While the banjo has often been associated with movies and television that caused some disrespect, it’s a new age of banjo respect thanks to Bela Fleck, Tony Trishka, Adam Hurt, Paul Brown, Rhiannon Giddens, Evie Laden and countless other players both famous and not, who have driven the sound of the five-string banjo into genres and places an old timer couldn’t have imagined a hundred years ago. Each of these players, and their banjo buddies, have drawn their sounds out of what started as a gourd drum with a neck on it and 2-4 or 5 strings.
Jump forward and there’s banjo everywhere – both bluegrass and old time styles. First, what’s the difference? In bluegrass, the player uses a thumbpick and fingerpicks on the index and middle finger. The sound is crackling, bright, often loud and can be driving. Think Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Ralph Stanley in earlier generations. Old time styles include fingerpicking of a less regimented type and often less drive as well as “clawhammer” otherwise known as frailing, rapping or even knocking. Think Grandpa Jones, Tommy Jarrell, Lily Mae Ledford and sometimes Pete & Mike Seeger.
That gourd became a flour sifter with a skin stretched over it, and eventually, a manufactured instrument with options of various tone rings and setups that make for the wide variety of tones that various banjos get. Gut strings, nylon strings and steel strings provide more variety.
But one of the coolest and most magical parts of banjo playing are the 75+ different tunings people use for those 5 strings. The video that accompanies this article will demonstrate a few of these.
All tunings will be described from 5th string (the short drone string, closest to your chin) to 1st string, closest to the floor.
Open G tuning is the most common, GDGBD. This is the primary tuning for bluegrass players and the tuning where most old time players get started.
G MODAL – GDGCD
You can create some haunting sounds with modal tunings such as the G modal. It is beautiful both for songs and for instrumentals.
G – CUMBERLAND GAP TUNING GEADE
I don’t know an official name for this tuning and lots of players name them after a tune they play often in that tuning. This tuning offers different fingerings, sounds and also works beautifully in Em.
SINGLE C TUNING –
Pete Seeger used this more often than other tunings, though he created the long neck five string banjo so he could be in the key of E or F, with the strings tuned to those chords. It’s excellent for song accompaniment and folk tunes, but has a little less drive than other tunings.
DOUBLE C TUNING – GCGCD
Commonly used for fiddle tunes in C and in D (with capo), there is a lot of drive in double C tuning and easy access to notes in fiddle tunes.
D – I only play 3 songs in this tuning-again, some banjo music is specialized like that. But those 3 songs are MADE by the tuning.
Sometimes I simply tune all of the strings down to access a lower tone from the banjo. Sometimes I make up new tunings for a sound I am searching for. The sky’s the limit.
Have a look/listen to the video samples of these sounds.