Updated: May 7, 2020
Probably the most important (and least glamorous) part of playing the banjo is learning how to tune. It doesn’t matter how well you can play; if you’re out of tune, it’s not going to sound good.
Stringed instruments are always in a state of flux. Your banjo strings are held taught at a constant high tension. This tension will stretch the strings and cause the tuning machines to shift. There are other factors, too. Temperature and humidity changes are often responsible for your instrument’s ever-changing state.
The short story is this:
All stringed instruments need to be tuned regularly
Becoming skilled at the art of tuning is a foundational skill for banjo players
Beginning Your Banjo Tuning Journey
As beginners, most of us aren’t very skilled at tuning “by ear”. It takes a bit of time and experience to develop the ability to confidently identify and correct tuning issues as they arise. Remember that patience and persistence are all that you need in order to become an expert banjo tuner.
In the meantime, if you are close to someone (friend, family member, loved one, neighbor) that can tune your banjo for you, be sure to ask them for help when you need it.
It’s important to be familiar with all of your options as there are a few different ways to go about tuning a stringed instrument:
Relative Tuning – tuning to yourself
Reference Tuning – tuning to another instrument
Standardized Tuning – tuning with an electronic tuner*
*This is the method I recommend to get you started during the Beginner Clawhammer Video Series.
Tuning to Yourself
Relative tuning works just fine when you’re going to be playing or practicing on your own.
The idea is simple. You choose a string as a starting point (I always use the fourth string) and then you tune the rest of the strings in relation to that chosen string.
Here’s a step by step breakdown that shows you the details of this process:
Play the 5th fret on the 4th string.
Now play the open 3rd string.
Compare the two tones. The open 3rd string should sound the same as the 4th string fretted at the 5th fret.
If the notes sound the same, they are in tune and you can move on to the next string.
If the tones do not sound alike, then determine whether the open string’s pitch is “higher” or “lower” than the fretted note.
Use the 3rd string tuning peg to raise or lower the strings pitch until it matches the fretted 4th string note.
Once you’ve got the 3rd string tuned up you can start tuning the 2nd string.
The process is the same except this time you fret the 3rd string on the 4th fret. This note should sound the same as the open 2nd string.
If not, then make the necessary adjustments and then move on to repeat this process for the next two strings.
Keep repeating the process until all the strings have been tuned. The only thing that changes for each step is the fretted note. Here’s a breakdown:
4th string/5th fret = Open 3rd string
3rd string/4th fret = Open 2nd string
2nd string/3rd fret = Open 1st string
1st string/5th fret = Open 5th string
If that’s not completely clear to you, take a look at this diagram:
Tuning to Another Instrument
A second method is to tune to another instrument. This is a great way to get in tune with other musicians.
A common way to do this:
Ask a fellow musician to play you a D note.
Adjust your D (4th string) to match theirs.
Now tune the rest of your strings to your newly tuned 4th string using the Relative Tuning method.
Now you should be in tune not only with yourself, but with your fellow musician as well.
Tuning With the Aid of a Device
As I mentioned earlier, it takes a bit of time and practice for most people to become proficient at tuning a banjo. Luckily we have a variety of modern tools available that can make the process easier and more consistent.
Electronic tuners measure the frequency of a string’s vibration. They’re generally equipped with a meter that allows you to monitor whether a note is in tune.
Electronic tuners are readily available and relatively inexpensive. A decently reliable tuner can be had for as little as $15. You may even be able to download a tuner app on your smartphone for free!
Two Types of Tuners
Different tuners have different means of “hearing” your banjo. There are two types. Let me give you a brief explanation of each along with their advantages and disadvantages.
Microphone Style – This type of tuner hears your banjo through a small, on board microphone. The only disadvantage to microphone style tuners is that they don’t work well in noisy environments.
The microphone will not be able to discriminate between a banjo and other sounds in the room, like someone speaking or another instrument playing.
Contact Style – This type of tuner is attached to your instrument (usually by some sort of clip) and senses the vibration through contact. The big advantage to contact style tuners is that they aren’t as easily “confused” by ambient sounds and work well in louder playing situations.
*note: I recommend purchasing a contact style tuner because of the advantages I just mentioned. An affordable and generally reliable make/model is the: Intelli IMT500
If you’re not convinced that a “clip on” tuner is the way to go, then I would recommend you buy a:
This one has a built in microphone as well as the clip and you can toggle back and forth between the two functions via a switch on the side.
*note: Make sure to buy a chromatic tuner. A chromatic tuner can read any note and tune any instrument.
How Do I Tune Using my Electronic Tuner?
Tuning with an electronic tuner is a pretty straightforward process:
If you’re using a contact style tuner, clip it to your instrument’s headstock. If you’re using a microphone style device, place it near your instrument.
Pluck a string.
The tuner should respond by telling you what note is being played and whether it’s “higher” or “lower” than it needs to be.
While watching your tuner’s meter, adjust the string tension until you’ve successfully tuned the string.
*note: If you still need more guidance concerning electronic tuners or the other two tuning methods, watch my video: