How To Choose The Right Tenor Banjo Tuning

How To Choose The Right Tenor Banjo Tuning

CGDA: is the traditional tuning for tenor banjos

Jazz was the first genre to popularize the tenor banjo. Back in the days before amplification, the punchy, loud sound cut through and provided a rhythmic backdrop to early jazz bands. This tuning is the most common jazz tuning for the tenor banjo, and is often referred to as “standard tenor tuning.”

The range works well for both strumming and melodic work. Usually, jazz tenor banjo is played in a combination of both, especially solo. The banjo is usually stereotyped as an upbeat instrument, but it has a remarkably wide range of applications. Take a listen to the laid-back sound of Eddy Davis playing Duke Ellington:

“Everything But You” (Duke Ellington/Harry James) Eddy Davis Banjo

Furthermore, CGDA tuning makes it relatively easy to play flat keys. It is important (no pun intended!) if you are playing jazz with saxophones and trumpets, which prefer flat keys. With fifths tuning, you only need to learn a handful of chord shapes that you can move up, down, or around the neck to get the chords you want. With a range of an octave and a sixth between top and bottom strings, the majority of melodies are also within easy reach.

Choose The Right Tenor Banjo Tuning

Tenor banjos built in the first half of the 20th century were generally tuned to this tuning. All of the tunings should work without any modifications, unlike some others that require re-filing of the nut and other adjustments. Also, the higher tuning resonates better on the banjo head. GDAE, for example, tends to sound muddy, while CGDA sounds bright and clear.

Strings at the top are tuned pretty high, meaning they are under a lot of tension. Consequently, the tenor banjo has more “punch” and volume. The downside is that you may end up breaking a lot of A strings. Just in case, always keep spare sets on hand!

The Right Tenor Banjo Tuning

The Irish Tenor Banjo Tuning: GDAE

The Mountain Road Reel, the Mason’s Apron

Although CGDA is technically the standard tenor banjo tuning, you may find yourself playing more GDAE when you meet other players. This is because Irish music has adopted the banjo quite readily. This tuning reflects the tuning of that classic Irish instrument, the fiddle. The fiddle and mandolin are played an octave lower, so most Irish tunes fit very easily under the player’s fingers.

Fifths tunings, such as GDAE, make melody playing straightforward. However, the low tuning on the tenor banjo often sounds hollow or muddy. Some of these issues can be resolved by using higher-tension strings and adjusting the tension on the head. The majority of tenor banjo strummers, though, use higher tunings such as CGDA or Chicago tuning.

A wide variety of popular folk music keys, including G, D, C, and A, can be played with GDAE tuning. Furthermore, the low G string has a nice growl, with the range being lower than CGDA. It has become popular beyond Irish music, especially with mandolin players looking for a different sound.

It is a common misconception that Irish tenor players prefer 17 fret banjos over longer-scale ones. Small hands do have an easier time reaching high B with these banjos. In any case, GDAE tuning is already lower than most tenor banjos are designed for. Since 17 fret banjos have shorter scale lengths, it’s harder to get a decent tension without thick strings. In the end, many Irish players prefer 19 fret banjos, especially professional players who want the extra volume and punch that comes with higher tension.

There are many modern tenors that are specifically built for GDAE tuning, particularly those marketed as Irish tenor banjos. The majority of vintage instruments, however, are not. The most common modifications are on the nut and bridge. If you purchase a used guitar, these modifications may already be installed. You should set up any banjo you intend to play in GDAE properly, so it sounds the best.

Right Tenor Banjo Tuning

The “Chicago” Tuning: DGBE

12th Street Rag Tenor Banjo Chicago Tuning

It is the same tuning as the top four strings of a guitar and the baritone ukulele. Anyone who plays one of those instruments will get a banjo sound without having to learn new fingerings.

Range is the main issue with this tuning. The lowest and highest strings are separated by only an octave and a step, so you’ll need to reach up the neck pretty quickly to play the melody. The tunings are also less symmetrical than the fifths Tunings make transposing more difficult. The Chicago tuning doesn’t have much to offer melody players

On the other hand, Chicago tuning does work quite well for strumming. Fifths tunings frequently lead to pinky finger stretches for certain chords, whereas Chicago tuning makes them more compact. Chords also sound richer with tighter harmonies because of the tight spacing.

Tenor Banjo Tuning

The Other Tenor Banjo Tunings

The Plectrum Tuning: CGBD

“Aint She Sweet” on Plectrum Banjo by Jeff House

With a longer scale length and more frets, the plectrum banjo is a whole different instrument. Some tenor players do use this tuning on their tenor banjos, often to take advantage of its shorter reach. It is ideal for strumming and tight harmonies, just like Chicago tuning. The tuning is also popular for chord-melody playing, and you can find old jazz tune books with tabs for plectrum banjo.

Tenor Banjo


The tuning here is a variation on the traditional jazz tuning. By increasing the tension on the strings, the chances of them breaking will also be increased. However, this also makes it suitable for Irish music. This technique eliminates the pinky reach for the high B that some Irish tenor banjo players have, especially those with small hands. Nevertheless, you lose all notes below D, which will affect a number of great fiddle tunes.

You can achieve the same tuning by simply putting a capo on the second fret of a standard-tuned tenor banjo. In addition, this scale has a shorter length, making melody playing even easier. In addition, less tension is applied to the strings, reducing the possibility of breakage.

Tenor Banjo

The Various Re-entrant Tunings

Re-entrant tuning means that the strings are not arranged from lowest to highest. One of the most famous tunings on ukuleles is gCEA. Ukuleles sound bright and have tight chord voicings because of the higher G string.

It is possible to make pretty much any tuning re-entrant simply by tuning a string an octave up or down (change the string first, though). The closer harmonies make melody playing much more difficult, but they work well for chord strumming. Additionally, it contrasts nicely with a standard-tuned banjo. A popular re-entrant tuning for guitar is called Nashville tuning. The bottom four strings are all tuned up an octave, and it’s usually played with another guitar in standard tuning. As a result, songs such as “Wild Horses” and “Hey You” have a shimmering sound.

Tenor banjo players are probably more interested in the novelty of re-entrant tunings than in their practicality. However, if you have an extra banjo lying around, they can be fun to experiment with. Any ukulele player will be familiar with them. Talking about ukuleles…

Banjo Tuning

The Ukulele Tuning: gCEA (re-entrant)

There have been many experiments with this by ukulele players, with mixed results. It’s certainly an excellent option for any ukulele player looking for a banjo sound without having to learn new fingerings. However, this tuning has not one but two strings tuned high enough to cause breakage. Compared to tenor banjos, banjo ukuleles are smaller and more readily available. In general, it’s better to use one of them rather than transpose this tuning onto a tenor banjo.

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