What Is the Tuning for a Tenor Banjo?

by Cara Batema Google
The banjo is common in folk music.

The banjo is common in folk music.

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The banjo is a string instrument that features a plastic membrane or animal hide stretched over a metal rim, like a drum, as its body. The predecessor to the banjo was introduced to the Americas by African slaves in the 17th century and eventually brought to Ireland in the 19th century. Around 1915, the tenor banjo emerged as a popular instrument in tango music. The tenor banjo has only four strings as opposed to the more traditional five strings, and its strings are typically tuned in fifths, like a mandolin.

Tenor Banjo Tunings

There are many ways to tune a banjo, most of which coincide with a style of playing or the region in which the instrument is played. The traditional tenor banjo tuning is C, G, D and A, from lowest to highest sounding. The string closest to the floor -- the A string (the highest sounding string) -- is considered the first string; the lowest sounding string (the C string) is considered the fourth string. This tuning is the same as a viola and is considered the standard. Other tunings include the Irish tuning of G, D, A and E from lowest to highest, which is associated with traditional music, and the Chicago tuning of D, G, B and E. Chicago tuning is the same as the highest four strings on a guitar and is tuned in fourths, with the exception of G to B, which is a third.


Standard tuning is used most often, but Irish tuning is lower and gives the tenor banjo a mellow sound that is favored in traditional Irish, blues and folk music. The Chicago tuning works well for guitar players and is also commonly associated with the plectrum banjo. You can tune your banjo by ear or with the use of an electronic tuner. You can also tune the lowest string to a C by playing a C on a guitar, piano or other reference. Place a finger on the seventh fret of the C string and tune the open G string to this note. Place a finger on the seventh fret of the G string to tune the D string and the seventh fret of the D string to tune the A string. Electronic tuners will have lights or a line that moves back and forth to show you if your string is in tune. Pluck the string while slowly turning the tuning peg until the tuner shows the string is in tune.


Chord shapes on the tenor banjo depend on its tuning. For example, one way to play a C chord on a banjo in standard tuning is to put one finger on the second fret of the second string and another finger on the third fret of the first string. To play a C chord in Chicago tuning, you would place a finger on the first fret of the second string and the second fret of the fourth string. If you want to play in multiple tunings, you will have to learn many ways of playing the same chord.


Think about what style of music you want to play; each genre lends itself to a particular tenor banjo tuning. Also, do not feel you must stick to any one tuning; just like alternate guitar tunings, there are endless possibilities of tenor banjo tunings. Also, like a guitar or other string instrument, you can play the same chord in multiple places on the neck. Start with learning chords in the first few positions, meaning your index finger will play the first, second or third fret, then continue to learn the different chord shapes up the neck.

About the Author

Cara Batema is a musician, teacher and writer who specializes in early childhood, special needs and psychology. Since 2010, Batema has been an active writer in the fields of education, parenting, science and health. She holds a bachelor's degree in music therapy and creative writing.

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