If you’re in the process of learning to play the banjo one of the first things you’ll need to master is how to tune it.
That, my dear friend, is exactly what we cover here. In this article, we show you the easiest ways to get the job done with the least amount of fuss needed.
Though there are many types of banjo, we’ll be focusing on tuning the most popular 5 string instrument. Go to our guide on tenor banjo tuning for specific instruction on tuning a 4 string tenor banjo (hint: there are lots of methods).
Table of Contents
What is the Standard Tuning for a Banjo?
Open G is the standard tuning used by the majority of banjo players. The reason it’s called Open G is that if you strum the open strings once you’ve tuned it this way, it makes a G chord without having to fret any notes.
The notes are:
1st string – D
2nd string – B
3rd string – G
4th string – D
5th string – G
It’s worth pointing out a few things.
The pitch gets gradually higher as you move from the 4th D string to the 1st D string. Just remember, the 5th G string is the highest pitch of all the strings (even though its position would suggest its the lowest).
Yes, the 4th D string is the lowest pitch of the four open strings and is an entire octave lower than the 1st D string.
The G notes work in the same way: the 3rd G string producing the same note, but a whole octave lower than the 5th G string.
The easiest (and cheapest way – it’s free) is to use an online tuner.
The one I suggest you use is this one – it’s a bit clunky but does the trick and looks a bit confusing when you open it. Ignore all the multi-colored stuff, all you need are the five notes at the bottom.
With your banjo in hand, click each ‘play’ button and adjust each of your tuning pegs accordingly.
Just remember these apps can sound a little artificial so may be harder to interpret aurally.
The method above is free, but if you a more robust method that doesn’t involve an internet connection, the best method is to get hold of a ‘real’ tuner.
These are small devices that either clip onto the far end of the banjo’s headstock or sit independently.
The great thing is they have a built-in microphone that listens to your strings and tells you whether you’re too sharp or flat (i.e. it detects the pitch of each string and displays its closeness to the correct note).
Can I Tune a Banjo with a Guitar Tuner?
If you play guitar you may well have a guitar tuner, so I bet you’re wondering if you can just that one? Well, it depends. If it’s also a chromatic tuner, then you’ll be fine. Unfortunately, the cheaper ones you find for guitar most often are not chromatic, so they won’t won’t cut it I’m afraid.
People endowed with perfect pitch (lucky things) can sing or name any note they hear after listening to it. If this is you, then tuning a banjo by ear will be a breeze. Nothing much else to say!
Tune the Banjo to Itself
If you feel a little less confident about tuning by ear, you could try using a reference note to help you out. To do this, pick the low open D by plucking the 4th string and get it to match the same note – using an online tuner (see above) or another instrument such as a piano or a tuning fork.
You can use the 4th string to set up the rest of the strings correctly.
If you play the D at the fifth fret, you’ll get a G note. This is the exact pitch that the 3rd string should produce, so adjust the 3rd string accordingly.
You can then repeat this step on the 2nd and 1st string.
So far, we’ve only talked about the open G tuning method however, there are several different styles you can use if you’re feeling adventurous. Take a look below to find out more.
Double C style is a favorite among ‘old-time’ banjo fans and is often played using a clawhammer technique.
The set up is as follows:
- 5th string – G (highest-pitched)
- 4th string – C (lowest-pitched)
- 3rd string – G
- 2nd string – C
- 1st string – D
You can see why the tuning gets its name, as both the 4th string and the 2nd string are tuned to C.
If you’re interested in this genre, check out the track ‘Soldiers Joy’, the banjo here is played in double C and sounds great!:
Standard D tuning is a favorite among both Bluegrass and folk artists, such as Earl Scruggs and Pete Steele. For example, ‘Reuben’ by Scruggs or ‘Coal Creek March’ by Steele, are a couple of famous examples.
If you want to tune to D, then your banjo strings will need to be set in different pitches of a D major chord as follows:
5th string – F♯
4th string – D
3rd string – F♯
2nd string – A
1st string – D
Interestingly, you can tune the 5th string to an A, rather than an F# to get an open D chord, without having to fret any part of the fingerboard.