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Sep 26, 2020 - 5:03:48 AM
22 posts since 9/20/2020

Hello, Newbie to banjos here!
I’ve seen and heard several posts about tuning the strings to different notes. This has me a bit perplexed. It seems to me that you would have to learn all new chords, or is this for picking and strumming only? Do the chords stay the same, and now you’re playing a different key? Are tabs written for different tuning, and is it noted on the score? I’m waiting on some smaller/lighter strings I’ve ordered, and I’m just busy reading trying to learn ‘banjo stuff’ before hiring a teacher. Many moons ago I took years and years of organ & piano lessons, and the idea of various tuning vs using different frets is something I would love to have explained to me. Also, would you change the tension on the hide when you change the tuning of the strings?

Sep 26, 2020 - 5:43:02 AM
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3897 posts since 3/11/2004

Ruthi, old-time banjo uses different tuning for several reasons. One is to create more open strings to facilitate the left-hand fingering. Open-G (gDGBD) starts out with an open G chord (g-b-d). Two other common tunings are sawmill (gDGCD) and double-C (gCGCD). Sawmill is a modal tuning where the  B note is seldom used, and a C note is used instead. So the tuning adapts to avoid having to finger the C note on the 2nd string. Double-C tuning drops the 4th string from D to C to give it that low C note which quite useful. There are different chords for each tuning, but they are pretty easy, as a rule, due to the added open strings. 

Bluegrass (Scruggs) players don't use as many tunings because they used quite a few closed, or 4-finger, chords up and down the neck. Ken perlman does this as well in his melodic clawhammer playing.

Most clawhammer players start out in open-G to learn the basic skills and add tuning when they want to learn new tunes or play with others in other keys. You definitely do not need to deal with other tunings as the beginning of your journey.


Sep 26, 2020 - 5:48:11 AM
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1089 posts since 1/15/2009

Ruthi, Welcome to the world of Banjo.

Different tunings are used for many different reasons. Some tunings provide a Modal sound, while other tunings allow for more open strings or better access to the notes in certain keys. Yes, when you retune, the chord shapes change too. A 'G' chord, for example, will always have the same three notes, GB&D, but where you find those notes on the fretboard does change with each tuning.

The tuning will be noted somewhere on a Banjo Tab (but not on a standard musical score) and may also have a note where to place your capo. Double C tuning is often used in old-time fiddle tunes, but you need to capo at the second fret to match the key of D where fiddles play that tune.

With a common set of strings, most common tuning are are possible and no, you shouldn't have to change the tension on the banjo head.

There was a discussion just a few days ago about basic clawhammer books. I have my favorite, but all of the books mentioned will give you good explanations and help you understand the different tunings commonly used.

Good luck, and have fun!

Sep 27, 2020 - 5:49:57 AM



22 posts since 9/20/2020

Thank you for answering! These answers help, and I will try and find the thread on books!

Sep 28, 2020 - 1:21:38 AM
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583 posts since 7/4/2017

Do some research on 'bum ditty vs bum pa ditty' to help you decide which book to choose. There are 2 completely different methods of learning clawhammer banjo.

Oct 8, 2020 - 5:54:57 AM

8133 posts since 3/17/2005

As you learn to play Old Time banjo, whether clawhammer or one of the several finger picking styles, you'll discover that you rarely need or want to form a whole chord with your left hand. For the most part, you'll be fretting one or maybe two strings at a time. Seldom three or four.

Oct 8, 2020 - 7:56:28 AM

211 posts since 4/10/2018

You generally don’t need to change the tension on your hide or Mylar head. However, depending on the weather or travel, it is necessary to either tighten or loosen the tension. If you have a skin head, it can break. Also, some players like a looser or tighter head for tonal reasons. The banjo is a source for infinite exploration.

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