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Chord Nerd Tip #13: Playing In Bb

Posted by Banjolio on Monday, September 1, 2014

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Last time I gave part one of playing banjo without a banjo—basically guitar for banjo players—by tuning to open G. There will be a part two (and maybe more if you want it), but this time, I wanted to share a little accidental discovery I made.

I play with singers that like to sing in Bb on a few songs. Not a major problem, but it does take me a little time to get ready. I’ve been approaching it in three ways:

  1. I often capo all strings up 3 frets and play out of G position. For me, this is slightly complicated by the fact that I don’t have a 5th string hook for Bb (3 frets up), so I hook it up at B (4 frets up) and tune it down a half step. Not a big problem, but changing the string that much gives enough twist to the neck that I have to check the tuning on all the other strings (even with the Perfect Pitch capo, which I generally love). And, of course, as soon as I get into the tuning, someone in the band will say, “let’s do this other song instead,” and I have to quickly change back.
  2. Sometimes I just change the 5th string, and play all chords in closed position. Again, hooking the 5th string up to B, tuning it down to Bb, and then quickly rechecking the tuning on the other strings. Playing like this doesn’t give you the open strings to play with, but I like to do this on a few songs now and then just so the banjo sounds a little different. Plus, this tuning gives the opportunity for a gag I like to do: when someone says, “is everyone ready?” I strum all the strings open and say, “Yep. I’m in tune.” Try it: with the 5th string at Bb and the second string at B, strumming all the strings sounds horrible. Everyone (band and audience) cringes. Then I kick off the song with closed chords, and it’s in tune.
  3. No tuning change and just don’t hit the 5th string. I know it’s not “banjo-like” to do this, but if you don’t have time to tune, you have to deal with the strings you’ve got.

So, at a band practice last month, we were playing a waltz in Bb, but I forgot to retune the 5th string; it was still a G. I started playing, and something sounded strange … but not bad.

Here are the chords to the verse (it’s a waltz so there are 3 beats to the measure):

||: Bb         |A               |Bb             |                 |

      Eb         |F               |Bb             |                 :||


Bb is the I, Eb is the IV, and F is the V. The A is a flatted I chord for flavor.

In this song I use these two shapes:

For the Bb and A, I use the E (often called F) shape at the 6th fret for Bb and 5th fret for A.

For the Eb and F I use the closed D shape at the 3rd and 5th frets respectively.

Here’s how it sounds, first time through with no 5th string, second time through with it tuned to G:

Bb Waltz

The song ended, and instead of making banjo jokes, everyone liked it. I thought about it, and realized that the G works with all the chords of the song. For the Bb, it’s a 6th, so the Bb chord is a Bb6. For the A, it’s a flatted 7th, making it an A7 chord, which works well for this song. G is in the Eb chord, so no conflict there, and for the F … it’s either a 2 or a 9, so it becomes an add 2 or add 9 chord (like a sus 2, but it also has the 3rd … anyone want a lesson on sus chords?). The only other chord in the song is a Gm so G works with that, too.

Admittedly, that Bb6 gives it a swing/jazz tinge, which may not work for your band especially if they’re strictly traditional bluegrass, but it’s worth a try.

So … when my band asked if I’d put in the time to work out a new part for the song or if it was an accident, I proudly borrowed a line from Pee-Wee Herman when he crashed his bicycle, “I did that on purpose!”

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:

4 comments on “Chord Nerd Tip #13: Playing In Bb”

RJWMitchell Says:
Wednesday, September 10, 2014 @5:34:53 PM

About a year ago stumbled across the fact that the open G chantarelle also works well in E flat / Cmin keys.

Mary Schons Says:
Friday, September 12, 2014 @10:23:42 AM

My phone left off the last two measures in the waltz, so I'm playing it at home thinking, "hmmm, sounds kinda abrupt..." Then I get to a desktop. :)

I love these lessons so much, thank you for doing them! They're easy to understand for novices like myself and very fun to play. I'm a big fan.

Banjolio Says:
Friday, September 12, 2014 @10:54:00 AM

RJWMitchell: thanks for the tip! I'll try it.

Mary Schons: thank you. It's good to hear that people find these useful.

RJWMitchell Says:
Friday, September 12, 2014 @2:09:23 PM

it gives an Eflat, Amaj7, Bflat6, Cm, Fm2 or 9 [add 3], Gm & produces a slightly edgy quality that goes well with jazzy tunes, works well with Guitar and kjeyboard working with the 'straight' chords.

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