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I've started to dislike the fifth string

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Mar 28, 2020 - 1:15:15 AM



7 posts since 8/6/2016

So, as the topic says, I have recently started to dislike the fifth string.

Don't get me wrong though: As soon as I touch it, it feels like magic - the whole world of awesome Scruggs licks and rolls opens up, my playing sounds great (although perhaps only to my own ears.. ;). - It's a beautiful feeling!

The thing that makes me so frustrated, and this is essentially true for all open strings, is that all those awesome stuff are only available in one single key - unless I retune parts of the banjo, or put on a capo and lose parts of the bass spectum. My goal is to become a good musician and backup player (pop/country), and each song are in a different key: F#, D, G, A... well, you know the deal..

I've considered adding more spikes to the fifth string, but I still feel that each spike (and tuning) generates "a new instrument", since the relative intervals to the other strings change. In other words: I need to learn/invent a new set of different sounding licks/rolls for each spike.

I've also been experimenting a lot with finding licks and rolls that don't use open strings at all, so I can just move them whenever the key changes. It's challenging and fun, but I sure miss the euphoria of hitting open strings and get that full resonating banjo sound. When avoiding open strings, I often feel I need to add rhytmic "stops" such as quarter note chops/slides in order to transition smoothly to distant chords/frets. If I had the open fifth string, I could just hit it and let the flow of notes continue.

Hah, sorry for venting in such a long post. What are your experiences? Do you have any tips, practicing strategies or maybe a personal story to share? :)

Edited by - 3-pick on 03/28/2020 02:59:46

Mar 28, 2020 - 4:01:56 AM



115 posts since 4/14/2014

I wouldn't say it is limited to one key. The fifth string, tuned to G is good for the key of g and the key of c where the fifth string is well... tuned a fifth from the key.

I do know how you feel at times. There are certain keys which make the 5th string a landmine, and constant tuning and capoing is unreal drag.

But then consider this - most traditional music is limited to a couple keys. Polka? Most songs are in f or c. Celtic music favours g and d. Scandinavian fiddle  tunes seem to be mostly in c, f, or bflat. Old-time gravitates to d and a. PF COURSE there are exceptions to that within those traditions but they are in the minority.

Think of how many keys do you actually play in. If you have a spike at the 7th and 9th, then the keys of of c, g, a, b, d, & e should all be accessible. That's half of the available tonal centres in our western music tuning system.

What about a less often encountered key like f#? Just transpose it to g. If you're playing bluegrass, then most the other instruments will find that key more accessible as well.

Edited by - Tweelo on 03/28/2020 04:15:16

Mar 28, 2020 - 5:12:33 AM
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529 posts since 8/14/2018

It seems like you have already hit on most of the ways to play in different keys—retuning, the capo, and movable scale and chord patterns.

You might look to the old tutor books of the 'classic' period that address this, or more modern books such as Pat Cloud's Jazz book, that goes through useful patterns/

You might also like to try a plectrum banjo—no fifth string.

Edited by - MacCruiskeen on 03/28/2020 05:16:44

Mar 28, 2020 - 5:39:08 AM
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3337 posts since 7/12/2006
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Sounds like you should study Don Reno style

Mar 28, 2020 - 7:27:09 AM
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3396 posts since 3/28/2008
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Maybe you need to expand your concept of what the fifth string is capable of. It need not be limited to the root or the 5 of the key you're in. It could be a 3, or even a flat 3 (for example, if you're playing a bluesy tune in E without capoing). It can sound great as a 2 (for example, playing in F without capoing). But along with that, you may have to get more accustomed to bringing your thumb down to the long strings more for certain common RH patterns.

Mar 28, 2020 - 8:00:27 AM

247 posts since 9/29/2008

I was at a jam number of years back and Noam Pikelny was there too. Super modest guy, didn't blow everyone away on his breaks as he obviously could have, just picked along and stayed within the sort of level of the jam which was good but nowhere near his level. seemed he did not spike or tune his 5th string the entire time and didn't even have a capo with him. Played in all kinds of keys without even the slightest hesitation.

Mar 28, 2020 - 8:22:27 AM
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316 posts since 5/29/2015

Edited by - Banner Blue on 03/28/2020 08:23:31

Mar 28, 2020 - 11:25:59 AM
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7816 posts since 8/20/2016

You can play in more keys than just G and C with the 5th tuned to g. Tunes/Songs in G, C, D, Eb, Bb, F can sound great with an open 5th string. You can play in all keys if you strategically avoid the 5th string, or learn to fret it when playing up the neck. You have to spend time figuring out how to make it work and know when to play the string and when to avoid it. Spiking can help you a lot. So then apply what you learn from the keys that sound good to spiking up to A and B, you will find even more keys that sound great. If you get a sliding 5th string capo, there will be even more possibilities, but people with tiny hands don't like them too much. Strum Hollow 5th string capo looks good too, but I haven't tried it yet.

Also, I disagree that spiking up creates a new instrument. Because all the notes are in the same place, you simply won't have access to any that are lower in pitch than your spike - same goes for capoing the other 4 strings...all the notes are in the same place except the ones lower than the capo, and you have other places to find most of those notes. There's no shame in using a capo. 5-string banjos sound best when you use the proper tools for the job. Open string licks sound great and give you that 5-string banjo sound. You'd do better to switch to plectrum or tenor if you don't care about the sound generated by the 5th string in your picking. Playing a 5-string like a 4-string banjo or like a guitar can sound really good or really bad. Pick your poison. 

Mar 28, 2020 - 4:57:59 PM
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4119 posts since 6/15/2005

I second what Mike says, but in addition to fretting or avoiding the open fifth string when you play in keys other than G or C, you can use that fifth string G note as a melody note. I play a number of fiddle tunes in the key of D out of open G tuning, with no retuning, no capo, no spiking. Among them are Arkansas Traveler, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Over the Waterfall, Liberty, Eighth of January, Snowflake Reel. And in the key of E played out of open G, the slight discord of an unspiked fifth string can be really effective.

Edited by - arnie fleischer on 03/28/2020 16:58:29

Mar 31, 2020 - 1:00:54 PM



7 posts since 8/6/2016

Wow, thanks so much for the replies and the advices!


>> Also, I disagree that spiking up creates a new instrument. Because all the notes are in the same place, ...

Of course all the notes are still there. But since 99 % of my favorite rolls use the open fifth string, they will sound differently if I spike the fifth without also capoing the other strings. So much to learn! :)


@Tweelo @Ira Gitlin @arnie fleischer

Your posts were an eye-opener to me, I have never considered the thought of using the open fifth string as a melody note, or as a 2. So many possibilities! (I just recently discovered the world of "coloring notes" such as Fadd9 on the piano, but hadn't realized that the concept can also be applied on the banjo).

Do you have any advice on how to practice for other keys (i.e. using the fifth string as a melody note or a 2, or 3, or 5 etc.). Would you practice scales or chords, or try to invent special licks for different combinations of keys? (currently I'm mostly interested in backup and not soloing). Any advice would be very appreciated.

Mar 31, 2020 - 6:40:03 PM

307 posts since 5/1/2007

You don't have to use a capo to play in other keys, you could just learn the little bit of music theory that would enable you to do that.

Apr 1, 2020 - 9:10:50 AM

4119 posts since 6/15/2005

There's a discussion in another current thread about using movable chord positions to play in keys other than G without a capo. That approach enables you to play in pretty much any key using standard Scruggs-style licks. But you can also use such full or partial chord positions as a framework for playing more melodically oriented arrangements. The key is to find where the melody notes fall within those movable chord formations anywhere on the neck and then to decide where you want to play them.

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