning a 5 String Banjo in Standard G Tuning

(Copyright 2008 Pensonstringwerks.com)

If you have a banjo, chances are you probably have an electronic tuner. If not, and you have a computer with an internet connection, you can access online tuners. When I started playing, you either had a piano somewhere near at hand or at the very least, a tuning fork. (I still have mine). These are all effective means for setting each string to a given pitch, but it doesn’t fully address the issue of tuning a banjo.

Undoubtedly, you’ve either heard or been the brunt of countless banjo tuning jokes. There is some basis in fact to this problem. The banjo is a low string tension instrument, for one thing, and the strings can be made to go sharp by pressing down too hard when fretting. 

Basics

The standard Open G tuning on a five string banjo is as in the illustration to the right:

bullet 5th string -G
bullet 4th - D
bullet 3rd - G again (and octave lower than the 5th)
bullet 2nd - B
bullet and first - D again (an octave higher than the 4th)

Yes, that's right. Two Gs and two Ds. This is part of what makes the bluegrass banjo what it is. It makes for a lot of the "droning" quality of the roling right hand that you hear, from the rapid chiming of the 5th string, to the droning open 1st. There are lots of other tunings, but let's stick with this one for now. You'll use it far and away most frequently when playing bluegrass.

Probably the first banjo instruction book you bought had you tune in this manner:

bullet Fret the 4th string at the 5th fret. Should match tone of 3rd string.
bullet Fret 3d at 4th. Should match 2nd.
bullet Fret 2nd at 3rd. Matches 1st.
bullet Fret 1st at 5th fret. Matches 5th string.

There are some flaws in this system:

bullet It presumes that your starting point is a pitch correct 4th string.
bullet It doesn't tell you which string to change pitch. You can change problems around the neck this way.
bullet MOST IMPORTANTLY: The 3rd string on a "perfectly" tuned banjo (and this term is used very loosely, as we'll see below) when fretted at the 4th fret will NOT match the 2nd string open. Why? All acoustic instruments are imperfect. Mathematical precision is possible when placing frets on fingerboards, true, but the science of string length, fret location, and string tension is not a science, but a fine art. This is actually true on a guitar, too, but the difference is not so noticable as on a banjo. Why? The much lower string tension on a banjo. Various banjo makers have tried to correct this problem by building compensated nuts and bridges, but none of them will really address the problem. As you get further and further into bluegrass banjo, you'll find that one of the ways that we get around this problem is simply not to play the 3rd string fretted at the 4th fret. This is always going to be a slightly sharp B.

Other tuning issues

String tension can get caught or “loaded” above or below the nut and then release resulting in a drop or increase in pitch. But most importantly, there are some inherent flaws in the design of the banjo that make it difficult to tune and play. If you’ve ever tried to tune the 3rd string to the 2nd string by fretting it at the 3rd fret, you’ll notice that even if the tuner says you are dead on, the 3rd string note will be noticeably sharp of the 2nd. This is so endemic to the 5 string that various methods have been developed to correct it, usually in the form of a compensated nut or bridge that is staggered at the 2nd or 3rd string to account for this. They help, but the flaw persists invariably.

Tempering is the process of taking all of the minor discrepancies in a series of strings and "splitting the difference" to come up with a happy medium. There are better definitions using terms like "inharmonics" and "mathematical intervals" but this will do for this purpose. (More on tempering). If you have ever been around a piano tuner, for example, you would think that they would simply pull out there set of tuning forks, tune the strings to them, and be on their way. I watched a piano tuner spend an entire afternoon at my parent’s house when I was a kid. He tuned some strings, played a chord or two, listened, tuned some other strings, played a chord, listened, on an on in a process that lasted hours. I had no idea at the time what he was doing, but now realize that he was “tempering” the piano. He would tune certain strings then play a chord involving those keys. He would then play a different chord and figure out whether the notes in that chord were in tune with the first chord or not. He would split the difference on problem strings, hitting chords over and over so that the end result would be not a perfectly tuned piano with every string tuned to pitch, but a perfectly tempered piano, with all the chords and notes in the best degree of agreement with one another possible. (This is also why piano tuners make good money. If this is tricky with 5 strings, imagine over 200.)

This is the process I use to temper tune the 5 string.

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I start with the middle G, 3rd string. This is really the heart of the open G tuned banjo. I make sure this either agrees with a tuner or (perhaps more importantly since the banjo is a band instrument, not a solo instrument) with the G string on the rhythm guitar.

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Once I have my middle G, I check the 5th string. By ear, I determine whether I have an octave split between the two. If you have trouble with this, drop the 5th string then while pinching the two, run the pitch up on the 5th. You will hear it synchronize with the 3rd. Remember, don’t change the 3rd to match the 5th. The third is your point of reference for the entire tuning process.

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Fret the 4th string at the 5th fret. This must match the 3d open. Why? You’ll be playing this in licks all the time, usually sliding the 4th to the 5th fret on the 4th then picking the 3rd open. Change the 4th string to match the 3rd.

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Fret the 2nd string at the 3rd fret. This must match the 1st string. (Think Foggy Mountain lick). Change the 2nd string to match the 1st.

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Do a 1, 3, 5 string “pinch”. This will sound two Gs and a D, generating a drone that is easy to hear if it’s off. Remember, if something doesn’t work at this point, go back to step one. Don’t try to correct by just changing the 1st, 3rd, or 5th to your ear, at least not without going through the steps again.

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What NOT to do. Don’t fret the 3rd string at the 4th fret and do anything to make it match the 2nd string. There is a reason that you don’t slide to the 4th fret on the 3rd when you do a “Scruggs roll”.

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The final test is simply to play a little. I have a favorite tune that I use to both warm up on and check the tuning. Cumberland Gap lets me roll from the 5th through the 1st string while doing a little fretting and sliding, all the while chiming the 5th string.
 

I have found that, over the years, one of the marks of an excellent banjo player is to be always in tune and be able to respond to tuning changes quickly, from a slipped string to a key change going from one song to the next. I'm amazed at how many pretty high level players I hear that will play out of tune. This can - and is - often problematic in a jam. One of the givens of a bluegrass jams is that not all instruments will be in tune. Choosing whom to tune to, when to tune to them, and how to "temper" your tuning to the jam is a pretty advanced skill, and an art far more than a science.

 

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