By Wayne Erbsen
Banjos are ornery critters. Like a puppy who wants to be petted, your banjo wants to be tuned. Often.
So how do you tune a 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!
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.