5 String Banjo Tuning: Standard and Alternate Tunings

The first step to picking away on your banjo is getting it in tune. In this comprehensive article, I’ll cover everything from 5 string standard banjo tuning to alternate banjo tunings and provide clear diagrams to help you tune up.

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

5-string-banjo-tuning-standard-and-alternate-tunings-article

5 String Banjo Standard Tuning

The 5-string banjo is the most popular type of banjo. There are two main variations: open back and resonator. Both variations share the same standard banjo tuning, which is open G – gDGBD.

The resonator type of five string banjo is often used in bluegrass music, while the open back is more common in old-time and folk styles and is commonly referred to as clawhammer banjo.

As we go through the tunings, I will try to make the distinction of which tuning is popular within the common styles of banjo playing. Lets start with the most important one, the 5 string banjo standard tuning.

5 String Banjo Standard Tuning – Open G – gDGBD

open g tuning for banjo diagram - standard banjo tuning-GDGBD

Open G tuning – gDGBD, is the standard 5 string banjo tuning. It is a versatile tuning, and produces a harmonious G major chord when played open. Chord changes and melodies are easy to achieve by simply moving your fretting finger around the neck of the banjo.

Another benefit is that if you want to experiment with an alternate tuning, Open G provides the perfect starting point. By adjusting only one or two strings, players can transition to alternate tunings such as Double C, Sawmill, or G minor, without issue. More on this later.

To help you tune to Open G standard 5 string banjo tuning, use the video below for the reference notes.

5 String Alternate Banjo Tunings

One of the biggest recommendations I make across many instrument types is to expand your playing by using alternate tunings. Sometimes, this involves changing merely one or two strings on the banjo to produce a completely new sound.

You can create new tones, practice chord voicing, and experiment with fresh songwriting ideas. When you switch to an alternate tuning it feels like picking up your instrument for the first time all over, but having the skill to play and explore it without the initial roadblocks.

We will look at many alternate tunings in this article and I encourage you to eventually try all of them on your banjo.

Open C Banjo Tuning – gCGCE

open c tuning banjo diagram-GCGCE

Open C tuning is a popular alternate open tuning for 5-string banjos, especially among those who play folk, blues, and old-time music. Players often choose Open C tuning for its rich, resonant sound and the ease of playing chords and melodies in the key of C major. The tuning allows for interesting chord voicing and facilitates smooth transitions.

Open D Tuning Banjo – f#DF#AD

banjo d tuning diagram

Open D tuning also known as banjo D tuning is another open tuning for the 5-string banjo. This tuning is popular with bluegrass fingerpickers. Famously used by Earl Scruggs, banjo D tuning offers a warm and full sound, perfect for playing songs in the key of D major. It also simplifies chord shapes and fingerings, as with the other open chord tunings.

Sawmill Tuning – gDGCD

sawmill banjo tuning diagram-GDGCD

Sawmill tuning – gDGCD, also known as mountain modal or “G modal” tuning, is a favorite alternate tuning among 5 string banjo players seeking a more haunting, mysterious sound. The 2nd string is raised a half step from B to C, making it very easy to switch to from standard (just one string!). The open strings form a variation of a G chord (Gsus4), which creates unique sound that is neither major nor minor.

This tuning is often used for old-time and Appalachian mountain music and a perfect Clawhammer banjo tuning. Overall, Sawmill tuning allows players to explore a different emotional range and opens up banjo players to new musical possibilities. I highly recommend this one.

Drop C Tuning Banjo – gCGBD

drop c tuning banjo diagram-GCGBD

Banjo C tuning or Drop C – gCGBD, is very quick to get to from standard. The 4th string is lowered to C to produce a deeper resonant tone. Drop C is a popular clawhammer banjo tuning, but is also well-suited for various other playing styles, such as fingerpicking and frailing.

This tuning is very popular and is an example of how easy it is to tune from standard to alternate.

Double C Tuning Banjo – gCGCD

double c tuning banjo diagram-GCGCD

Double C – gCGCD, is another popular five string clawhammer banjo tuning. In this tuning, the 2nd string is raised a half step from B to C, and the 4th bass string is lowered a whole step from D to C, giving the banjo a deeper, mellower sound than the standard G tuning.

The open strings form a beautiful C major chord with a rich, full sound. This tuning naturally enjoys the benefits that come with open tunings such as ease of chord formation.

F Tuning – gCFCF

classic banjo f tuning diagram-GCFCF

F Tuning – gCFCF, is an alternate tuning for the 5-string banjo that is sometimes referred to as Classic banjo tuning. This tuning was popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially among banjo players who performed classical music arrangements or light parlor music on the banjo.

The lowered pitch of the strings in F tuning produces a warm, mellow tone. Fingerpickers really love this one!

G Minor Tuning – gDGBbD

g minor banjo tuning diagram-GDGBbD

G minor – gDGBbD, is our first minor tuning for banjo. It is a good clawhammer banjo tuning because of its somber sound. In this tuning, the 2nd string is lowered a half step from B to Bb, creating an open G minor chord.

I love the sound of this tuning, it has a melancholy sound, is easy to play, and is a pleasure to listen to. All of this by changing one string from standard! This really highlights the versatility of the banjo.

D Minor Tuning – aDFAD

d minor banjo tuning diagram-ADFAD

D Minor tuning – aDFAD, is another minor alternate tuning for 5 string banjo that produces a darker, more melancholy sound compared to the standard G tuning.

The lower pitch of the drone string adds depth to the overall tone, while the other strings follow a D minor chord structure. A must try tuning for those minor chord lovers.

Dorian Tuning – gDGAD

dorian tuning banjo diagram-GDGAD

As the name suggests, Dorian tuning – gDGAD, is derived from the Dorian mode, which is the second mode of the major scale. It gives the banjo a haunting, modal sound that is great for playing traditional Celtic and Appalachian folk tunes.

Dorian tuning is not as common as some of the other alternate tunings, but it offers a different tonal character that can be refreshing and inspiring for banjo players.

Mixolydian Tuning – aDF#AD

mixolydian tuning banjo-ADF#AD

Mixolydian tuning – aDF#AD, is a close relative of the banjo D tuning we discussed earlier. This tuning emphasizes the Mixolydian mode, which is similar to the major scale but with a flattened seventh note. It creates a unique tone: slightly dissonant with a bit of tension and intrigue.

Mixolydian is mostly used for playing blues, folk, and sometimes as a clawhammer banjo tuning. Although not common, its ease of transition from banjo D tuning makes it a favorite for many players. If you play in Open D, you should definitely try switching to Mixolydian.

G6 Tuning – gDGBE

g6 tuning banjo-GDGBE

G6 tuning – gDGBE, results in a G6 chord because it consists of the notes G (root), B (major third), D (perfect fifth), and E (major sixth) when played open. This chord has a somewhat jazzy or complex sound compared to the more traditional open G chord found in standard G tuning.

G6 tuning can be used to play a variety of musical styles, but it’s particularly interesting for exploring unique chord voicings, especially in genres like jazz, folk, and fingerstyle. It can also be useful for arranging songs that feature G6 chords.

Long Neck Banjo Standard Tuning – eBEG#B

The 5-string longneck banjo is also known as the “Seeger banjo” after its creator, folk music legend Pete Seeger. It is a unique and versatile instrument that features a longer neck compared to a standard 5-string banjo.

The extended neck design allows for a wider range of pitches and increased playability in lower registers.Typically, a longneck banjo has three additional frets, resulting in a total of 25 frets instead of the standard 22.

long neck banjo standard tuning diagram-EBEG#B

The standard tuning for a five string longneck banjo is E tuning – eBEG#B, which is essentially the same as the open G tuning – gDGBD – on a standard 5-string banjo, but with all the strings tuned down by a whole step (two frets).

Alternate tunings for the long neck banjo are different as well, due to the change in size as I mentioned earlier.

These are some of the popular alternate tunings for long neck with their proper transpositions for the long-neck:

  1. Double C tuning Banjo Long Neck – eBEG#C
  2. Sawmill tuning Banjo Long Neck – eBEBD
  3. Open D tuning Banjo Long Neck – eBEG#D
photo of pete seeger playing and singing with a long neck banjo
Pete Seeger playing his signature long neck 5 string banjo

5 String Banjo Tuning by Ear

Tuning a banjo 5 string by ear can be challenging at first. However, I highly recommend practicing this essential skill as it helps develop your musical ear. Follow these steps to tune your banjo to the standard Open G tuning by ear – gDGBD.

To start tuning your banjo to standard by ear, you need to find a reference pitch for the 4th string (D). Use can use the internet or another instrument to find your reference note. Just make sure that it is accurate.

tuning-5-string-banjo-by-ear-diagram

The next step is to use the diagram above to find the corresponding notes for strings 3-1 and tune them accordingly.

To finish off, you need to tune the 5th drone string, for this you can use the now in-tune 1st string to provide the high G, as seen in the diagram. Alternatively, you can compare the 5th string to the open 3rd string, both of which are G notes an octave apart.

When done, check your accuracy with a digital tuner and keep practicing to develop your ear. You can be sure that if you stick to it, you will get better!

Keep in mind: tuning with a digital tuner is faster, easier and more accurate, but it does not help you develop a better ear. Here is a good YouTube video for you visual learners!

What Kind of Strings to Use for Your Banjo

Steel vs Nylon Banjo Strings

Banjo strings are typically made from either steel or nylon. Each material has its unique characteristics.

  • Steel strings: These strings are common for 5-string banjos. They produce a bright, crisp sound with a long sustain, making them suitable for bluegrass, old-time, and country music. Popular steel string types include nickel-plated steel, stainless steel, and phosphor bronze.
  • Nylon strings: Nylon strings, sometimes called gut strings or Nylgut, are often used on open-back banjos, especially for clawhammer or frailing styles. They provide a warm, mellow tone that is well-suited for traditional and folk music.

Banjo String Gauges

The gauge, or thickness, of the strings affects the playability, tone, and volume of your banjo. Banjo strings are available in different gauges, ranging from light to medium to heavy.

  • Light gauge strings: These strings are easier to press down and have a brighter sound, think less callouses. They are ideal for beginners, fingerpicking, and fast playing styles.
  • Medium gauge strings: Medium gauge strings offer a good balance between playability and tone. They are suitable for most playing styles and are a popular choice for many banjo players. This is my go-to option for banjo string gauge.
  • Heavy gauge strings: Heavy gauge strings have a thicker, richer tone and greater volume. They are harder to press down and may require more finger strength. However, they are well suited for down-tuned alternate tunings, where a heavier gauge would shine.

Remember, no matter what type of strings you go with, when they get old, make sure to repurpose them into something fun and artistic like a pendant or pet toy!

Can a Banjo Capo Change Tuning

Yes, you can use a banjo capo to change the tuning of your banjo. A capo is a handy tool that clamps onto the fretboard, effectively shortening the strings and raising the pitch of the instrument. By using a capo on your banjo, you can easily transpose the tuning to different keys while maintaining the same fingerings and chord shapes.

This is particularly useful for accommodating vocal ranges or playing along with other musicians in different keys. Keep in mind that while a capo allows for quick and convenient key changes, it doesn’t replace the need for learning alternate tunings, which can offer unique playing styles and tonal characteristics.

Closing Thoughts: Banjo Tuning

Exploring various tunings for your 5 string banjo is a big part of learning the instrument. By growing your knowledge of tunings you can improve your ear and playing, as well as grow your repertoire.

Between the standard and various alternate tunings available for the five string banjo, the opportunities are endless. So keep practicing and playing and I hope this article was helpful along your journey. Feel free to leave a comment, and I will leave you with this awesome Steve Martin quote that speaks to me as a banjo player. Thank you for reading!

“The thing about the banjo is, when you first hear it, it strikes many people as ‘What’s that?’ There’s something very compelling about it to certain people; that’s the way I was; that’s the way a lot of banjo players and people who love the banjo are.”

Steve Martin

3 thoughts on “5 String Banjo Tuning: Standard and Alternate Tunings”

  1. A question I never see addressed is, when tuning is set can the same fingering for an F or D chord for instance, be used at the same fret levels as the open G tuning. Or, when different tuning is used, does it require all different finger/fret placement to sound right. I am not speaking of using a capo to alter tuning. Thank you. Mike

  2. A better way to have stated my question is, what are and where do I find the correct fret positions for chords in various tunings. I assume they are not the same for instance as an F chord in G tuning. Also, what is the pentatonic scale pattern in different tunings, not using a capo to tune. Mike

  3. I just started literally with a 5 String and I am absolutely fascinated with everything about it.. I WAITED MUCH TOO LONG AT THE AGE OF 86. I may not be able to learn to play, EVER.

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