What are the reasons a banjo won’t stay in tune and what can be done to address this? Just like most stringed instruments, the banjo also has a host of tuning problems that will certainly inconvenience players of various levels.
Often associated with bluegrass, country and folk music, the banjo is one of the most important instruments, especially in American culture. The legacy of the banjo stretches beyond the aforementioned genres with its unmistakable presence being widely felt in pop, rock and roll, and even jazz.
From Earl Scruggs to the Allman Brothers, Bela Fleck to the Eagles, the banjo is an often overlooked force in modern music. Even before music recording technology was introduced, the banjo was already an integral part of rural white folk culture, as well as Black American traditional music and Caribbean genres such Calypso.
Although a widespread banjo revival has yet to come in the 21st century, it remains an enduring instrument that possesses one of the most recognizable sound attributes. Undoubtedly, the banjo with its jangly tone and energetic vibe, will always have a special place in the past, present and future evolution of music.
Tuning the Banjo
Most banjos today come in 5 strings, but there are also 4 and even 6-stringed versions that are tuned similarly to the guitar.
The 5-string banjo utilizes a GDGBD tuning (from 5th to 1st string), aptly named “open G,” because it sounds identical with a G chord. On the other hand, the 4-string plectrum banjo is tuned CGBD. A tuning called the “Chicago Tuning,” is also popular among guitar players who wish to make a sudden shift to the banjo, since the tuning resembles the top 4 strings of the guitar (DGBE).
Are Banjos hard to tune?
There is a well-known running joke that banjos won’t stay in tune and there are a lot of musicians who can attest to this. Pete Wernick (aka Dr. Banjo), a prominent bluegrass banjo player in the 60s, believes that banjos are more challenging to tune compared to guitars. He cited several aspects such as the flexible material that the banjo’s bridge is sitting on, as well as the long thin flexible neck and the instrument’s sensitivity to temperature changes.
Banjo players should always have an electronic tuner ready since it is an instrument with a more volatile tuning than most stringed instruments. You might need to tune your banjo after every song, so be prepared to take advantage of the applause and spiels to minimize the dead air while you are tuning your instrument.
Banjo won’t stay in tune: how to fix this
Banjos may be hard to tune but with the help of a tuner and a little patience, things could become more tolerable. Get yourself an electronic tuner that can accommodate a variety of stringed instruments and use the “banjo” settings to make the tuning process more convenient.
There are also other factors that can make it harder for your banjo to stay in tune and here are some of them:
Using a capo
Utilizing a capo on a banjo can cause some tuning problems. The strings will usually sound a little bit sharper than necessary when the capo is clamped on the instrument’s neck.
The solution to this is to have a compensated bridge installed on your banjo. A compensated bridge is a machined bridge with adjusted scale lengths which can help improve intonation even with the capo on.
Stringed instruments that are not properly intonated, will be almost impossible to tune even with the help of a piano or an electronic tuner. Intonation problems can be caused by several factors such as dirty old strings, worn frets and wrong bridge placement.
Replacing a used up set of banjo strings may be an easy remedy, but for worn frets, it is advisable that you seek the help of a luthier to even out the frets through recrowning or better yet, have them replaced entirely if needed.
To determine a banjo’s state of intonation, pluck an open string and compare it with the fretted note on the 12th fret and if it registers as sharp on the tuner, that means your banjo is not properly intonated. To fix this problem, lift the bridge and gently move it until the note on the 12th is in tune with the open note.
Loose tuning machine, tailpiece and neck
The most common culprit that could affect a banjo’s tuning stability is a loose tuning peg, or worse, the entire machine head that includes the gears and screws. Other parts such as the neck and the tailpiece can also contribute to your banjo’s tuning stability and should be checked regularly to make sure that they are fastened securely.
As for the tuning machine, check the pegs if they are still capable of turning the gears, then see if the gears are steadily-fixed to prevent unnecessary tuning machine movements while you are playing. Try tightening up the screws on the gears, but if your banjo still won’t stay in tune, this means that your tuning machine is not functioning properly anymore and may need complete replacement.