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Tunings

The tunes transcribed in this collection use one of six different banjo tunings. Each of the links below opens a Tabledit file which provides musical information about each tuning. First, the tablature and MIDI playback provide the simplest string by string tuning formula for the tuning. This is followed by a two octave scale for the base key of the tuning. A separate scale is provided for each of the common modes the tuning is best suited to. This is followed by closed position fingerings for various inversions of the most commonly used chords. Finally, a simple melodic exercise is provided for each of the tunings, using basically the same simple scale pattern from tuning to tuning. You can also click on the link to the Tabledit tablature file for an example, or link to an MP3 audio file of my playing the particular setting.

 

Open G Tuning: gDGBD

Open G Tuning need no introduction, it is certainly the standard bluegrass tuning, used by many pickers almost exclusively, for all keys. I use it for many of the old tunes which are customarily in G or A, such as Bill Cheatum, Old Joe Clark, and Cripple Creek, but not nearly as often as most three finger players. When I am picking an old-time tune which is typically fiddled in the key of A, I generally use my short scale Paramount, and tune the banjo a whole tone high, to open A. In that case, the tuning is aEAC#E.

Open G Tuning Tabledit File

Try Old Joe Clark, in Open G Tuning
Listen to the Old Joe Clark MP3 File

 

Open D Tuning: aDF#AD

Open D Tuning, sometimes called Graveyard Tuning, is used for most of the tunes in this collection. There are two reasons: first, the key of D is probably the most common in old-time music, in terms of standard fiddle tunes, anyway. Ssecond, it generally works much better for the various techniques found in these arrangements, including the use of bass drones and substitution notes, etc. Though tuned to a major chord, it has a more haunting sound than other open tunings. I generally tune the 5th string to A, rather than F#, the more common melodic style practice.

Open D Tuning Tabledit File
Try Angeline the Baker, in Open D Tuning
Listen to the Angeline the Baker MP3 File

G Variant Tuning: gDGAD

In recent years, I've experimented with this variant of Open G Tuning, which drops the second string down to A. This allows a critical interval, between the second and third note of the G scale, to be obtained by hammering an open note. In reverse, the third to second interval can be obtained by pulling off, or through a simple melodic phrase. In a sense, it works for tunes in the key of G much the way Double C works for tunes in the key of C. An interesting aspect of this tuning is that it can be used to play tunes in the major key, such as Leather Britches, Sail Away Ladies, and Golden Slippers, but it also works well in either Mixolydian or Dorian modes, for such tunes as Texas, Frosty Morning, and Betsy Likens. Like standard Open G, I sometimes tune this up a whole tone, to aEABE.

G Variant Tuning Tabledit File
Try June Apple, in G Variant Tuning
Listen to the June Apple MP3 File

 

Double C Tuning: gCGCD

Double C Tuning is one of the most commonly employed tunings among clawhammer pickers, often capoed or tuned up a whole step to play the huge repertoire of tunes in the key of D. I use it less often, basically for tunes traditionally played in C, such as Wildwood Flower, or Billy in the Lowground, in this collection. It is basically a variant of standard C Tuning, with the second string raised from B to C, the tonic note.

Double C Tuning Tabledit File
Try Wildwood Flower in Double C Tuning
Listen to the Wildwood Flower MP3 File

 

G Modal Tuning: gDGCD

This tuning is sometimes called Sawmill tuning, presumably because a tune by that name was played using it. It is used by old time clawhammer players for g modal tunes, and sometimes to play in the key of F. A variant of Open G, with the second string raised to the C, this tuning rings out with the fourth interval instead of the third. This results in a distinctive almost medievil tonality, which you don't obtain with G Minor tuning (GDGBbD).

G Modal Tuning Tabledit File
Try Red Haired Boy in Sawmill Tuning
Listen to the Red Haired Boy MP3 File

 

D Modal Tuning: aDGAD

This is a D tuning version of G modal, or sawmill tuning, in that the string tuned normally to the third note of the scale is tuned to the fourth. Early medievil experiments with polypany emphasized fourths and fifths rather than thirds, and this tendency is manifest in these tunings, providing this very rudimentary harmonic background to the tune. For this reason, and because I emphasize melodic phrasing less than I used to, a generally use this tuning rather than D Minor (ADFAD).

D Modal Tuning Tabledit File
Try Sally in the Garden, in D Modal Tuning
Listen to the Child Grove/Sally in the Garden MP3 File

 
There are two very different points of view in the five-string banjo world, regarding the use of multiple banjo tunings. At one extreme, there are the old time banjo pickers who employ dozens of different tunings for the banjo, often having specific tunings that they use for just one song. Anita Kermode has identified and listed 124 different tunings on the website for the Banjo-L list group.

On the other side are the bluegrass pickers who will only play out of open G tuning and nothing else. The true zealots at this extreme are the pickers who won't even employ a capo, learning to play instead in every conceivable key out of the open G chord. Those in this last group tend to be the bluegrass/jazz fusion progressives, who make use of a lot of closed positions and Reno/Adcock style single string runs.

Scruggs traditionalists, though devoted as they are to open G, will usually follow his example and play a few tunes out of standard C or open D tuning. But that is about it, and those deviations are a relatively small portion of the repertoire. Much of what makes the Scruggs sound comes from a distinctive vocabulary of standard, timeless licks, and most of those are fused with open G tuning.

There is another practical reason for holding to basically one tuning, if one is a professional player. On stage during a performance, under a set of hot lights, and with the ambient noise coming from the audience, its hard enough to stay in tune even when you stick with just one tuning. It would be impossible to significantly retune back and forth every three or four songs, and have any hope of staying in pitch. Some of the old-timers, like Uncle Dave Macon, one of the most beloved and copied of the early Grand Old Opry performers, solved this problem by bringing two or even three instruments on stage during a performance, each one with its own dedicated tuning. For many bluegrass pickers, who may have already stretched their budgets to own just one professional quality Mastertone style instrument, this is not practical.

However, as a devoted shade tree picker who performs only occasionally on stage, this is an acceptable problem. If I'm participating in an old time jam, I will bring two instruments, a Paramount with a short scale neck, tuned to open A (G tuning pitched up one whole tone), and a Tubaphone banjo tuned to open D. Both are semi-fretless. If I am headed to a bluegrass session, I will bring a Gibson Mastertone banjo instead of the Paramount, fully fretted, of course, tuned to open G. The other tunings I use, such as G Variant, D modal, or Sawmill generally deviate only slightly from one or another of the basic tunings, and retuning is usually managable, unless the setting is particularly noisy. If I am performing, I will try to group together tunes which use the same tuning and banjo, thus minimizing the amount of retuning that needs to be done on stage. Still, the amount of extra time spent on tuning is less than ideal.

All of this, of course, begs the question, why not just stick to one tuning, and avoid the retuning problem altogether. This is the best solution for pickers who think mostly in a linear fashion, and have built a style which uses a lot of closed chords and linear melodic or single string runs. It also makes some sense for Scruggs devotees, who want to have Earl's classic licks punch through in every arrangement. But as my playing has evolved over the years, it has become anything but linear. Instead, it has become layered, so that the subtle harmonic nuances represented by drone notes, right hand patterns, and other harmonic devices are as important to the overall sound as the actual notes of the melody that are imbedded along with them. For someone who picks with that more "old-timey" sensibility, each tuning has its own unique character, each provides a musical ambience that contributes significantly to the special sound of a tune setting.

With some hyperbole, I would argue that with the progressive linear approach, the odd configuration of the five string banjo neck is essentially an obstacle to be overcome in search of a pure musical form. In contrast, I think more like a clawhammer picker in this regard, seeing the banjo neck instead as a unique structure which suggests patterns that help define and propel the music. One's musical path then becomes a lifelong search for those patterns, which include all of the right hand rolls and other movements, and the close relationship of those fingerings with hammers, slides, and other left hand techniques. It includes as well the underlying tunings, and eventually even the choice of the banjo itself, with its compatible tonal characteristics. Thus, the tunings employed in this collection are a central component of my personal style and approach to banjo. But I am the first to admit that they do come with a price.

I remember that years ago a Banjo Newsletter reader submitted an arrangement to prove that he could play all of the notes of Bill Keith's break for Little Sadie in open G tuning. Keith played his elegant arrangement, recorded on the Blue Velvet Band album, in D minor tuning. The contributor's main intent was to prove that there was never a need to retune the banjo. He insisted that he could get all of the same notes, or nearly all, so that if both were written out in standard notation, the two arrangements would look identical. Still, inevitably, if you played it, the open G setting didn't have the sound of Keith's stunning arrangement. That is because it didn't have all of the sympathetic tones contributed by the open strings of the D minor tuning. But if you're not looking for that ancient sound, the overall sense of timelessness, the connection with the eternal flow of human history, if that's not why you're playing the banjo, then you won't notice the difference.

 
(c) copyright 2008, by Donald J. Borchelt, all rights reserved.