More Banjo Skills
Diagram showing the names and positions of the tuning pegs on a five string banjo

Play our free interactive Tuning Game

 

It’s Important to Be in Tune

A banjo that is ‘In tune’ sounds good. If your banjo is out of tune it’s not going to sound good even if you are a brilliant player.

You can adjust the sound of each string higher or lower by rotating the tuning peg. Each string is tuned to a different note.

The 1st string is tuned to d

The 2nd string is tuned to b

The 3rd string is tuned to g

The 4th string is tuned to d

The 5th string is tuned to high g

This is called ‘Standard tuning.’ All the strings played together at the same time make a G major chord.

 

String Numbering

The strings are numbered the wrong way round! When you are holding the banjo in the normal playing position the string nearest to the ground is the 1st string. To make things more interesting, the 1st string is sometimes called the ‘top’ string. The 4th string is called the ‘bottom’ string because it makes the lowest note. Everybody finds this confusing to start with!

 

String Gauges

The strings are all different thicknesses or ‘gauges.’ Sometimes a string can accidentally be fitted in the wrong place and it might be impossible to get it in tune. If you have any doubt take the banjo to a qualified repairman and get him to check it over for you.

 

Learning to Tune a Banjo

Normally you only need to turn the tuning peg a small amount to change the tuning. To start with, turn one of the tuning pegs a small amount and play the string at the same time. See if you can hear the whether the pitch of the note is going up or down as you rotate the peg. Once you can tell if the note is going up or down, you’re ready to try and tune the banjo. Start by tuning one string, then when you are happy with that, try a different string. The tuning peg might work the opposite way on a different string!

To start with We’re going to concentrate on tuning the banjo by ear, which means without using an electronic tuner.

There are a lot of different ways to tune a bano by ear. In this video I demonstrate how to match a string on the banjo to a note from another instrument, in this case a piano note played by my assisstant Miss Ticketyboo. There are two sets of skill you need to master here, one set of listening skills and another set of practical skills. It’s really not difficult to learn the mechanical skills invloved in tuning a banjo and this video will show you how! The pegs do not always rotate the same way on different banjos or even on different strings on the same banjo. If you have to replace a string, whether because it’s broken or because you want the bright sound of new strings, make sure to wind the string around the tuning peg the same way because that will affect the direction of rotation as well!

 

Listening Skills

Once you’ve worked out how to adjust a string up or down this video teaches some of the listening skills needed to tune a banjo by ear. The piano note is always right and Joff demonstrates a few dozen notes which are out of tune with the piano by a different distance or amount. Some of the notes in this demonstration are quite close to the correct pitch, some are quite a long way out of tune. If you can tell how far apart the banjo and the piano note are, you are learning an important listening skill. If you are completely new to playing the banjo the most important thing is to determine whether the banjo note is higher or lower than the correct note so you can work out which way to turn the peg. The best way to learn this skill is by playing our new game!

Play Our Interactive Tuning Game

 

Sharp and Flat

If your banjo note is higher than the correct note, you are sharp and have to tune down. If your banjo note is lower than the correct note, you are flat and need to tune up. ‘Sharp’ and ‘Flat’ are the normal words musicians use to describe tuning. A lot of other musical terms mean different things to different people, but sharp and flat always mean the same thing whether you’re playing Folk or Classical music, or any other type of music.

 

Tuning Banjo Guitar & Fiddle

Each string on the banjo is normally tuned to a different note, so you can get a problem if you try and tune a string to the wrong note. If you have a buddy who plays the guitar or the fiddle, they have g and d strings too so you can tune to them. On the guitar the two middle strings (3rd and 4th strings) are a g note and a d note which are the same as the 3rd and 4th strings on the banjo. So if your buddy’s guitar is in tune you can tune to that but make sure to match the correct strings on your banjo to the strings on his/her guitar.

The two lowest strings of the fiddle are a match for two strings on the banjo, this time the fourth or bottom string on the fiddle is the same g note as the middle string on the banjo.

 

Pitch Recognition

Another important listening skill is called pitch recognition or perfect pitch which just means learning to recognise the sound of notes so you can hear if a note is right or wrong. The banjo is a marvellous instrument for developing these skills because it is tuned to an open G chord and just by playing a banjo you can learn pitch recognition skills that might be harder to learn on other instruments such as a saxophone or violin. The banjo is also conveniently pitched in the middle of the normal musical range, in other words it doesn’t make any very high or very low notes. Anyone can sing along with a banjo, for most women the higher strings on the banjo match their normal singing range and most men will find the lower strings on the banjo comfortable to sing along with. Try singing the notes as well. pluck any string and try to find that note with your voice. If you can match the note by singing it, you can surely match a note by turning a peg!

 

Your Banjo is Badly Out of Tune?

If your banjo is a long way out of tune, it’s going to take a while to tune it up properly. Tune all the strings as best you can then start again. It often takes two or three times round to get a musical stringed instrument properly in tune. This is the same for experienced professional musicians as it is for beginners, and also beware that the tuning can change with temperature and humidity etc so even if your banjo was perfectly in tune yesterday it’s a good idea to tune it again today!

So it’s relatively easy to tune a banjo if you have all the five correct notes top match the five banjo strings to (e.g. from a piano or other instrument that you know is perfectly in tune) In the next few videos were going to look at other ways of tuning a banjo for example if you don’t have another instrument to match it to.

The more you practise tuning your banjo, the better you’re going to get at the hand skills and also the listening skills.