Tenor Banjo Tuning – Main Differences & Which to Choose?

Tenor banjos have four strings and a short, narrow neck.

Confusingly, the name ‘tenor’ gives the impression that the banjo is going to sound pretty low in pitch, as you’d expect from an instrument that follows classical four-part harmony organization. However, in reality, these instruments actually produce the highest tone of all banjos.

There are many different tunings. In this article, we’re going to show you the most common ones and give you some steer on why you might want to use one over the other.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Symmetrical Tuning

These instruments are tuned in fifths so that each string has the same musical interval falling between one another.

This is known as ‘symmetrical tuning’ and is also used by violin, viola, cello, and double bass (the four main instruments in the string family).

Doing it this way is advantageous as chord and scale patterns are symmetrical across different strings.

This means that if you play a triad chord on the fourth, third, and second strings, with the root note in the bass, the triad shape will stay the same even if you move to the third, secon d or first strings.

#1. CGDA

Standard Tuning CGDA

Initially, the tenor banjo became popular in jazz, thanks to its punchy twang that cuts through a band’s mix without needing amplification.

In particular, jazz musicians would tune to CGDA which is known as the ‘standard’ or ‘traditional’ method, because the range of notes worked very well in both rhythm and melody sections.

Another bonus of using standard tuning is that it makes flat keys easier to work with. This is great news if you’re playing jazz with flat loving, saxophones and trumpets!

As mentioned above, using standard means you only need to learn a few chord shapes, thanks to the strings being set out as a set of fifth notes.  This means that once you’ve mastered the basics, you can easily move along the neck or up and down the strings to change the chord.

Overall, banjos made between 1900 to 1950 work well with this tuning and shouldn’t require any modification to support it.

Other tunings often lead to the banjo needing its nut re-filing or alterations made to the bridge to support the different string tension.

Interestingly, because this tuning is relatively high in pitch, it also resonates well with the banjo head, whereas lower tunings (e.g. GDAE) can sound a little muddy.

Just remember, the high tension in the top strings can increase the chances of breakage, so make sure to keep some spare A strings in case they snap!

#2. GDAE

Irish Tuning GDAE

GDAE is a favorite tuning among Irish tenor players, mostly thanks to its similarity to the Irish fiddle, producing melodies just an octave below.

Because the strings here are still set out in fifths, learning melodies and chords is a fairly easy task. The only downside is that the low pitch can sound muddy and require higher tension strings and adjustment to the instrument before you get a decent tone.

Folk musicians most often use the GDAE tuning to play in the key of G, D, C and A, which are popular in Irish music.

Although smaller, 17 fret banjos are designed for folk music, many Irish players actually prefer the 19 fret models, for the extra bite and volume that a higher tension banjo kicks out.

However, most modern Irish tenor banjos are built for GDAE tuning, whereas older vintage banjos aren’t. So, if you have an older version, it’ll likely need some modification to the nut and bridge.

#3. DGBE
Chicago Tuning DGBE

Chicago involves tuning the banjo to the same as a guitar’s top four strings, in DGBE. This can be handy if you already play the guitar, as you can apply the same chord placements and scales to get a tune.

The downside here is that there only one octave and a step between the low string and the high string, so the musician has to stretch up the neck quickly to play a melody.

As well as this, Chicago tuning is less symmetrical than the fifth style tunings we’ve mentioned above, so transposing music can be tricky and if you’re looking to play more traditional banjo music.

Despite being a little trickier in terms of music theory, the Chicago style is great for strumming and playing rhythm sections.

Because this style makes chord shapes very compact, the musician doesn’t have to stretch as far as they would whilst using fifths.

The tight chord spacing also gives a fuller, richer tone.

#4. CGBD

Plectrum Tuning CGBD

Due to their longer scale length and an extended number of frets, plectrum banjos have a very different design when compared to standard tenor models.

Plectrum tuning works in a similar manner to the Chicago style we mentioned above, so that rhythm strumming and tight harmonies are favored over solos.

When it comes to genre, many musicians use this method to play chords and melodies in old jazz music.

#5. DAEB

DAEB tuning is actually an adapted jazz tuning, that is also used in Irish folk.

However, the main difference compared to traditional tuning is that the strings are held under higher tension, so can be more prone to snapping.

The advantage of using DAEB is that you no longer have to stretch to reach the high B, which is a well-known struggle among petite players.

The downside is that you sacrifice some low-end notes which would have fallen below the D string, so in turn, this style can limit which songs you can play.

If you’re don’t fancy risking snapping some strings, you can always try putting a capo on the second fret of a standard-tuned banjo.

This way, you reduce the string tension and get a shorter scale length, which helps a musician to play melodies.

Summary

So there you have it, so many options right! I suggest you start with the standard method and take it from there. If you’re a newbie, check out our guide to tuning a banjo for step by step instructions on getting starting.

Good luck!


Featured Photo via Unsplash

Ged Richardson

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He's a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango' and a lover of all things music. When he's not ripping up and down the fretboard, he's tinkering with his '79 Campervan.