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Lesson 1b: Tuning Your Banjo

Edited by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise?

Editor's Note: Between 1999 and 2004, Mitchel "Mickey" Cochran posted an extensive collection of free musical instrument lessons on his web page. Sadly, we lost Mickey in 2011. After e-mailing surviving family members for permission to repost some of Mickey's most popular materials, we have begun restoring them to host on these pages. (Please see the Introduction page for more information on that effort.)

This page is Mickey's explanation of how to tune the 5-string banjo. - Paul Race

Lesson 1b: Tuning Your Banjo

By Mickey Cochran
You're now sitting comfortably with your banjo in your lap, and your picks are all properly fitted to your fingers. We're now ready to practice tuning our banjo. There are many approaches to tuning your banjo. We will break them down by advantage.

Standard G tuning for the banjo is:
1st String D--2nd String B--3rd String G--4th String D--5th String G

Here a Sound Sample of 5-String Open G Standard Tuning

Here's a diagram illustrating this tuning sequence with each string's note denoted along with the corresponding tuners:

1. Electronic Tuner: Consider buying an electronic tuner. This is by far the easiest way to get tuned and started. You can visually determine whether a string is out of tune by LCD readout or LED indicator...depending on the type of tuner you purchase. You'll also spare your family's ears by practicing in tune. Imagine how much more inspiring it is to learn to play when you're optimally tuned. On a banjo, since it's tuned to an open chord, you'll sound good from the start by utilizing an electronic tuner.

Note from Paul: Since Mickey wrote this part, "clip-on" tuners have become the rage. The advantage of these is that you can leave them on and tune between songs during your sets. The disadvantage of these is that they all take a little battery the size of a dime that might be hard to find if you need to replace it in a hurry.

Unfortunately, guitar tuners will not help you much. The middle three of the banjo's strings are typically tuned like guitar strings, but you're on your own for the two on the outside. Chromatic tuners sense and automatically show tuning information for every note (including Ab, etc.) So they can be more complicated to gets used to. Once you get close to the tuning you need, they are VERY helpful. But if you can get someone to help you get close the first time, that will be very helpful.

Click here to see a range of handy clip-on tuners on Amazon.

2. Pitch Pipe: These are fine, except when you're just starting out, you haven't had a chance to develop your ear enough to differentiate whether a string is sharp or flat from a reference note.

3. Guitar: If you already play guitar, you can simply match the 2nd, 3rd and 4th string to your banjo's 2nd, 3rd and 4th. From here, match your 1st string to the banjo's 2nd string fretted at the 3rd. You may now tune the 5th string by matching it to the 1st fretted at the 5th.

4. Tune it to itself: If you've had no background in music this would be next to impossible, and I'd highly recommend buying and electronic tuner. If you do have a background in music, simply start by having a reference pitch. For instance, if you have a reference for the D string (4th String) you're ready to start. After tuning the D string, fret the D string and the 5th fret to get a reference for your G string (3rd string). On the G string, fret the 4th fret to get a reference for tuning the 2nd string. From here, match your 1st string to the banjo's 2nd string fretted at the 3rd. You may now tune the 5th string by matching it to the 1st fretted at the 5th.

Upon tuning to any of the above methods, you may find that your banjo still doesn't sound right. A couple of things to consider would be:

1. Bridge Placement: if the bridge is not properly placed, the intonation will be out and it will be impossible to tune. To correct this, place a ruler from the nut to the 12th fret and measure it accurately. Now, using the same measurement, place the bridge the exact same distance from the 12th fret.

Note from Paul: Mickey knew there was more to it than this, but he didn't want to confuse people too much at first. Details on how to fine-tune bridge placement are provided in our article "Setting Up a Five-String Banjo." Scroll down to the heading "Fine-Tune the Bridge Placement".

2. Old Strings: if your strings are very old and rusty, you'll find it easier to tune once you've replaced them.

Copyright ?1999-2004 Mickey Cochran


Mickey's instructions are as valid today as when he wrote and recorded them years ago. Here's hoping that you find them just as helpful as his original followers did back when he was interacting on a daily basis with his them.

Please contact us if you're hitting any brick walls and we'll try to help you get therough them.

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

Paul Race

And when you're ready to move on, click here to go to the next part of this online lesson.

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All text and any illustrations and/or videos within the white box above are copyright 1999-2004 by Mitchell Cochran. All other materials, illustrations, and content on this web page, including the text reformatting and illustration restoration within the white box are copyrighted ? 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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