How to Tune a Banjo
Banjos are ornery critters. Like a puppy who wants to be petted, your banjo wants to be tuned. Often.
So how do you tune banjo?
If you’re going to be playing bluegrass music, you’ll want to be tuned in what’s called “G tuning.”
Before you go running out to purchase an electronic tuner that you may or may not need, let me explain how to tune the banjo to itself. If you’re a beginner, you’ll be playing by yourself at first, so as long as your banjo is tuned to itself, you’re good to go.
Set the banjo on your lap, and play the 1st string (closest to the floor). Put your left index finger on the 2nd string at the 3rd fret. (Think of a “fret” as the space between the metal bars.) If they don’t sound the same, you’ll want to adjust the second string so when it’s fretted at the third fret it sounds the same as the 1st string “open” or unfretted.
Important Hint: Before you turn a peg to tighten or loosen a string, you must play the string as you’re turning the peg. That way, you can tell if you’re turning the peg in the right direction, and you can estimate how much more you’ll need to turn the peg to get it in tune).
Now that the 2nd string is in tune, you’ll tune the 3rd string to the 2nd string. Put your left index finger on the 3rd string at the 4th fret. Adjust the third string so it sounds like the 2nd string played “open.”
After you get the 3rd string in tune, play the 4th string at the 5th fret and make it sound like the 3rd string played “open.”
Finally, put your left index finger on the 1st string at the 5th fret, and tune your 5th string up so it matches the 5th string played “open.”
Once you have done all this, your banjo “should” be in tune. (I can hear you laughing.)
OK, it may not be perfect, but it might be good enough to play some songs on the banjo. After all, it’s only a “banjo.” ;-)
Tuning Tips: If you have a friend who plays guitar, they can help you tune your banjo. In fact, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings on a banjo are tuned the same as those same strings on a guitar. Piece of cake!
Electronic tuners are a great invention, but before you use one, you really need to learn the tuning method, above. This will develop your ear.
After you’re proficient at tuning by the “fret method,” you can invest in an electronic tuner if you want, but they are optional. Their best use is to fine tune your banjo after you've got it "roughly tuned" using the fret method, above.
To use an electronic tuner, you’ll need to know the names of your strings.
1 2 3 4 5
D B G D G
Merely turn on your electronic tuner, and play one string. Your tuner should light up and tell you the name of the string you just played. The lights or meter will tell you whether it’s too high or too low. Adjust your strings accordingly.
You should now be ready to PICK! Check out my other articles “Easy Two Chord Banjo Songs” and “Bluegrass Standards.”
For REALLY SIMPLE instruction on learning to play the banjo, I highly recommend one of my best-selling banjo books. Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus! has taught thousands of people just like you to play the banjo in bluegrass style. My book Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus! has done the same for people who want to learn clawhammer style banjo. Don’t know the difference? Then read my article on “What is Clawhammer Banjo?” My banjo books are written in a friendly and easy style expressly for total beginners.
Each book comes as a set with a CD with 90 tracks where I play each melody very slowly and clearly on the banjo. I’m so sure that you’ll like the book that I’ll offer you this guarantee. If you purchase the book and CD set ($19.95) and either don’t like it or don’t get anything of value out of it, return it, and I’ll send you a check. I only ask that you USE the book first. Fair enough?