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Chord Nerd Tip #12: How to Play Banjo Without a Banjo Part 1

Posted by Banjolio on Friday, August 8, 2014

like this

Have you ever been at a friend’s house (or anywhere else) and had an urge to play music? You look around … no banjo. You ask the locals, “Got a banjo around here I can play?” No banjo. Highly inconsiderate, if you ask me, but it happens all the time. So, what’s a banjo player to do?

Here’s one way to deal with the situation:

  1. Ask if they have a guitar.

For some reason many houses will have a guitar but not a banjo. Go figure.

  1. If yes, then ask, “Mind if I retune it?”

This is important. Never mess with someone else’s guitar without permission. Of course, if you say, “Mind if change your guitar to a different tuning?” they may say no, so the best wording to get permission (even if it’s not complete permission) is, “Mind if I retune it?” Most will give permission.

  1.  Tune the guitar to Open G.
  2.  Play it like it’s a banjo.
  3. When you’re done, tune it back, and you might get invited back again before you-know-where freezes over.

To tune a guitar to open G, lower both of the E strings to D, then lower the A string to G. Since you’re only lowering (loosening) strings and not raising (tightening) them, you have less of a chance of breaking a string. (But it could still happen, especially with older strings.)

Here’s a comparison of standard guitar tuning, Open G guitar tuning and Open G banjo tuning:

Strings:                                 6        5        4        3        2        1

Standard Guitar Tuning:         E       A       D       G       B       E

Open G Guitar Tuning:            D       G       D       G       B       D

Open G Banjo Tuning:                      g        D      G       B       D

Look at the two guitar tunings. Note that   strings 2, 3 and 4 remain the same. Only strings 1, 5 and 6 change.

Now compare open G guitar tuning and open G banjo tuning. Strings 1 through 4 are identical. String 5 is the same note on both instruments, but it’s two octaves lower on the guitar.

What this means is that you can play strings 1 through 5 on a guitar in open G tuning exactly as you would play a banjo. You can finger pick. You can claw hammer. It won’t sound exactly like a banjo both because of the tonal difference between guitar and banjo and because the 5th string will be lower in pitch. That high 5th string is a big part of the banjo sound … but you can still make music like this.

Here’s a 2-bar roll that I like to use for simply playing backup chords:

Here it is in the chord progression for Boil Them Cabbage Down:

Now, one more thing: that 6th string. It’s there, why not use it now and then? And it just happens to be a D note. So, when you play a D or D7 chord, hit the 6th string instead of the 5th. Here more cabbage with this small change:

Once you have a feel for this, you can add all your favorite hammer-ons, slides, chokes and almost everything else you play on banjo—including all the chord stuff I’ve been nerding about in these lessons.

This tuning also lends itself well to claw hammer playing. If you’re a clawist, give it a try.

Back to picking: if you modify the roll to start on the 5th string like this, it gives you a nice root note on the 1 beat, which can be nice sometimes, especially if you don’t have a bass:

And if you alternate between the 5th and 6th strings like this, you’re pretty much doing what guitar players call Travis picking.

Of course, nothing beats the sound and feel of a real banjo, but sometimes you just gotta make do with what’s around.

Hope I haven’t strayed too far from the Banjo Hangout mission here …

Michael Bremer is a writer, editor, publisher and banjo player. He is writing and publishing the Banjo GED series of instructional materials, and also writes and edits for Hal Leonard.

Banjo GED #1: Chords! Chords! Chords! teaches you everything you could ever want to know (and more) about playing chords on a 5-string banjo in G tuning.

Banjo Aerobics (published by Hal Leonard) is a book of exercises to help you gain technique and better understand the banjo neck.

Clawhammer Cookbook (published by Hal Leonard) is now available. Here's a link to it on Amazon:

11 comments on “Chord Nerd Tip #12: How to Play Banjo Without a Banjo Part 1”

bjango53 Says:
Monday, August 11, 2014 @9:02:59 AM

Great lesson, thanks Michael. I read in Keith Richards book that he tuned his guitar to banjo tuning and removed the 6th string.

Banjolio Says:
Monday, August 11, 2014 @10:06:52 AM

I read that, too, bjango53. I can see the point of removing the 6th string--it's just like a banjo with a low drone, but it's nice to have that low D, too.

Dr.BDH Says:
Monday, August 11, 2014 @11:42:17 AM

That G tuning is one of the most common Hawaiian slack key guitar tunings, known as taropatch. And the alternating lower string riff, moving from the G strings to the D strings when going from G or C chords to the D chord, is the heart of all slack key playing. Anyone who enjoys fooling with this tuning should consider looking into slack key. There are several good instructional CDs, DVDs and books out there. It's also fun to convert banjo tunes to slack key tunes. E.g., slow down Groundspeed to slack key speed (very aloha) and you have Groundsloth.

Banjolio Says:
Monday, August 11, 2014 @11:56:33 AM

Open G is very versatile. Slack key, rock and roll, and more. I like it for fingerpicking fiddle tunes. I first started playing with it when looking for guitar music that would translate well to banjo, and found it goes both ways. I'll have to try Groundsloth--very cool.

Peter Metz Says:
Monday, August 11, 2014 @1:32:41 PM

Playing the guitar myself for ... say ... 30 years and the banjo for three months now, I found this article very funny . . . and it helped me get a step closer to playing banjo instead of playing guitar-like on a banjo. Thanks.

ItalianBluegrassLover Says:
Monday, August 11, 2014 @9:36:25 PM

Well, that may sounds a little strange, but I used this method to learn how to play the banjo.. i didn't have money to buy a banjo and I really wanted to learn how to play it.. so I took my old guitar and I retuned it into a open G and I started to learn rolls and everything that regarded banjo playing... after a couple of months i got my banjo and as soon as i put my hands on it, I was able to play it without problems...

TKarrow Says:
Monday, August 11, 2014 @10:47:32 PM

I built a banjo awhile back with a guitar-like 5th string (Keith Richards tuning).. I haven't been playing it much but I do like the way it sounds with that low 5th string.. I don't play guitar but I do have one somebody gave me so I tuned it to open G as well.. Confuses the hell out of most guitar players.. Gotta look at groundsloth- sounds like fun..

Elmo_Smiley Says:
Wednesday, August 13, 2014 @6:20:26 AM

Interesting. People who have purchased the 6 string Banjitars before knowing otherwise, can practice regular banjo licks with their instruments. I have a banjo, and several guitars (different types for different styles), so now I am thinking of giving this a try on an extra instrument. This is also a great way to have a little fun. If you're playing guitar, you can make a tuning change and play 'scruggs style' and no one (the crowd) will realize what you're doing. Nice.

bjango53 Says:
Wednesday, August 13, 2014 @8:52:25 AM

Don't forget to use your slide in this tuning for some swampy blues ;)

rjaykay62 Says:
Friday, September 19, 2014 @10:43:24 AM

Thank you, thank you....Who knew? I've been playing the banjo for about 3 yrs and have always wanted to play guiar. Now I know that this isn't really playing guitar, but it's close (and it's music) and I enjoy the heck out of it.

Banjoduffer Says:
Monday, October 13, 2014 @3:43:43 PM

Have a Dobro banjo made by Mac McCormik. The neck is actually a five string guitar neck. I string it at various times liek a traditional five string banjo and at othertimes like a guitar minus the sixth string. Love he sound and can two finger pick of clawhammer without problem. Tune in open G and don't have to learn diferent chords to play an instrument like the guitar. Thank you for a interesting lesson.

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