Brainjo Bite: 5 Reasons To Use Alternate Tunings (Brainjo Bite)


Welcome again to Brainjo bites. This episode was sparked again by a question posted in the banjo for adult learners, Facebook group by Stacy, who said

“With alternate tunings, do you have to remember different chord shapes?”

So I’d already been planning on doing an episode on this particular topic of alternate tunings. So this served as the perfect segue to get into it. And I’m going to start by giving five reasons why banjo players should use alternate tunings, and which is based on an article I wrote a while back on that topic.

And then I will give some practical advice on how to, how to go about using them in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming. And according to whatever your goals are with the music you’re trying to make. And in, so doing we’ll address Stacy’s question about whether or not you need to remember different chord shapes in every tuning.

So one of the most common questions that beginning banjo players ask is, do I really need to learn alternate tunings? And I totally understand where that comes from. In fact, many years ago, I was in the same place. I said the exact same thing. Now, first off, I should point out that the term we use to describe various tunings, which is alternate implies that there is some standard that we’re deviating from the word alternate suggests that there is some kind of normal tuning, and then the rest are the alternate ones. And this alone may be part of the problem as the truth is there really is no such thing as a standard or normal banjo tuning. There are certainly some tunings that may be preferred in certain styles or genres standard G for bluegrass being the most significant contemporary example.

And that was the one that Earl Scruggs liked. But there isn’t any one tuning that’s inherently better for banjo playing than any other. There was a range of notes that every string can accommodate. And that creates an exceedingly large number of possible combinations, which means you can tune your banjo strings to anything you want. And whatever tuning you end up with is no right than anyone else’s tuning. And you can play any tune or any song in any tuning. All that matters is that you play the notes of the song, but the tuning that you use will make a major impact on how the tune sounds and how hard it is to play. And those two things right there really capture why these alternate tunings exist to begin with. So when people chose these tunings in the first place, it was either because they liked the way that particular tuning sound for a particular tune or tunes, or because it made playing it easier.

Or in many instances, both of those things. Now in this day and age, most people who ask this question would probably consider standard G, which is GDG BD as the default tuning. As more often than not, this is the one that most banjo instruction begins with, for better or for worse. As I mentioned, that’s more an artifact of history and the evolution of bluegrass than any inherent property of the banjo. It’s also worth noting that the resistance to alternate tunings most commonly comes from people who have some prior experience playing the guitar. And that’s completely understandable. The guitar’s rise in popularity coincided with the rise in core driven music which is what most music today is. And because of that, the typical approach to learning the guitar is to start by learning chords and learning chords for the first time, both where they’re located and how to get your fingers in all of those awkward positions is a major pain in the rear.

And most people want to avoid things that are major pains in the rears, if they can, and being able to play the primary chords on the guitar is a major learning milestone and is not something most people want to repeat. Now, again, the main reason most guitar players only play out of one tuning is because the guitar and the music that’s commonly played on it is core driven. And the primary advantage of playing out of just one tuning is only having to learn one set of tuning specific chord formations. For most, that is enough to overcome the drawbacks of not playing in multiple tunings as the chord shapes will be different in every tuning. But there’s one really important thing to remember here. A banjo is not a guitar, and while there are similarities in how you approach the playing of a banjo and the guitar, there are also some really fundamental differences, which we’ll explore in a bit, as I said, I can easily relate to this resistance.

I play the guitar before I play the banjo. I resisted alternate tunings on the bandage at first. And I kept my banjo in standard G probably for over a year before venturing to anything else. So what finally convinced me that I should change or that I was wrong. It was tuning to another tuning for the first time. As soon as I played my first tune in double C or really my first few notes I was sold, the truth is there’s no better way to persuade yourself to play in different tunings than to just retune your banjo and try them out. The proof really is in the pudding, but before you do that, let’s now review five great reasons for why you should use alternate tunings followed by how to go about using them. And I think hearing this will deepen your understanding of why the banjo is such a magical instrument and allow you to better understand how to fully unlock that magic.

Okay, so reason number one is the fifth string, as you are probably aware, the five string banjo is a drone instrument. That’s a con a critical distinction when compared with the guitar and a central reason why multiple tunings exist because with a drone instrument, we have one pitch or one note, which does not change when we play – its purpose is to drone on, in the background throughout whatever music we’re playing. And unless we’re going for ear piercing dissonance, the drone note needs to compliment or sound good with the rest of the music or the notes that we’re playing. That means that a good sounding drone note at a minimum needs to be a note in the scale of the key we’re playing. And ideally with some exceptions, that’s either the first note, the tonic or the fifth, the dominant note in that particular scale. So even if we do want to play everything out of a single tuning, we still must account for the fifth string drone either by retuning it when possible to fit with the key or by avoiding it altogether.

Of course, if we avoid it altogether, we lose the whole point of playing a drone instrument or a five string banjo to begin with. In fact, just looking at the way the banjo is designed with a fifth string drone that isn’t fretted, it’d be logical to expect to have to retune for every key, trying to play everything out of one tuning will always require some sort of compromise up until pretty recently. Banjo players throughout history were probably thinking mainly in terms of melody notes and drone notes and not in chords. So most of these alternate tunings were created by banjo players who probably had no concern with chords whatsoever, but were just thinking in terms of melody and drone. So these tunings are designed to take advantage of the banjos properties as a drone instrument rather than being optimized for playing chords.

The second reason to use alternate tunings is because they sound better. So the banjo, especially modern banjos with well fit components and metal parts and steel strings is a highly resonant instrument. That means that when you pick a note, those string vibrations are transmitted throughout the entire instrument. And every vibrating part of a banjo will then contribute to the sound you hear. And part of that sound you hear is the other strings vibrating, even ones you didn’t pic, but are still set in motion, nonetheless. And so since those strings will contribute to the sound, you hear how they’re tuned are going to matter and contribute to sort of the background atmosphere that permeates any song. And again, it matters even if you’re never picking those strings directly, the modal tunes and tunings are a great illustration of this. The notes may stay the same, whether you’re playing a song out of standard G or G modal tuning, but the mood of it changes entirely, which is why most banjo players prefer to use these G modal tuning for playing modal tunes.

Simply because of that background atmosphere that comes from those sympathetic vibrations. So the tuning itself becomes a part of the music and clearly banjo players throughout history have recognized this feature of the banjo. To me, this extra Sonic background atmosphere is one of the great joys of playing the banjo and adds a layer of dimension to the sound and the music that’s not present in other instruments like a guitar.

The third reason to use alternate tunings is it gives you more open strings to play. In most cases, the key-specific tunings allow us to play more open strings when playing a song that’s designed for that tuning. Now, why is that a good thing? Well, one, because the more open strings you have to play, the less work you have to do with your fretting hand to play that tune. That means it’s going to be easier to play.

Another is because a plucked string usually rings out stronger than a fretted one, and it also gets more of the banjo vibrating, which once again, allows all those other strings to make their contribution to the sound.

The fourth reason to use alternate tunings is because they open up your mind or your ears, the upside about building all the habits and skills that are needed to play the banjo is that things get easier and easier over time and you get to make more and more music. But the downside is that sometimes those habits can turn into ruts that are hard to get out of. The legendary producer and musician Brian Eno is known for his oblique strategies deck of cards – the idea of which is to help musicians and other creators break free of creative ruts. Each of these cards has an aphorism on it that introduces a novel constraint on the creative process.

So cards say things like simple subtraction or only one element of each kind or remove specifics and convert to ambiguities. And the goal of these is to promote lateral thinking or to nudge the brain out of its familiar thought patterns and into new territory. And alternate tunings are a kind of oblique strategy. They encourage this kind of lateral thinking, many of the tried and true habits and routines and picking patterns that work well in your familiar tunings are going to be useless in the alternate tunings, which can lead to fresh musical ideas.

And it’s a way of restoring some of the excitement of the early days of playing the banjo. When all of it sounds were new and where the possibilities seemed almost overwhelmingly endless. I’d say it’s almost inevitable that when I put my banjo into a tuning I’ve never used before, or one that I haven’t used in a while, I’ll end up either writing a new little tune or coming up with some new licks. It’s just a really great way to spark creativity and to create fresh and interesting sounds.

The fifth reason for using alternate tunings is because they’re magical. The banjo is a weird instrument, but it’s awesomely weird in all the right ways. And there is nothing else like it. And to me, there’s no better example of what makes the banjo so special. Then all of the various tunings and tunes that have been created in them. And if you want to hear this for yourself, I’ve linked a playlist that I created in the description of multiple classic banjo tunes in multiple different tunings. Many of which are also covered in the magic of old time banjo module in the breakthrough banjo course. Okay. So now let’s talk about a practical way to approach all of these different alternate tunings. Now, there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of different tunings that banjo players have used over the years.

So what are you exactly supposed to do with all that? Even though you don’t have to learn the chords in every tuning you try, there’s still a learning curve required for learning where the notes are in any new tuning and for suppressing the tendency to try to find notes in your more familiar fret locations. So I’ll tell you what has worked for me. And what I think is probably the most common approach taken by banjo players, whether they are clawhammer players or finger pickers, not surprisingly how you approach this issue has a lot to do with the kind of music that you want to make on the banjo. So there are two main ways I think that you can approach the alternate tunings, depending again, on the music you want to make. So the first is for the player who knows that they’re going to mainly be sticking to old time and other traditional banjo music.

So in that case, I think the best approach is to first familiar, familiarize yourself with standard G tuning gDGBD and a double gCGCD tunings. And then go ahead and learn the 1 4, 5, and 6 chord positions in those tunings. If you are sticking to the traditional repertoire, then you’re very rarely going to need any chords beyond those.

And then you can use standard G tuning for G tunes, and then capo, or tune up all five strings to play in the key of a, and then you can use double C for C tunes and then capo or tune up all strings to play in D and having those two tunings and those four keys, G a C and D will allow you to cover the vast majority of fiddle tunes and material that you’re likely to encounter in jams. And then beyond that learn tunes in G or a modal as that will open up a large, additional library of traditional material to you.

Don’t worry about learning chord shapes in those tunings, as you’ll not be playing chord centered music when you’re playing those modal tunes, those modal tunings can be thought of as pre chordal music. And whether you allow a guitarist to chord along on these depends on how close by the old time police are. And then after learning the modal tuning, learn the other tunings on an as needed basis. Many of the other tunings are named for a particular iconic song or tune in that tuning which should give an indication that they’re not typically general purpose tunings, but maybe ones you could play one or two songs in on the other hand, if you’re a player who wants to become familiar with the banjo tradition, but also wants to keep your musical options open. So be able to play in any key and multiple genres and so forth.

Then what I’d suggest there would be to first familiarize yourself with two, maybe three tunings. So start with standard G learn the moveable, a major and minor chord shapes as well as your seventh chords. And then with standard G and a cable, you’ll be able to play in the keys of G through B after the fifth fret the banjo tends to start tends to sound a bit thin and then learn a C tuning. The most commonly used one is double C, but if you want to go more old school, you can learn standard C, which is gCGBD. Neither of these is as chord friendly as standard G. However you can also play in every key out of standard G if you want to you’ll just, again, need to adjust the fifth string accordingly. As I mentioned, it usually sounds best when it’s either the first or the fifth note in the scale. Sometimes you can get away with using the third.

All right. So back to Stacy’s original with alternate tunings, do you have to remember different court shapes and generally speaking the answer to that is no. And most of the cases when you’re tuning into these alternate tunings, you’re playing a tune that’s a melody drone configuration and not something that’s more quarterly based. I will say that personally, if I’m in a new tuning and I think I may want to use it more for whatever reason, maybe to, I want to sing some songs in that tuning or whatever, I will then go through finding where the 1, 4, 5 chords are in that particular tuning.

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