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Aug 26, 2021 - 10:46:21 AM
469 posts since 10/21/2009


Can a 17 fret, 5 string banjo be tuned to standard G bluegrass tuning by moving the bridge approx. 2 frets (the narrowest ones that would have been closer to the bridge if it was a 19 fret) closer to the tailpiece (or any other distance)?

With the same gauge of strings?

I’m thinking that wouldn’t produce looser or floppy strings.

But there may be ins and outs of this that don’t come to mind…

If it’s possible to get G tuning that way, or similar, would it be “successful” from a player’s perspective, meaning similar hand feel to a full size 5 string banjo?

Thank you,

Edited by - Texasbanjo on 08/26/2021 11:07:18

Aug 26, 2021 - 10:58:43 AM



28 posts since 2/18/2018

I believe your intonation would be totally messed up if you did that. Your 12th fret would no longer be in the middle of the scale. May not sound bad in the first position but will get progressively worse as you go up the neck.

Aug 26, 2021 - 11:07:22 AM

369 posts since 1/26/2020

You would go flat after the 3rd or 4th fret

Aug 26, 2021 - 11:07:52 AM

Texasbanjo (Moderator)


26561 posts since 8/3/2003

Sounds like a question to ask a luthier or one who tinkers with banjos, so I'm moving it to the building, setup an repair forum.

Aug 26, 2021 - 11:17:14 AM



469 posts since 10/21/2009

Maybe someone could walk us through this then… I only got as far as having the strings the same length as the 17 fret version…!

I guess I’m also not sure what a 17 fret, 5 string banjo is usually(?) tuned to, or if it must be tuned to something different than G tuning to play well…


Aug 26, 2021 - 11:24:49 AM
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1413 posts since 6/21/2008

Capos shorten the scale from the headstock end ... that results in proper intonation, because the rest of the fretboard winds up properly spaced. Trying to shorten the scale from the tailpiece end is going to distort your fret spacing. You'll be horribly out of tune.

Aug 26, 2021 - 11:32:18 AM

4000 posts since 5/29/2011

If it has a short neck with seventeen frets then it probably has a scale like a tenor banjo. It would normally be tuned to open C with regular gauge strings(five frets higher than standard G tuning). No matter what the scale length is the twelfth fret is the middle point. The distance from the twelfth fret to the bridge should be the same as the distance from the twelfth fret to the nut.

Aug 26, 2021 - 12:59:18 PM

104 posts since 3/24/2020

If you want lower tuning without floppy strings on a short scale all you need to do is increase the gauge of the strings. If anything the bridge will go slightly toward the tailpiece

Aug 26, 2021 - 5:26:14 PM

184 posts since 6/5/2006

What is the scale of the banjo? Whatever it is, you won't be able to move the bridge.
I've tried this with two 20 inch (C) scale banjos with little success even with heavy strings like "John Hartford's Low Banjo Set" (.012, .014, .020W, .024W, .012)
It helped to tune up from double C to double D (or in your case G to A).

Edited by - restreet on 08/26/2021 17:28:05

Aug 26, 2021 - 8:22:08 PM



469 posts since 10/21/2009

Yes, it’s a short neck, 5 string banjo; that’s what got me wondering about the tuning. And, again, the fact that it’s a 5 string, not a tenor.

I don’t own one, but it makes sense that the scale is the same as a 17 fret tenor, which (having looked it up on BHO) is “around 20 inches" by one person and 20-21.5” by another.

To get to G tuning with higher gauge strings on this banjo, 1) how high do they have to be? and 2) I assume there is a way to find that out, other than by trial and error?


Aug 27, 2021 - 3:59:43 AM

161 posts since 7/14/2017

Without much trial and error:

Measure the scale length on this banjo.

Find a normal scale banjo and measure that distance from the bridge - the closest fret is what your banjo would easily tune to with the same strings.

But you can go up or down one fret, though the tension will change a little.

Example - your measurements take you to fret 4, which would put your banjo in B. You can thus tune it to Bb, B or C. If the tension feels too high, use strings one gauge lighter.

Aug 27, 2021 - 5:49:46 AM

9103 posts since 8/28/2013

First things first: a 17 fret five string banjo does not necessarily mean it has a tenor banjo scale length. You need to measure the actual scale before you can even think about what strings and tunings you can use.

Scale length is determined by measuring the distance between the front edge of the nut and the twelfth fret, then doubling that measurement.

Aug 27, 2021 - 10:01:14 AM
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14038 posts since 6/29/2005

A normal 17 fret tenor banjo has a scale length of 20"-21.5", which would be like capoing a regular banjo at the 5th fret—a "C" banjo.

I see no way that this would work very well tuned down to G—if someone wanted to commission me to make something like this, I  would call it a "C" banjo, string it normally and tune it to C when I shipped it out.

To give you a graphic view of what this would be size-wise, here is an illustration

Deering used to make a 19 fret "parlor banjo" which they have discontinued, and McNella Instruments makes a 17 fret 5-string, which they call a "Bacon C banjo".

Edited by - Ken LeVan on 08/27/2021 10:06:33

Aug 27, 2021 - 10:19:33 AM

6577 posts since 9/21/2007

This discussion would make a lot more sense if the OP would say what banjo they have or post clear, and well lit photos. Include measurements of scale, length.

Aug 27, 2021 - 1:21:55 PM



469 posts since 10/21/2009

Well, it wasn’t easy to find, but the scale is 19.8” (Yikes!). Thanks for clarification, G. Edward, I kept searching and finally found it in a post “across the pond.”

Using profchris’s method (thank you!), it’s a C banjo, which is also confirmed by Ken LeVan’s excellent post (with awesome comparison pic!!) and restreet’s, both saying that it doesn’t really work tuning to G without, er, 5 pieces of telephone cable, which means it doesn’t work.

But my post is intended to be for small(er) banjos in general. For purposes of discussion, learning, and use the next time, let’s go with a C banjo example: Is there a formula or rule of thumb one can use to determine the string gauges (steel) or the gauge of one string, or a gauge range, that would be needed to tune a C banjo (that applies to an “X” banjo) in G tuning that would also produce approx. the same playing tension as the usual string tension on a “full size” banjo used in bluegrass?

(…Extremely useful discussion, thank you!)


Edited by - rockyjo on 08/27/2021 13:22:54

Aug 27, 2021 - 1:36:11 PM



469 posts since 10/21/2009

Also, from a different angle: Ken, on your comparison pic, what would your string gauges be for your first banjo (full size) and the short scale.. same or different? (For approx the same, or different-but-reasonable string tension).

And some people tune “A scale banjos” to G anyway with “medium gauge” strings.. what’s the narrowest next gauge of wire one can go on an A scale to tune it to G… any rule of thumb here?


Aug 27, 2021 - 6:09:05 PM

9103 posts since 8/28/2013

There are several online "string tension calculators" I suggest using one of those rather than any "rule of thumb." I believe one calculator is from D'Addario, one of the well-known string makers. There will be instructions on their use.

Aug 28, 2021 - 5:16:12 AM

14038 posts since 6/29/2005

Originally posted by rockyjo

Also, from a different angle: Ken, on your comparison pic, what would your string gauges be for your first banjo (full size) and the short scale.. same or different? (For approx the same, or different-but-reasonable string tension).

And some people tune “A scale banjos” to G anyway with “medium gauge” strings.. what’s the narrowest next gauge of wire one can go on an A scale to tune it to G… any rule of thumb here?


I use 10-12-14-22W-11 on regular scale banjos and use the same on the short scale one, but raise the string action a little bit, maybe upping the first string to an 11.

With A scales, I use the same strings but tune it to an A.  I have no idea what you would use if you were tuning it down to G- maybe 11-14-16-24W-11  or 11-14-18W-24W-11.  You would also need a higher string action.

As George says, there are string tension calculators out there. D'Addario used to have one called "String Tension Pro", where you would enter the scale length/vibrating string length, note to be tuned to, type of string (with a wide selection), and gauge, and it would tell you the tension of that string so you could design a set, but They took it down—I think it was "too good" and you could figure out string set gauges for other brands.  They say it's being rebuilt, but I doubt that.

Aug 28, 2021 - 7:11:14 AM

6577 posts since 9/21/2007

So, you are not going to tell us what the banjo is?

Why was the scale so hard to find? It is just nut to 12th fret x 2.

Aug 28, 2021 - 2:37:54 PM

3987 posts since 5/12/2010


He said in one post that he doesn't have the banjo he is only asking about it.


I haven't built any with that short of a scale, but I have built a number of 23" and a couple of 22" scale banjos, which I think is what most refer to as "A Scale" banjos. No problem tuning these to "G". I use medium gage strings on most of them but Diller always strings his up with light gage strings. He has no problem playing them tuned to "G", but I can't play one of his with the lighter strings unless I tune it to A.

I think one with a 20" scale would probably play and sound better tuned to C as Ken suggested, and probably wouldn't work so well tuned down to G.

Ken recently built a banjo lute for me with 23" scale. I have played it tuned to G, but can get a bit more out of it tuned to A.

Aug 28, 2021 - 3:36:12 PM

9103 posts since 8/28/2013

String tension is only part of the equation. To maintain a desired string tension when tuning down, the string gauge (diameter) must be increased. The increase, of course, depends on how low you tune from what is optimum for a given scale, and on the amount of "slackness" a player can put up with.

In this case, you are attempting to go down a fourth from what is probably best for a 20 inch scale, which will require strings that are quite a bit heavier than normal for C tuning. Such heavy strings are stiff and tend to sound terrible in short lengths, producing some miserable overtones and sometimes bad intonation.

Wound strings will help some on the lowest two notes, but I have doubts that even wound strings will produce a satisfactory tone. One other option might be silk and steel, or classical guitar strings, which are wound on a stranded core wich gives the string more flexibility under tension.

Personally, I'd forget about tuning to G, although I'd still, like Joel Hooks, like to know just waht this banjo is. Any advice given concerning a banjo that no one has seen is not usually the best advice. You have left out some valuable information, such as banjo make, when it was built (important for knowing what tension it was built to hold), how it's constructed, etc. The advice in this thread is good in general, but you may not have a "General" banjo, and if you don't, trouble might ensue.

Aug 29, 2021 - 7:17:06 AM



469 posts since 10/21/2009

Response to Joel’s questions..

‘Not trying to be mysterious, as Grand Pappy noted, your first question’s answer is the first 4 words, 2nd paragraph of my 3rd post: I don’t own it. They’re not made anymore, definitely not common, couldn’t ask the company for scale, so had to go searching online for specs. It’s not the littermate of someone famous(!), but Heck yea, I’m not going to post what it is, until if or when I decide I don’t want to buy it!! :)

And if I decide against it, all the info and comments are still very useful for knowing what I’m looking for, what’s possible, how to set it up, what the fretboard/string feel might be, and/or what to eliminate from consideration.

More background.. these post queries come up because I’d like to have a small banjo to practice rolls and clawhammer and whatever other right hand stuff on, AND be able to tune it standard G tuning so when I practice rolls my ear will be put in service too, connecting the right notes for the chords, that correspond to what I’d most often hear on my regular banjo. SO, it’s best if it would have approximately the same tension (or a little tougher is OK, to build hand strength for the right hand; I likely don’t need the exact tension number), steel strings, and shorter but some frets to play for the left hand on the neck (not a neckless practice pad).

You’re all correct, thank you, I’m not going to try to tune a C banjo down to G.

What about up? I’ve been reading about piccolo banjos..

Can a C scale banjo be tuned up an octave from standard G tuning (and playable, etc)? Put 9s on it?


Aug 29, 2021 - 8:09:57 AM

3126 posts since 2/18/2009

No, or not very well. This would result in broken strings, or what I call cheese slicer strings, very thin at very high tension and thus very unpleasant to play. I think to get a comfortable octave tuned banjo you'd want something in the 13-15" range, but that is just a guess.

Aug 29, 2021 - 8:21:53 AM

9103 posts since 8/28/2013

Going up, you'll still need to change the usual string gauges, making them smaller. Otherwise, the added tension of the higher tuning will break at least some of them. About the smallest diameter I've seen would be an .008, but tuning that high will still most likely break that string. Ditto a .009, which is a common size for a longer scale G-tuned banjo. (A tenor banjo A string is generally .009 or .010, and will break going up one step to B. You'd be asking one of those .009 strings to go up all the way to D without breaking.)

I think you are asking the impossible when trying to tune such a small scale either up or down to G, while trying to get it to feel similar to a regular banjo. It may seem do-able in your mind, but there are real-world physical limitations. You need to consider a longer scale, like 23 inches or maybe more.

Aug 29, 2021 - 9:22:35 AM

Alex Z


4556 posts since 12/7/2006

 "Is there a formula or rule of thumb one can use to determine the string gauges (steel) or the gauge of one string, or a gauge range, that would be needed to tune a C banjo (that applies to an “X” banjo) in G tuning that would also produce approx. the same playing tension as the usual string tension on a “full size” banjo used in bluegrass?"

Yes.  Here is how it works.

  -- The short banjo is 19.8" scale, the regular is, say, 26-3/8" scale.  The ratio of the two numbers is .751, or almost exactly 3/4.

  -- The ratio of the frequency of C down to the frequency of G is 4/3.  C is a perfect fourth higher than G.

  -- String tension for a solid string goes as the square of the diameter (assuming length of string and frequency are the same).

  -- String tension for the length of the string goes as the square of the length (assuming the diameter of the string and the frequency are the same).  This may not be obvious since we are used to fretting at the 12th fret (halfway) and having the frequency double (octave).  The situation is this:  double the length of the string, and the frequency is reduced by half  -- that's what we are used to.   Now, what does it take to get the frequency back to the original frequency at the longer length?  Answer, frequency doubles and so the tension must increase by 2^2 = 4, not just double the tension.

  -- String tension for the frequency of the string goes as the square of the frequency (assuming diameter and length stay the same).

  -- Therefore, to go from the long scale to the short scale with the same string, the frequency will increase by a factor of 4/3 -- that is, the G goes up to C, a fourth higher.  This assumes the tension and diameter stay the same.

  -- Now, you want to lower the frequency from C down to G, which means that the frequency will decrease by a factor of 3/4, and the tension will decrease by a factor of (3/4)^2.

  -- At the same time, you want the tension to stay the same as the original tension, which means that the tension has to increase by a factor of (4/3)^2, and consequently the diameter has to increase by the square root of that, i.e. by a factor of 4/3.

Conclusion:  Going from a standard scale to a C scale of 19.8" and keeping the same string tension means that the diameters of the strings must increase by a factor of 4/3.  For example, a 10,11,12, 20,10 should become (approx) 13, 15, 16, 26, 13.  

(Caution:  There are those who will say that the equations relating length, tension, and frequency don't work exactly for wound strings.  Two answers:  (1) there are 4 plain strings and 1 wound string on the banjo, and (2) the wound string will be close enough for purposes here.)

Advice:  The string tensions may end up the same, but the feel won't.  The strings will feel significantly stiffer because (a) they have larger diameters and so are in fact stiffer, and (b) the scale is shorter -- just as capoing up to C feels stiffer than playing in open G.

   My advice would be -- unless you have perfect pitch -- go for the feel, not the nominal tension and the G frequencies, if you are practicing rolls.  It would be better for your practicing goals to use a standard set of strings and simply tune up the shorter banjo to C -- same as if a longer banjo were capoed up to C.  Still not perfect, but a lot better than using heavier strings just to tune down the shorter banjo to hear G.

Hope I got everything down correctly here.  smiley

Aug 29, 2021 - 10:26:33 AM
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9103 posts since 8/28/2013

Formula, yes. "Rule of thumb" probably not, unless you have a thumb big enough to write the formula and those paragraphs of explanations on!  devil

I've done plenty of string tension calculations (though not recently) and can honestly say it's a real pain. It also doesn't always work out the way you want it to, even with the formulas. The stiffness factor tends to become a real issue not only with the feel, but also with the tone and the intonation. A too-stiff string tends to produce a very complex harmonic series that places too much emphasis on higher partials, making the string respond more like a steel bar than a string. There are also limits as to how much tension a string will hold, and the availability of certain sizes and types. 

I agree to a large extent with Alex's suggestion about going for feel instead of pitch (I still think a somewhat larger banjo might work for your purposes). Even though you may want to hear the same sound you would with a "G' tuning, it's less than likely you can achieve that goal. Maybe hearing a higher pitch might seem awkward at first, you should get used to it pretty quickly. His string gauge selections for tuning such a short scale down to G are probably about correct (I'd opt for an .018 wound rather than that .016 plain, though), but I can almost 100% guarantee they won't feel or sound like you hope they will, being too stiff.

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