How to Tune a Five String (American) Banjo

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The 5-string Banjo is a very "happy" instrument that can give anyone hours of fun. If you do not tune it, though, you are in BIG trouble; few sounds are more vile than an untuned banjo. Here are the basics:

Steps

  1. Take a look at your banjo. Hold the "neck" (the long, narrow part with the strings) in your left hand, with the fat part across your stomach, and look at all five strings.
  2. Notice that the string nearest to you does not run all the way up to the top of the fretboard with the rest, but has its tuning knob in the middle of the neck. This strange "5th string" placement is unique to the banjo, is used to give the Banjo that unique "roll" and "bounce" to its sound.
  3. REMEMBER that string through the tuning process, because otherwise you will get confused and turn the wrong knob for the wrong string. The SECOND string your hand plucks will in fact be the FIRST string on the tuning board, and so on. Follow the strings from bottom to top, and youll see what Im talking about.
  4. Its time to start tuning. The banjo, when tuned, will play an open "G" chord. This means, unlike most string instruments, you can just strum without holding any strings, and it will still make a pleasant, ringing harmony.
  5. Look at the five strings at the bottom, and find the center string. This is the first one to tune. You can use many different tools to tune with. The easiest is any mechanical "tuner" that tells you when you are above/beneath the pitch. If you do not have one, though, a piano, pitch-pipe, or any other instrument will do (I usually use an accordion!). All you need is a constant, even pitch, plus an half-sensitive ear.
  6. Follow the middle string to the top of the Banjo, and find its corresponding tuning knob. Keep plucking the string and twiddling the knob, until it is tuned perfectly to a G below middle C, using any of the above methods.
  7. Use the same method to tune the adjacent, slightly thinner string to a B (below middle C)
  8. The next and last string in that direction is thinner still; tune it to a D.
  9. Go back to that first half-length string. Tune this to a G, a full octave above the first G you tuned.
  10. Finally, grab the adjacent string, (Its the final remaining string you havent touched; the fattest one). This gets tuned to a low D.
  11. Strum a chord. You are DONE!

Tips

  • search for "Tune Banjo" on YouTube.com. Youll get plenty of stuff.
  • The first few times you tune a banjo, youll want tuners/pitches to help you with each individual string. However, if only one pitch is available, an alternate method is to tune the Banjos strings to each other. First, get a G and tune the G-string. Next, hold the 5th fret of the D string, and make it match pitch with the G string. Then, the 4th fret of G string matches B, whose 3rd fret matches the high D. Finally, hold the fifth fret of the D string to make it match the high G. (Sidenote: youll notice that these two strings play the same pitch on the same fret. They are, in fact, identical strings, but one is shorter)
  • The G-string is the easiest string to tune off of; you can, of course, tune it to any of its other strings as well.
  • Now, when you get an ear for it, you can start tuning each string in relation to the other. If you do this, Its best to start from the G string, then do B, D, and High G, each off of the string before. but again, be sure that the the G strings in tune first, if you want to play with anyone else! :)

Warnings

  • Tighten slowly! Do not overtighten and be careful: strings, if broken, carry tremendous energy that will whip them in all directions, risking injury especially to your eyes.
  • Again, remember that short string! Youll see five strings on the bottom and four strings on the top, and youll start tuning the second string on the board, and its really the third string on the head... and its confusing. Trust me, Ive broken strings this way.

Things You Will Need

  • Fingers
  • A banjo with the appropriate strings on
  • Either a) a mechanical tuner, b) an even-pitch instrument that plays D, G, D, B, G on the right octaves, c) a decent ear that also knows what the notes should sound like, or d) any combination of the above

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