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Banjo Tuning Basics for Beginners

The first thing you’ll need to learn when you start playing the banjo is how to tune it properly. If you’re lacking in musical experience like me, banjo tuning can be pretty intimidating at first. But never fear, Tony Trischka can show you how to master this critical banjo skill so you'll be tuning like a pro.

Why Should I Learn To Tune My Banjo?

If you’re new to playing musical instruments, you might be wondering why they need tuning. While it’s true that many banjos are sold “set up” in G tuning when you first buy them, you still need to know how to tune it yourself. Strings can get out of tune easily so you should check your tuning often. Also, when you’re playing with other musicians or singers, you’ll need to make sure your banjo is in tune with everyone else’s instruments.

How to Tune Your Banjo to Open G Tuning

Open G tuning is by far the most common tuning for banjo music.  In Open G, you just strum the banjo and there’s your G-chord!

In Tony’s online lesson above, he demonstrates 3 ways to tune a banjo: tuning by ear, tuning the banjo to itself, or tuning to an electric tuner.

Tuning By Ear

Perfect pitch is the rare ability to name or sing any note by listening to it. If you are one of the lucky people with this talent, you’ll have no trouble tuning any instrument, including the banjo, just by listening to it.

To tune your banjo to Open G with perfect pitch, all you need to know is the note each string should produce:

The 4th string’s D note will be the lowest note of all the open strings and one octave lower than the 1st string’s D note. Likewise, the 3rd string’s G note will be an octave lower than the short 5th string’s G.

banjo tuning

Tuning The Banjo To Itself

Another way is to tune the banjo to itself starting with the 4th string, the low D string. You can use a piano, a guitar, or a tuning fork to start with the 4th string. Then, you’ll tune the rest of the strings in relation to that low D note.

Once the 4th string is tuned to D, you fret it on the 5th fret for a G note. That G is what the 3rd string should sound like. Here’s Tony showing how to tune the 3rd string by fretting the 4th string:

From there, you progress down the strings, tuning each one to the string before it.

Tony’s tuning lesson does caution that tuning the 2nd string (B string) to the 3rd string (4th fret) can make the 2nd string sound a bit sharp. To avoid this problem he suggests that after you tune the entire banjo, go back and tune the 2nd string to the 1st string (3rd fret). This process will make the B string a little more accurate.

Tuning To An Electronic Tuner

Tony tunes his own banjo with an electronic tuner which attaches to the end of the headstock of the banjo, like so:

banjo headstock tuner

The device picks up the pitch of your strings and uses a visual arrow to indicate how close your string is to the correct note.

Other Banjo Tunings

Of course, Open G tuning isn’t the only game in town. There are plenty of other tunings you can use on the banjo.

Double-C tuning was used quite often by Pete Seeger when playing clawhammer or old-timey tunes. Here’s a song called "Old Molly Hare" played in Double-C.

D tuning was a favorite of bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs. Here’s Earl using the D tuning in his song, "Reuben."

There are plenty of other tunings for the banjo, as varied as the song styles they’re used in. What’s more, you can even make up your own tunings as your ear for music gets more sophisticated. Feel free to experiment and have fun with tuning your banjo!

Related Blogs:

Click here to learn more about banjo lessons ArtistWorks with Tony Trischka.

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