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Chord Shapes for Alternate Tunings

Posted by redbear on Saturday, May 9, 2015

Do you know and understand your chord shapes across a variety of common banjo tunings


Most clawhammer banjoists know their basic chord shapes in the standard tuning of open G (gDGBD) but, for many players, when they migrate to alternate tunings (sawmill, double C, open D, etc.), there tends to be a disconnect.

In my mind, a thorough understanding of chords (how they're built and how they function) is a supremely essential part of any fully-functioning musician's trick bag. Banjoists being no exception. So, I make it a point to teach my private and my online students the ins and outs of chord construction and function.

For instance, in my 30 Days to Better Banjo course, participants learn "what makes a chord a chord" so that they can figure out chords shapes on their any tuning...on any fretted, stringed instrument. You can probably imagine how this ability can increase one's musicality and add enjoyment to the learning process, too.

For example

If you're in the double C tuning (gCGCD) and you need to know how to play a B minor chord, you can simply use your chord theory knowledge to figure out the notes of a B minor chord and to locate those notes on your fretboard. No need to consult a chord book or go searching online when you've got the foundational knowledge right there in your head!

The other side of the coin

That being said, many banjo players (and players of folk instruments in general) get along pretty well without delving into these theoretical aspects of music. To folks of this ilk, practical knowledge takes precedent over theoretical knowledge.

So which approach is best?

In my opinion, both approaches to learning music (the theoretical AND the practical) are equally beneficial and the most well-rounded musicians constantly travel back and forth between the two camps.


For a slightly more in depth look at practical vs theoretical modes of musical learning, check out this Play Better Banjo article: SOME THOUGHTS ON MUSIC THEORY, ALGEBRA, LIGHT BULBS, CARS AND LEARNING TO PLAY THE BANJO  

Chord Shapes for Alternate Tunings 

Some practical resources

Below is a collection of helpful chord charts each demonstrating a handful of common chord shapes in a variety of commonly used tunings:

Open G Tuning - 21 Essential Chords

Open C Tuning - Common Chord & Movable Shapes

Double C Tuning - A Handful of Useful Chord Shapes

G Modal Tuning - 12 Useful Chord Shapes

If and when you find yourself needing to know how to play a particular chord in a particular tuning, just reference these charts to find the info you need.

Some theoretical resources

For a deeper, theoretical understanding of chord provenance and function, I recommend you make an effort to learn some basic music theory.

As I alluded to earlier, music theory and its application to the clawhammer banjo is covered extensively as part of the 30 Days to Better Banjo course.  You can also gain a wealth of music theory information by seeking out books on the subject, searching online, or asking your personal music teacher (if you have one).


I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments just send me an email:  

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