In my view there are several advantages in playing the 5-string banjo in open “D tuning.
Specifically, tuned - a D F# A D. As an option, the 5th string can be tuned down to “F#” instead of up to an “A” but more on that later.
To begin with, in “D” tuning, you don’t have to keep your left hand anchored as when playing in “G” tuning and capoed up two frets and using “C” chord forms. In “D” the left hand is free to work its magic with slides, pull-offs, hammering, chokes, etc. And with some experimenting, the player can develop a number of cool licks in open “D” and learn the “D”, “G” and “A” scales with out too much difficulty.
Due to age, my Bluegrass days are pretty much behind me and I now play in Contradance Bands in which the fiddle is the dominant instrument. As many, if not most, Fiddle Tunes are in the key of “D” the 5-string in “D” tuning is perfectly setup to accompany the fiddle and the rest of the lead instruments. Moreover, in “D” tuning, the player is not invading the fiddle’s tonal space but for the most part, playing an octave below it. Hence, a nice supportive role and really cool sound.
Additionally, a banjo fitted with “D” tuners can quickly change from “G” to “D” tuning and fitted with a spikes or a 5th string capo, you can pretty much support the fiddlers in any key they chose … e.g. commonly, “D” “E” “F” and “G” “A” “Bb” “C”, etc, etc. However, for fiddle tunes in “C”, I prefer to use “G” tuning with the 4th string dropped down to “C” thereby keeping out of the lead instruments tonal space.
A note about tuning the 5th string to “A” instead of an “F#”:
If you think about it, the “A” is not only the perfect 5th of the D chord (DF#A) but the root note of the “A” chord ”(AC#E) so, except for the G chord, it “fits” nicely into to of the three principle chords in the key of “D”. And in “D” tuning the “A7th” as played in the 1st position, becomes (aEGAE). That said, however, tuning the 5th string down a half tone to an F# provides a nice “Modal” / Appalachian sound. For example: "Darling Corey" and "Mole in The Ground"
Chord positions in open ”D” tuning are not really much of a problem as the root, third and 5th of the chords in “G” tuning have simply been moved over one string toward the low D string (e.g., toward your chin). Therefore, what works in “G” tuning just needs to be shifted over toward your chin one string and bingo, you’ve got it! The chord form needs to be adjusted for the left hand but for the most part that is relatively easy also.
For example, considering the four principle chords in “G” tuning: I, IV, V, VI (G, C, D7, Em) become respectively, (D, G, A7, Bm) in “D” tuning. This “string or paradigm shift” applies to all major, minor, augmented, diminished and 7th chords. This scheme also works equally well for mid-neck chords. Of course, the fret position is the same for the two outside D strings - unless one of them is used to make the chord a 7th, minor, etc.
Sooooooo, give this open “D” tuning a test drive and enjoy the really cool results.
Dave Cousineau5 comments
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