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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.
The standard Open G tuning on a five string banjo is as in the illustration to the right:
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:
There are some flaws in this system:
Other tuning issuesString 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.
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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