The Great Banjo Tuning Shift - C to G

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The Great Banjo Tuning Shift

Between 1865 and 1965, the most popular banjo tuning was what some folks call "C tuning," with the fourth (fattest) string on the banjo tuned to a C. (Banjo players call this gCGBD tuning, with the lower case "g" representing the fifth string.) In this tuning, it was easy to play in either the key of C or G. This was the tuning most widely adopted by the "Folk Revival" that was kindled by the Weavers and their banjo-playing leader Pete Seeger. Folk revival groups that used the banjo prominently, like the Kingston Trio and the Limelighters, were more likely to use C tuning than G tuning, in part because it was more traditional, and in part because it was more flexible.

Also, if you were jamming with a folk guitarist who favored songs in the key of D, you could keep all your best "licks" by slapping a capo on the second fret and tuning your fifth string up a whole step (from G to A). (You can play the 5-string banjo in the key of D with a aDGBD tuning - I often do - but you can't use the same licks that you use in C).

That said, there were a dozen "alternate tunings," some of which were virtually required to play certain tunes. The most popular was "open G tuning," with the fourth string tuned to D (also known as gDGBD tuning.) This was handy for certain songs and certain kinds of picking, but made it very difficult to play in C. So most banjo players either used it intermittently or went back and forth between the two tunings, as well as their other favorites. In fact, nearly every banjo player I knew back in the 1960s changed tunings constantly during concerts - this was before digital tuners, so we developed an "ear," and learned to retune in the second or between songs.

C was the "default," but we also learned how to switch tunings as fast as we switched keys. A banjo player who insisted on playing in only one tuning or had to stop the momentum of the concert whenever he tuned would be off the platform in a hurry.

But by 1965, all of that was becoming irrelevant - at least as far as folks wanting to get songs on the radio were concerned.

Why did I pick 1965? By then, the Folk Revival had peaked, the Hootenanny show had just tanked, and British Invasion was in full swing. In the prophetic words of Danny and the Juniors (1958), rock and roll was here to stay. Young musicians stopped idolizing acts like Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio and began idolizing the likes of John, Paul, George, Mick, and Keith. The banjo, which had been nearly as popular as the guitar only a few years earlier, began gathering dust. Its place in the bedrooms of wannabees across the nation was usurped by the electric guitar and what Frank Zappa later described as "a cheesy little amp called a Fender Champ."

Yet the banjo did not go gently into that dark night. Instead, it took on new life through the picking styles of folks like Earl Scruggs, who had added his distinctive sound to Bill Monroe's "Bluegrass Boys" in 1945. Soon Scruggs' "three-finger-picking" style became synonymous with "Bluegrass banjo."

The Bluegrass genre (which took its name from Monroe's band) was initially known only to Grand Ol' Opry fans and their ilk. But by the early 1960s, Bluegrass music was creeping into public consciousness through the Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) and the Darling family's appearances on the Andy Griffith Show (starting in 1963). In 1967, the movie Bonnie and Clyde would make "Flatt and Scruggs" a "household name." But "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," the theme song of that movie, was played in G, in open G tuning, as was nearly every other Bluegrass banjo solo to become popular in that era. Frankly, it was just easier to play those machine-gun parts in that tuning, and if the banjo was the "star," the banjo player could choose the key of the song.

Very few of us "old-timers" were alarmed by this development. We added that picking style to our arsenal and kept going. As for the tuning, we were used to retuning one or two strings between songs anyway, so it was no big deal.

Pete Seeger, whose name had been synonymous with "banjo" only a few years earlier, even learned Scruggs' style well enough to document how to play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" in his seminal book "How To Play The 5-String Banjo" (a book that modern wannabees criticize for not focusing on Scruggs style).

But for newbies who had never sung, say, "If I Had A Hammer," G tuning became the default. In fact, some wannabees get upset when they realize that a book they bought has exercises and tunes that require C tuning.

To me, it seems reasonable for students of an instrument that's been popular in this country for nearly two centuries to be exposed to the playing styles that dominated most of the instrument's history. In fact, the revival of "frailing" and "clawhammer" banjo styles have prompted the revival of several alternate tunings, albeit tunings that most banjo players before 1965 were quite familiar with.

For me, I have to confess that, while I "cut my teeth" on C tuning, I use other tunings most of the time these days. But if I want to learn new things, I have to try new things. I guess part of it is deciding whether you want to be a banjo player or a musician. Many folks are both, but not all. The difference is that musicians value both creativity and skill - they may "rule" their musical niche, but they're also willing to think "outside the box."

Conclusion

If you play guitar and encounter a tab that specifies "Dropped D" tuning (DADGBE, counting from your chin down), you can either learn the song that way, figure out a workaround, or move on to the next song. The same goes for all alternate tunings on all fretted instruments. If you don't like retuning your instrument between songs, admit it. If your overall musicianship is sufficient, nobody will question your integrity or ability.

Though I can play a number of styles on a number of instruments, I also know my limitations, and have come to the realization that some things are just beyond me. Or - maybe it sounds better to say that my time would be better spent acquiring other skills that I'd be more likely to use.

Of course, if you want to criticize my musicianship, go for it. You won't be the first, and you won't be the last.

Let me know if you have any questions, corrections, or additions. Or join our discussion forums and post your input there.

Best of luck, all, enjoy your music, and support the arts.

Paul Race



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