How to Tune a Banjo

Banjo Setup File #10

These banjo setup pages are not actually intended to teach the fundamentals of banjo playing, and tuning is really a part of the fundamentals. In fact, when you get to this point, you should already know how to tune a banjo. However, I have gotten several requests recently from people who wanted to know how to tune the banjo. I am not going to go into great detail about this. I will give an overview, with some supplementary information.

First, you need to determine what kind of banjo you have, and the style(s) of music you are going to play on it. The most common banjos are the following:

the 5-string banjo
the tenor banjo
the plectrum banjo
the banjo-mandolin
the banjo-ukulele

They are tuned as follows (all tunings are indicated from the lowest string to the highest string):

The 5-string Banjo

The 5-string banjo generally is found as one of two main scale lengths, the standard length banjo--with a scale of roughly 26 inches, and the long necked Seeger-style banjo, which has a scale of about 32 inches. For most usage the standard length banjo is tuned to gDGBd. The longer scale instrument is generally tuned to eB'EG#B. The longer scale instrument is often played with a capo at the third fret. With the capo at the third fret, it is tuned the same as the standard scale banjo.

Before about 1880, the 5-string banjo had a shorter neck and was tuned a little differently, usually e A'EG#B. Later, this tuning was changed to gCGBd. This tuning is still in use today for certain special purposes.

There are dozens of tunings for the 5-string banjo, many of which are used for only one or two tunes. A more complete list of tunings may be found at the Banjo-L Web Site.

The Tenor Banjo

The tenor banjo is a 4-string banjo with a scale length of about 22 inches. Most of them have 19 frets clear of the rim of the banjo, although some have fewer. The tenor banjo is tuned to CGda for Dixieland music and jazz. For Celtic music, it is generally tuned to G'DAe, an octave below a mandolin.

The Plectrum Banjo

The plectrum banjo is a 4-string banjo which generally has the same scale as a 5-string banjo--roughly 26 inches. Generally, it will have 22 frets clear of the rim. The standard tuning for this instrument is C'GBd. It may also be tuned DGBE, like the first four strings of a guitar--this is called the Chicago tuning. Celtic musicians also tune this instrument G'DAe. Its longer scale makes this instrument a bit more difficult to navigate in single string playing.

The Banjo-mandolin and the Banjo-ukulele

The banjo-mandolin has a short neck and 8 strings, tuned in pairs, like a mandolin GDae. The banjo-ukulele has a short neck, nylon strings, and is tuned "my dog has fleas," like a ukulele.

I received a complaint from a die-hard banjo ukulele player who claimed that nobody would remember the "my dog has fleas" tuning. While I disagree with this, I shall give you the tunings.

The standard ukulele tuning is gcea.
Soprano ukulele tuning is a full step higher adf#b. This causes the ukulele to project better, but puts a little more strain on the neck and the top of the instrument. Tenor ukulele tuning drops the fourth string an octave, so a heavier fourth string must be used. This tuning is Gcea.

What are all these capital letters and apostrophes for?

That's a good question. These things indicate which octave each note is found in. If you look at a piano keyboard, you will see that there are 88 keys, each of which has a different name (actually 7 names and variations thereof, unless you are German, in which case, there are 8 names. If you are reading this, chances are you aren't German, so it doesn't make any difference. Besides, the Germans know what to do to interpret the note names we English-speaking types use.). When you look at the piano keyboard, you see white keys (or naturals) and black keys (or accidentals, sometimes also called sharps). The accidentals are grouped in sets of two and three, with naturals filling in the spaces between them. The natural key immediately to the left of each group of two accidentals is a "C."

The musical alphabet starts at C and progresses, letterwise, up to G, then starts over at A. So a musical scale built on C would be C, D, E, F, G, A, B and c. And there is your first hint of what the upper and lowercase (capital and small) letters mean.

There are 8 "C's" on an 88 note piano keyboard. The highest note on one of these keyboards is also a "C." These are distinguished from one another like this. The "C" closest to the center of the keyboard is called "middle C" -- it is not only located in the middle of the keyboard, it is also located in the center of the grand staff. This is the fourth "C" from the left end of the piano, and it is indicated as "c." The C that is eight notes (or one octave) lower than this one is indicated as "C." Each successive C below that acquires what looks like an apostrophe. It is actually the symbol that is used as the "prime" symbol in mathematics. So the C an octave below the C below middle C would be C', and the one below that would be C''. The C an octave above middle c is c', the one an octave above that is c'' and the one an octave above that is c'''. The changes in indications start with C and end with the next C above that, so a C major scale from the C two octaves below middle C, up to the C two octaves above middle C (in our shorthand from C' to c'') would be
C' D' E' F' G' A' B' C D E F G A B c d e f g a b c' d' e' f' g' a' b' c''.

By using this system, I can write the tuning of a mandolin as G d a e' rather than "G below middle C, D above middle C, A above middle C, E two octaves above middle C." It makes life much simpler.

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