Complete Guide for 6 String Banjo Tuning

The 6-string banjo, also known as a banjitar, ganjo or guitjo, is a unique banjo hybrid instrument that combines the distinctive sound of a banjo with the familiar playability of a guitar. It is a favorite of many musicians including the likes of blues star Taj Mahal and country rocker Keith Urban amongst many others.

But, you can’t get far on your own banjitar without getting it in tune first. In this article, I will discuss the standard 6 string banjo tuning and explore many alternate tunings for your enjoyment. Let’s get started!

complete-guide-for-6-string-banjo-tuning

Standard 6 String Banjo Tuning – EADGBE

The standard 6 string banjo tuning is EADGBE, which mirrors that of a guitar. This tuning allows guitar players to quickly transition to the banjo without learning new chord shapes. Popular songs that utilize a 6-string banjo in standard include Keith Urban’s “Somebody Like You” and “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” Awesome tunes to play along with if you are starting out.

By using the standard tuning on your 6 string banjo you can pretty much play any song written for the guitar. Just look up guitar tabs or instructional videos for your favorite songs, and practice them on your banjo. This is one of the biggest advantages of playing in standard tuning.

standard tuning for 6 string banjo diagram

Boutique 6 String Banjo Standard Tuning

While not common, there are custom-built 6-string banjos that feature a short drone string as the 6th string (similar to the typical 5-string banjo design). These instruments are not produced by major manufacturers. They are built or modified by custom boutique banjo luthiers.

One such boutique luthier is Cedar Mountain Banjos, they have beautiful 6 string banjos with this variation available. In case you have one of these, the common standard tuning to use would be gGDGBD.

With this setup, the 6th shorter drone string provides a high octave to the bass note on the 5th string (G). The rest of the strings form the open G tuning for the 5 string banjo (gDGBD).

These are wonderful instruments and also benefit from the use of alternate tunings. Just make sure to tune the 6th string to match the 5th string, as in the example above. Let’s dive into some of these alternate tunings now.

If you are looking at learning tunings for the 4 string banjo instead, check out this article.

Alternate Tunings for 6 String Banjo

Both with the common 6 string banjo, and the custom 6 string boutique version I recommend experimenting with alternate tunings. They expand your playing style and abilities while helping you explore your instrument in a unique way.

When it specifically comes to the 6 string banjo, using open tunings really bring you closer to the true banjo feel.

Lets take a closer look at some great sounding alternate 6 string banjo tunings. Keep in mind that these can also be used as guitar tunings!

Drop D Tuning – DADGBE

Drop D is the first alternate tuning for many guitarists and 6 string banjo players. This tuning is achieved by lowering the pitch of the low E string by a whole step to D. I recommend trying this alternate 6 string banjo tuning for its powerful sound and ease of set up. By changing just one string, you can now fret the same fret of the 5th and 6th strings producing power chords.

Additionally, the lowered 6th string adds a rich bass note to chords and fingerpicking patterns. Drop D is a fantastic place to start with alternate tunings both for the 6 string banjo as well as the guitar. Some examples of songs that can be played in this tuning are Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.”

drop d tuning 6 string banjo diagram

Double Drop D Tuning – DADGBD

Double drop D tuning is a variation of the regular drop D tuning but with a lower 1st string, creating a more symmetrical tuning with a distinct tonal character. This tuning is favored by fingerstyle players and singer-songwriters for its versatility and unique chord voicing.

It truly sounds fantastic when played on the 6 string banjo. Examples of songs that can you can play include Joni Mitchell’s “Coyote” and Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue”, one of my all time favorite Dylan songs!

Open G tuning – DGDGBD

Our first open tuning, open G, produces a G major chord when played open. Its different in its voicing compared to the regular 5 string banjo open G (gDGBD), so chords will not translate the same. However, being an open tuning, learning to change chords can be very easy to start, as usual.

Examples of songs that can be played on a 6-string banjo in open G tuning include The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and Muddy Waters’ “Can’t Be Satisfied.” This is a must try tuning for any 6 string banjo player. You can even use a slide in open tunings such as open G and open new doors for your banjo.

Open D Tuning – DADF#AD

Another great 6 string banjo tuning is open D which creates a D major chord when all strings are strummed. Similarly to the open G, this tuning offers a lush, full sound that can add depth to your playing. Songs that use open D tuning include Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” and Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Open tunings help you truly embrace the feeling of playing a banjo on your 6 string. You can play chords, fingerpick, and use a slide, all in the same song without having to make adjustments. You have to give it a try!

How Do You Tune a 6 String Banjo by Ear

Tuning a 6-string banjo by ear can be a bit challenging for beginners, but with practice and patience, you’ll get the hang of it. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you tune your 6-string banjo without using a tuner.

  1. To tune a 6-string banjo by ear, first, find a reference pitch for the lowest E string (6th string). Use a piano, tuning fork, or another instrument. Pluck the 6th string, compare its pitch to the reference, and adjust the tuning peg until they match.
  2. Next, fret the E string (6th) at the 5th fret (A note), pluck the A string (5th), and adjust its peg until the pitches match. Then, fret the A string at the 5th fret (D note) and repeat the process for the D string (4th).
  3. Fret the D string at the 5th fret (G note) and tune the G string (3rd) similarly. For the B string (2nd), fret the G string at the 4th fret (B note) and adjust accordingly. Finally, fret the B string at the 5th fret (high E note) and tune the high E string (1st).

Voila, now play chords and scales to check the sound. Retune any off-sounding strings. I highly recommend using a digital tuner to check your ear tuning. With practice, you’ll improve your pitch sense and accuracy, so make sure to keep trying if at first it seems too difficult.

6 String Banjo Songs

Here is a list of songs across various genres that can be enjoyable to play on a 6-string banjo:

  1. “Duelling Banjos” from the film Deliverance – This song is a classic banjo tune, and it can be quite fun to play on a 6-string banjo.
  2. “Cripple Creek” Traditional – An excellent choice for beginners, this song is a standard in the banjo repertoire. While originally played on a 5-string banjo, it can be beautifully adapted to the 6-string.
  3. “Take It Easy” by the Eagles – The banjo adds a unique country feel to this popular rock song.
  4. “I Will Wait” by Mumford & Sons – This folk-rock band is known for their use of banjo, and this song is a great one to play on the 6-string.
  5. “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show – This song is a staple for many banjo players, and its country vibe fits perfectly with the banjo’s tone.
  6. “Rocky Top” by The Osborne Brothers – This bluegrass standard is often played on a 5-string, but it sounds great on a 6-string banjo as well.
  7. “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac – The fingerpicking style used in this song translates well to the 6-string banjo, giving it a fresh and distinctive sound.
  8. “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Earl Scruggs – A classic banjo song that, while challenging, can be a fun undertaking on a 6-string banjo.
  9. “Country Roads” by John Denver – This classic country song’s melody can be beautifully emphasized on the banjo.
  10. “Man of Constant Sorrow” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? – Another iconic banjo song, it’s got a great, moody melody that sounds fantastic on the 6-string banjo.

These songs should give you a variety of styles and difficulty levels to work with. Remember, the most important thing is to have fun while playing!

6 String Banjo Tuner

You can use any standard guitar tuner to tune a 6-string banjo, as it shares the same tuning as a guitar. Many tuner types are available, such as clip-on tuners, pedal tuners, smartphone apps, and online tuners.

Examples of popular tuners include Snark SN-8, Korg Pitchblack, Boss TU-3, and the Fender Tune app. Choose a tuner that best suits your preferences and needs for convenience and accuracy. My favorites are clip on tuners for their ease of use and accuracy.

What Strings to Use on 6 String Banjo

The 6-string banjo typically uses unique strings specifically made for it. They use a combination of light-gauge guitar strings and a wound 4th string to accommodate the lower bass notes. Some players prefer using specific 6-string banjo sets, while others may experiment with different string types to find the best match for their playing style and desired tone.

If you’re wondering, it’s possible to use guitar strings on a 6-string banjo, as the tuning and string gauges are similar. However, it’s essential to ensure that the strings you choose fit the banjo’s scale length and bridge spacing. This is especially true if you plan on using alternate tunings.

Remember that replacing strings every 2-3 months is essential for optimal playability and tone. Also, instead of throwing out the old strings, you can use them to make pieces of art or jewelry.

Can I Use Guitar Strings on a 6 String Banjo?

You can use guitar strings on a 6-string banjo, as it is designed to accommodate the same type of strings and tuning as a standard guitar. However, the gauges of the strings may differ slightly based on the banjo’s construction and desired tonal qualities.

When restringing a 6-string banjo, it’s recommended to use a set of strings specifically designed for it, though regular guitar strings will also work in most cases. Ensure the string gauges are appropriate for your banjo to achieve optimal playability and sound.

What Kind of Capo to Use

A capo is a great addition to a 6 string banjo. It allows you to change the key of the instrument quickly without retuning. The way it works is by pressing down on the strings of your banjo at a desired fret, effectively shortening the length of the strings and raising the pitch of the notes played.

When it comes to the 6 string banjo, I recommend using a regular guitar capo such as the Kyser Quick Change capo. There are capos for banjos specifically, but due to the size of the neck on the 6 string banjo, using a regular guitar capo is advised.

Banjo Case or Gigbag

If your banjo did not already come with a case or gig bag, I definitely recommend buying a banjo case. You need one specifically made to fit a 6 string banjo as their scale and size can be unique. Make sure to check measurements and go into it prepared when buying a case. Gig bags are a great option for those seeking something lighter and portable.

Overall, buying a case or gig bag is essential. They provide protection, easy transportation for your instrument and a piece of mind that your banjo will be safe. Some popular brands that offer 6-string banjo cases and gig bags that I recommend include Gator, Guardian, and TKL.

Closing Thoughts

At this point we have discussed all aspects of 6 string banjo tuning. By understanding the different tuning options, you can have meaningful playing or recording sessions. Don’t be afraid to explore alternate tunings along the way, as they can help you find your unique sound and expand your playing.

Check out the YouTube video below that can serve as a great starting point for your learning journey. I hope you found this article helpful. Thank you for reading!

1 thought on “Complete Guide for 6 String Banjo Tuning”

  1. Another interesting thing to try with a 6-string banjo is “high strung” tuning which replaces the low E, A and D strings with the octave strings from a 12-string set (not Nashville tuning which also has an octave G string). This gives an over all more banjo-like sound while giving up those low notes that don’t belong on a banjo in any case.

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