“Get Your Banjo in the Right Tune”

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by Art Rosenbaum

“Get Your Banjo in the Right Tune (Tuning)!”: Video by Art Rosenbaum

by Art Rosenbaum, from http://backroadsandbanjos.com:

This is a compilation of most of the banjo tunings I know and use. Almost all come from traditional sources. In the few instances where I have come up with a tuning without a clear traditional origin (although it sounds appropriately traditional to me), I designate it with an asterisk. I have avoided modern or newly invented tunings. The tunings are grouped in “families” or keys, to make moving from one related tuning to another easier. Although many, many tunings will be given, from the most common to some unusual ones, this compendium is not definitive or complete. It is intended to be useful to the banjo player and is not a scholarly compendium; frequently but not in every case source players will be named.

Gradually expanding the tunings you are know and use will give breadth and depth to your playing, “atmosphere”, as Wade Ward told John Cohen. Some tunings are sprightly and cheerful, others mournful, others suggest moods not easily expressed in words. I should say here that if most of your old-time playing is with other instruments, with a fiddle or in string bands, you will probably want to stick to a few tunings: open G (or two frets higher, A), standard or double C (or D if two frets higher); and sometimes the sawmill tuning. Maybe open D. Other musicians may be impatient with you while you twist your banjo into unusual tunings, and the character of these tunings generally comes through better in song accompaniments or banjo solo pieces.

Each tuning will be given by notes from 5th through 1st strings, then by name or names, sometimes key names, sometimes by folk designations like “sawmill tuning”, sometimes simply by a tune played in the tuning. Following will be a four-number sequence of intervals that can be used to tune the banjo in relative pitch in a given tuning. Starting with the 4th string open as near as possible to the desired pitch, it is then stopped at a fret designated by the first number, and the 3rd string is tuned to this note; then the 3rd string stopped at the fret indicated by the second number, and the 2nd string is tuned to this note; then the 2nd string is stopped at the third numbered fret and the first string is tuned to it; and finally the 1st string is stopped at the 4th numbered fret position, and the 5th (thumb) string is tuned to this.

Old-time banjo pickers speak of “noting” and “chording.” In noting, the player works in a tuning in which desired notes are sounded on open strings or are produced with stopped (“noted”), pulled, or hammered strings, usually one at a time. In the chording approach, multiple strings are stopped to make chord figures. Some tunings, the “open G” (gDGBD) for example, can be used for both noting and chording. Others, like the “standard C” (gCGBD) do not work unless chord figures are used. Of course noting and chording approaches at times blend into one another. [example: sawmill and F chord]

One or more tunes or song accompaniment using the given tuning will be listed. Left hand fingering will be given for various tunings, with the main strings and frets useful for the “noting” approach in a given tuning indicated by O’s (remember, in “noting”, the left hand stops, pulls off from, or hammers or slides to a note generally one at a time, and generous use is made of open strings. In tunings used for “chording”, some important chords are indicated by finger numbers at given string and fret in chord diagrams.

I would suggest learning a tunings one or a few at a time, and only with tunes and songs you can absorb and become familiar with. Although digital tuners are very useful, try going from tuning to tuning the old way, at least at first, using your ear first, then the string matching, working from a “home” tuning to a variant or different tuning; for example, from the “open G” tuning, learn how to lower the 2nd string a whole tone easily attain the “Willie Moore” tuning; or how to lower the 4th string a whole tone to get into “standard C” –and then go back to the “home” open G tuning.

Whenever I was a sprout, you might say, in my banjer-picking, heard somebody pick it, I asked he how he tuned the banjer, said he tuned it in “Shady Grove “ key. We didn’t know nothing about F and G and C and D and A, all like that. We just tuned the banjer in “Shady Grove” key or “Shout Lulu” key or “Cabbage” key or “Greenback” key or something like that. First time I tried to pick [“Shady Grove”] with anybody, there’s an old gentleman name of Perkins, lived right across the river from where I live now, I’d been a-thompin’ around on it, he played the fiddle, he said, “Son, tune your [banjo] in ‘Shady Grove’ key!” I said, “’Shady Grove’ key?” He said, “Yes! I’m playing in ‘Shady Grove’ key, you’re not with me!” I said, “Tell me how.” He kindly told me how, .. I was kind of picking it kind of in the “Shout Lulu” key, I was noting down on the bass. Thisaway you don’t never note the bass, it’s done up there. You see, the reason I have to tune my banjer so many ways, it’s because I pick a lot of open strings. Banjer pickers nowadays, they tune the banjer up, they can go from one place to another, you see. I pick a lot of open strings, that’s why I have to tune the banjer in different keys. That’s the way I learned, you know, many years ago.

– W. Guy Bruce, Welcome Hill (formerly Screamersville), Chattooga County Georgia, 1981

One Response to ““Get Your Banjo in the Right Tune””

  1. Hub Mahaffey Says:

    Does anyone know when this video will be released? I have been waiting patiently, but I want at it. It looks great!

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