4 String Banjo Tuning: Complete Guide

The 4 string banjo is a very popular configuration of a banjo. Not surprisingly, there are a plethora of tuning configurations for the 4 string, as with all the other types of banjos. In this article, I will cover standard tuning for your 4 string banjo as well as provide a list of alternate tunings you can experiment with.

If you have a different type of banjo I recommend checking out my articles on 5 string banjo tuning and 6 string banjo tuning. Here, we will be discussing only the 4 string banjo tuning. Let’s dive in!

4-string-banjo-tuning-guide-article

Standard 4 String Banjo Tuning

There are several types of 4 string banjos, each with its own unique sound and playing style. The two most common ones are the tenor banjo and the plectrum banjo.

The most noticeable difference between the tenor and plectrum banjos is their size, with the tenor banjo usually being smaller. Standard tuning is also different for each of these types of 4 string banjos. Their respective standard tunings are fitting for the style of playing unique to each type of banjo.

Let’s take a look at each in more detail.

Tenor Banjo Standard Tuning – CGDA

4-string-tenor-banjo-standard-tuning-diagram-CDGA

The tenor banjo is a common variation of a 4 string banjo used commonly in traditional music. The standard banjo tuning for the 4 string tenor banjo is CGDA.

This tuning is similar to a viola and is particularly well-suited for chord-melody playing. How? well, CGDA tuning creates a natural interval structure of perfect fifths across the strings, which simplifies fingerings for chords.

Naturally, this tuning is a staple of tenor banjo playing.

Plectrum Banjo Standard Tuning – CGBD

4-string-plectrum-banjo-standard-tuning-diagram-CGBD

The plectrum banjo is a four string banjo that is similar in size and construction to the 5-string banjo but features a longer scale length than the tenor banjo. As the name suggests, it is played with a plectrum and is commonly used in jazz, Dixieland, and early 20th-century popular music.

The standard banjo tuning for the plectrum banjo is CGBD. This is the same as the top four strings of a five-string banjo (minus the drone string).

This means that players familiar with the five-string banjo can easily adapt to the four-string plectrum banjo. CGBD tuning allows for that open chord sound you expect with a banjo. You can enjoy easy chord fingering and changes with a full bodied sound.

To help your practice check out my article on 10 tips to help your banjo playing!

Now let’s dive into alternate tunings for your 4 string banjo.

Alternate 4 String Banjo Tunings

I highly recommend exploring alternate 4 string banjo tunings. The alternate tunings I mention can work both on tenor or plectrum 4 string banjo styles, although some are more notably used by players of one over the other.

There is no harm done in experimenting with alternate tunings and exploring ones outside of your comfort zone. This is where you really expand your playing and musical ear.

Remember, you have to practice in an alternate tuning more than just one time to get the most out of it. Proficiency takes time. Additionally, keep in mind that your banjo strings take time to adjust to frequent changes in tuning. If not done right your banjo will keep falling out of tune over short periods of time.

Irish Tenor Banjo Tuning – GDAE

4-string-banjo-irish-tenor-tuning-GDAE

One of the most popular alternate tenor banjo tunings is the Irish tuning – GDAE. This is the same as the standard tuning for a mandolin or a violin, making it an excellent choice for players familiar with those instruments.

Irish tuning is particularly well-suited for playing traditional Irish music, as it allows for easy execution of melodies, slides, and ornamentation. It may be tough at first, but this is a wonderful tuning.

Chicago Tuning – DGBE

4-string-banjo-chicago-tuning-diagram-DGBE

A famous 4 string banjo tuning, Chicago tuning – DGBE, is used both on tenor and plectrum banjos. This tuning is the same as the top four strings of a guitar.

Chicago tuning allows for the use of familiar chord shapes and fingerings from the guitar, making it easier to learn and adapt to the tenor banjo. It is well-suited for playing blues, jazz, and popular music styles.

I recommend this for people wanting to transition their guitar knowledge to the 4 string banjo. Also playing “leads” is much easier in this tuning rather than others due to the above reason.

Cross Tuning – ADAE

-string-banjo-cross-tuning-diagram-ADAE

Cross tuning – ADAE, is a popular alternate tuning for the banjo. This tuning creates a droning effect and can be used for playing fiddle tunes, old-time music, and even modal jazz.

I like cross tuning because it has a very unique tone and allows for interesting chord voicings and open-string drones.

Drop C Tuning – GBDG

4-string-banjo-drop-c-tuning-diagram-GBDG

As the name may suggest, drop C tuning – GBDG, is a simple yet effective alternate tuning for the plectrum banjo. This is probably the easiest 4 string banjo tuning to get to as you are changing 1 string from standard. This tuning opens up new chord voicings, especially in the lower register, and creates a richer, fuller sound.

Drop C tuning is great for playing fingerstyle arrangements, folk tunes, and even blues. You would think that changing one string wouldn’t cause a big change, but playing in drop C will surprise you!

G Modal Tuning – GDGD

4-string-banjo-sawmill-tuning-diagram-GDGD

G Modal tuning, also known as “Sawmill” tuning – GDGD. This popular clawhammer banjo tuning for 5 string banjo that has been transposed for the 4 string. G Modal tuning produces a very drone heavy tone familiar to clawhammer players.

If you have a 4 string and want to embrace this classic 5 string tuning, use this setup.

D Tuning – DF#AD

4-string-banjo-d-tuning-diagram-DF#AD

D Tuning – DF#AD, is another 4 string banjo tuning that changes the instrument’s tonality to D major. This creates a brighter and more open sound, which can be used for playing a variety of musical styles, including bluegrass, country, and folk.

If you notice, four string banjo D tuning is another tuning that is “lifted” from the 5 string banjo player’s repertoire. On the 4 string banjo, D tuning also allows for easier execution of certain chord shapes and fingerings, making it a versatile choice for plectrum banjo players.

Banjolele (Banjo Ukulele) Tuning

The banjolele is a 4 string hybrid instrument that combines the body of a banjo with the neck and tuning of a ukulele. It is used primarily in early jazz, vaudeville, and British music hall traditions.

Although not so popular today some people still value this instruments place in music and love playing it!

Banjolele Standard Tuning

banjolele-banjo-ukulele-tuning-diagram-GCEA

The banjolele is typically tuned like a soprano, concert, or tenor ukulele – GCEA. This tuning allows for easy adaptation of ukulele techniques and chord shapes for the banjo player. You can tune your 4 string tenor or plectrum banjo to this tuning with no problems.

If you have a banjolele you can also use alternate tunings. Any of the ones I have listed above will work on the banjolele. The possibilities are endless.

How to Tune Your 4 String Banjo

I recommend starting out by tuning your banjo by ear, and then checking your work with a digital tuner. You can use a reference note either from a different instrument, or use YouTube to provide the starting note. Then continue to tune from there using the notes on your banjo.

Alternatively, you can use a video that plays each string and tune by ear that way. However, I still recommend practicing tuning from a reference note since this is how you will be tuning when playing with others or if a tuner is unavailable.

When you are done tuning, I recommend using a digital tuner such as a Korg TM-60 or a clip on tuner such as the Fender FCT-2. I would go with a reputable brand here, rather than a cheaper alternative on Amazon, because they are more reliable and accurate. Use the diagram below to get a good idea of the types of digital tuners out there.

types-of-digital-tuners-diagram-chromatic, clip-on and a pedal digital tuner

Once you get the hang of tuning your four string banjo by ear, you can start using the digital tuner more often for quick tuneups. Ultimately, training your ear is very important, and tuning by ear helps immensely!

Using a Capo With a 4 String Banjo

A banjo capo is an awesome tool that allows you to change the key of your banjo by shortening the neck of the instrument. I have an in-depth article on banjo capos, that you can read for more information on choosing a capo.

In consideration to tuning, a capo is very useful since it allows you to change open tunings from to another quickly. Also, you can play along with songs or other musicians with much more ease, since switching keys takes one second. I highly recommend investing in a capo since it can really elevate your banjo playing.

Conclusion – 4 String Banjo Tuning

Learning tunings for your 4 string banjo is an integral part of becoming a well rounded player. Between the standard tunings and all the alternate tunings I have discussed in this article, your hands will be full for months.

Remember that practice makes perfect and there is no substitute for that. Setting aside time every day to practice and learning your instrument is going to pay you forward years ahead.

I hope this article was helpful on your banjo playing journey. Feel free to leave a comment. Thank you!

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