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How to Tune a Banjo by Ear

So you’ve got your banjo handy, but you don’t have a tuner. Not to worry! There’s a quick way to tune it up by ear, which we’ll discuss below.

Finding Your Starting Pitch

The most important part of figuring out how to tune a banjo by ear is finding your starting pitch. The easiest way for beginners is to use another banjo, instrument or recording for reference. Also, if you can hear the proper starting pitch in your mind, you can use that as a reference pitch.

Tuning With Fretted Notes

The tuning process is easier if you start on the 1st string and work your way through the remaining strings, using fretted notes to make sure each string is in tune in relation to the others. For example, listen to a song you know in the key of D, and tune the 1st string to match the song.

The 5th string should match the pitch of the 1st string, 5th fret. The 2nd string, 3rd fret should match the open 1st string. The 3rd string, 4th fret will match the open 2nd string. The 4th string, 5th fret will match the open 3rd string.

Once you’ve completed the process, you’ll want to play a few chords and/or scales to make sure that the strings are in tune in relation to one another.

Bringing Strings Up To Pitch

When you’re bringing strings up to pitch, always make sure to begin below the desired pitch, gradually turning the tuning peg to tighten the strings. If you go too far (the string goes sharp), simply loosen the string until it is below the desired pitch and begin again.

Checking Intonation

If you’ve recently replaced your strings, or if you haven’t tuned your banjo in a while, you’ll want to check the intonation by playing some fretted chords. When the intonation is off, the fretted notes and chords will sound either sharp or flat, even if the open strings are in tune.

A quick way to check is to play a barre chord at different positions on the fretboard. Because the 5-string banjo is tuned to an open G major chord, you will produce a major chord by simply laying your index finger flat so that it covers all four strings (or all five, from the 5th fret up). For example, barring the strings at the 5th fret will produce a C major chord. A barre at the 9th fret will yield E major.

If you find that your banjo is in tune when you play open strings but fretted notes and barre chords are not, this is an indication that your intonation is off. If you would like to learn more about banjo intonation, you can do so here.

Now you know how to tune a banjo no matter what musical situation you find yourself in, with or without a tuner. Happy picking!

Tony Trischka offers banjo lessons on ArtistWorks. Learn more here.

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