Tuning a Banjo: The First Step in Learning to Pick

tuning a banjoFor those out there with a passion for older music (and by “older”, we don’t mean the 80s), there’s a good chance that you’ve considered trying to learn the banjo. The instrument originated somewhere in Africa, and made its way to the United States via the slave trade in the 16th century. Here, the banjo’s popularity spread from the Southern plantations, to its role as a novelty instrument in Vaudeville, and on to the types of music we most associate the instrument with today: bluegrass, folk, and Dixieland.

If you’re considering buying a banjo, or if you’ve recently purchased one, chances are you love one of these types of music, and would like to learn to play one, or all of them, but before you get started pickin’, you need to get to tunin’. Today, we’re discussing the various ways to tune a banjo. There are a few methods to go about getting your instrument to sound good, and hopefully you’ll be able to utilize one of them today, but they require a few tools. If the older music is what you want to play, this course on old time banjo for beginners will get you started pickin’ in no time.

Tuning Methods for the Banjo

Hopefully you’ve tuned a stringed instrument before, such as a guitar, bass, or mandolin, so that you have something to work from. If not, that’s fine, but it might take some practice to get it right. We’ll start off by showing you what notes each of the five strings of the banjo should be tuned to. There are countless ways to tune the instrument, but to start out, we’ll tune it to the standard banjo tuning: open G tuning. For help training your ear, this course on how to hear chords in music will teach you how to play songs by ear.

  • Open G Tuning

Like we just mentioned, the open G tuning is standard for the banjo, especially if you’re just starting out. Starting out on the fifth string, which is the top one, with the tuning peg, or key, in the middle of the top of the fretboard, we have a note of G. Next, the fourth string, whose tuning key is at the top, or head, of the banjo, along with the three others, is tuned to D. The third string, just below the fourth, will be another G note, but at a lower octave than the fifth string. The second string will be a B. Finally the first, or bottom, string will be tuned to another D, a higher octave than the fourth string.

Now we’ll go through the various methods of tuning your banjo. Like we said before, it will require some type of tool to tune it, but there are a handful of methods. If you’ve never tuned a stringed instrument before, it’s simple: turn the tuning keys at the top of the banjo either clockwise or counterclockwise to loosen or tighten each string, until you’ve achieved the desired note. Tuning your instrument is the first step, and the second step is learning to play it – this course on music theory will help you learn the language of music.

  • Electronic Tuner

Perhaps the easiest and most reliable method to tuning the banjo, the electronic tuner is probably the best bet for all the novices out there. You can buy one for as cheap as $15 or so, or you can spend well over $100 for a nice one. Many of them have a clip that allows you to attach the tuner to the instrument while tuning, or you can just lay it somewhere flat that’s close to you. Next, you just start plucking each of the strings, starting with the top (fifth) string, and use the tuner to guide you until you hit the G note. Finally, just continue down the strings of the instrument, until they’re all at the appropriate notes.

  • Piano

This method requires not only a piano, which most people don’t own, as well as knowledge of which keys correspond to which notes. However, if you can figure out which keys are what, or you or a friend are familiar with the keyboard, this is a good way to tune your banjo. Simply tune the banjo’s open strings to the notes on the piano – just remember to use the middle C as a point of reference, so you don’t tune the banjo to the wrong octave.

  • Online/Apps

There are plenty of sites and smart phone apps that allow you to electronically pluck a string, which you can tune your instrument to. These methods are convenient for discovering alternate tunings for the instrument.

  • Pitch Pipe or Tuning Fork

These methods are very low tech, but effective nonetheless. A pitch pipe used specifically for banjos has several of the notes found on the instrument, which you blow, then tune the banjo to. The tuning fork might be a bit more difficult to use. First, you must know what note the fork plays, which is usually an A. Next, strike the fork against a hard surface, then put the fork close to your ear, or on something that resonates, or even put the stem in your mouth. Finally, pluck an A note (second fret, third string), and match the two.

If you can only get one of the strings in tune, you must tune the rest of them. To do that, simply fret a note to an open string you know to be tuned, then work from there:

  • Open third string = fourth string, fifth fret
  • Open second string = third string, fourth fret
  • Open first string = second string, third fret
  • Open fifth string = first string, fifth fret

Hopefully you have your banjo all tuned up and ready to go, now. If it seems kinda tricky learning how to tune your instrument, it’ll get easier as time goes by, and if you keep playing for a while, you’ll even learn how to tune the banjo by ear. If music seems like something you’d like to make a career out of, this course on how to earn money as a musician, and this article on promoting your music will help you get your talents heard.