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How to tune a 5 string banjo 

Here are the notes for each banjo string. Note that the short string on the top of the neck is the 5th string. The first string is the one on the bottom as you are holding the banjo in your lap.

1st string = D
2nd string = B
3rd string = G
4th string = D
5th string = G

You will see that two pairs of strings are the same note, G or D. These are actually tuned an octave apart (see the Basic Music Theory Page if you don't know what an "octave" is). The three notes; G, B, and D make up a G chord. This means that if you are in tune, if you strum across all five strings you will get a nice sounding chord.

The first thing that anyone playing an intrument with strings needs to know is how to tune it. The banjo is no exception (even if some people think it isn't possible). There are two things to know about tuning:

1. How to tune to a standard pitch.
2. How to tune the banjo to itself.

Tuning to a standard pitch

In order to tune to a standard pitch you have to have a standard pitch to tune do. In the "good old days" we used to tune to pitch pipes, tuning forks, or by accident. These days things are much simpler. There are many electronic tuners available in all price ranges. Generally the more expensive ones are a little easier to use since they track the note being played a bit faster and smoother. For the average player this doesn't mean a great deal.

All tuners tell you how close you are to the correct pitch either with a meter with a needle that moves, an LCD screen with arrows to tell you if you are too high or low, or a series of colored lights that indicate the note and other colored lights for high or low. You pluck the string being tuned gently and watch the meters, LCDs, or lights until they indicate that you are on the correct note and are neither high or low. Do this for each string.

Most tuners either use a microphone or a contact pickup to listen to the string you are playing. With a microphone you need to put the tuner very close to the banjo. For beginners at home this is no problem. You set the tuner on a table or other surface that is easy to play the banjo in front of. The problem comes if you someplace with a lot of noise. The microphone may not pickup the banjo correctly.

The other type of tuner uses a contact pickup that uses vibrations to read the strings. This means they work anywhere regardless of nearby noise. A good example of this is the Intellitouch tuner by OnBoard Research Corporation. These clamp on the the peghead of the banjo and can be left there while you are playing. Many pros use these on stage because it makes it easy to tune between numbers while still on stage. Prices for this type on tuner are in the mid range of prices.

I should also mention an add-on for most tuners that use microphones. You can buy clips that attach to the banjo on one end and a plug to connect the other end to the tuner. Several of these are available and should work on any tuner that has a jack normally used for plugging in electric instruments. Most if not all tuners have these. You clip the banjo end to the bridge or some other part of the banjo. Now the tuner works using the vibrations of the banjo rather than sound to tune by so you can get in tune almost anywhere.

Tuning the banjo to itself

One problem with using electronic tuners is that by tuning each string separately, if each is a little off (which frequently happens) all of the strings are not in tune with each other. Also, you may not care if the banjo if perfectly in tune with a standard pitch, but want the instrument to sound good anyway. Here is how to tune the banjo to itself.

We start by picking one string to tune the other strings to. It's very important not to retune this string along the way since it's our point of reference. We will then fret the next string at the fret where it should be the same as the our reference string. We continue this process until all strings are tuned.

To the left you'll see a diagram showing which frets are matched with which string. Here is an explanation:

The 4th string played at the 5th fret should be the same note as the open (or unfretted) 3rd string.
The 3th string played at the 4th fret should be the same note as the open 2nd string.
The 2th string played at the 3th fret should be the same note as the open 1st string.
The 1st string played at the 5th fret should be the same note as the open 5th string.

Be sure to start from the same place and tune all strings in order. You don't want to retune strings you've already tuned since this will through everything off. I usually start on the 4th string, but often start on the first string. It doesn't matter which you chose.

You can also use this method to tune to another instrument that may or may not be tuned to a standard pitch. Tune one string by ear and then tune the rest of the string to it. Also, it's a good way to check if a particular string has gone out of tune. Just match it up with the string it should be tuned to.

I hope this page helps you tune your banjo. It's a lot more fun to play in tune because everything sounds better. It takes a while to train your ears to hearing strings that are in tune and if they aren't whether they are high or low. Just keep trying and you will be happy!

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