Monday, December 19, 2011

Why banjo players are always tuning

This lament from a beginning banjo player: "I ordered the clawhammer for complete ignoramous book (apparently I am one) and this book which I thought was a beginner book and would use standard tuning starts out with 10 songs in double C tuning followed by 10 more in Sawmill tuning and then six in G tuning (four of which I already know) then on to C minor tuning cumberland Gap tuning (can't it be played in G?) and on and on. Really?"

So now you know why any bluegrass band seems to spend more time waiting for the banjo player to tune up than they spend playing and why banjo players spend half their life tuning and the other half playing out of tune ;).

-- Badtux the Tongue-in-cheek Music Penguin


  1. "... why banjo players spend half their life tuning and the other half playing out of tune ;).

    The saying is far older than at least our mountain banjo. It was said of lute players and viola da gamba players, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone said it of harp players in biblical times.

    Gut stringing does not enhance pitch stability, which is why the few experiments in a gut-strung harpsichord ("Lautenwerk") never really caught on. Small loss; it doesn't sound like a lute anyway.

  2. Yah, I was aware of that history, Steve, but recounting that long history of instruments that seem to always be out of tune interfered with the snark :). I was just amused by this dude's rant about banjo tuning.

    And BTW, because modern banjos are fretted instruments, the core issue with always being out of tune is that when you change the tuning to something other than what it was fretted for, give up on having the right intonation -- everything's going to be subtly out other than what fret you tuned it at, and so you're going to have to sort of tune around the center of whatever frets the song is centered at.

    - Badtux the Musical Penguin

  3. True, but viola da gamba (viol for short) players use that to good effect: tied gut frets can be "scooted" (ahead of time) or even slanted so that different strings across the instrument are fretted at different lengths by the same fret. Fretted instruments are intrinsically tempered instruments, but tied-gut fretted instruments can implement some truly bizarro temperaments!

  4. Movable frets... banjo players are in envy of viol players for having such an innovation :). Sadly, a good percentage of banjo tunes must simply be played in a subtly *off* state of tune because their frets are fixed. Which reminds me that when I use alternate tunings on my guitar I end up with the same issue, resolved by tuning the dropped strings so subtly flat that you have to have a good ear to hear it, and then sharpening the notes with a slight tug to "feel" them in. Guitar is supposedly even tempered too, but a good guitar player doesn't play it like it's even tempered, in case you haven't noticed :).

    - Badtux the Guitar-playin' Penguin


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