About three years ago, I regularly played in four different tunings for the key of G:
1) Open G (gDGBD)
2) "Sandy River Belle Tuning" (gEADE)
3) "Guitar G" (gDGBE)
4) "Old G" (gDGDE)
This was a bit of a conundrum for two main reasons: 1) I didn't have that many G tunes (my tune list has always been A and D heavy) but I had more tunings for this key than any other; 2) If a jam I was playing in "went to G" I was all over the place in my tuning between tunes. Also, I was a little undecided about which tuning to try playing new tunes in (though my default, like most people's, was Open G).
I decided it was time for a change and I made a goal to consolidate my tunes into a single tuning; eventually, I settled on (mostly) putting my tunes in Old G. I realize that this is a bit of a weird move, but I thought I'd use this week's blog to lay out an argument for this decision. The easiest way to explain this is to go through the pros and cons of each of the tunings above:
1) Open G (gDGBD)
This is what most people think of as standard tuning for the 5 string banjo - eliminating it from my repertoire is therefore not something that I did lightly! There are certainly advantages of this tuning (listed below)
Pros of Open G:
However, I didn't think it was the best-candidate for my "unified G" search for the following reasons (both of which are actually related to "Pros" above):
Cons of Open G
2) "Sandy River Belle" tuning (gEADE)
This is the name that Adam Hurt uses for this tuning. While I've certainly heard of other tunings named for a certain tune ("Dead man's tuning" "Cumberland Gap Tuning" "Last Chance tuning" "Birdie tuning") most tabs I've seen for "Sandy River Belle" are actually written in Open G. I've met Adam a couple of times and keep meaning to ask him why he calls this tuning "Sandy River Belle" tuning....but I digress.
Its an unusual tuning for a banjo in that it is not an "open tuning" for the key of G - you actually have to hold down several frets (3203 from low to high strings) to make a G chord. As a result - you end up playing out of this chord shape to play tunes in the bum-ditty style; this is somewhat akin to how Chet Atkins plays guitar. There certainly are some advantages:
Pros of "Sandy River Belle" tunings
The fact that you have to hold down a chord the whole time could be seen as a con, but actually thats what I really like about this tuning - its fun to me that the approach to playing is so different than other tunings/keys. Honestly there is only one real drawback to this tuning as I see it:
Con of Sandy River Belle tuning:
I actually have a few tunes that I first learned in "Sandy River Belle" tuning that I may leave in this tuning because its just so fun to play in, but I haven't learned any new tunes here because I just miss the low D note so much.
3) Guitar G (gDGBE)
I call this guitar G because the four long strings of the banjo are tuned like the top four strings of a guitar; its much like "Chicago tuning" (DGBE) sometimes used by tenor banjo players except with a 5th string added. I started using this tuning for a few tunes that went too far up the neck for my liking before I ever heard of Old G. Nobody introduced me to this tuning, it just seemed to make sense, though I highly doubt I'm the first banjo player to use it. Its like "Sandy River Belle" tuning in that its not an open tuning, but its a little less laborious in that you only have to hold down one fret (3rd fret on the 1st string) to make a G chord.
Pro of Guitar G:
4) Old G (gDGDE)
I first came across this tuning when I learned the mesmerizing Hobart Smith tune "Last Chance." Some people (and maybe Hobart) play this in gEGDE (the "Last Chance tuning" to which I referred above), but many others play it in gDGDE, which is commonly called Old G. To me, this tuning was the obvious choice for most of my old tunes and all of my new tunes for a variety of reasons.
Pros of Old G:
Con of Old G
Overall, I've found that most of my formerly-Open-G tunes fall in Old G quite well. Furthermore, I've been working on expanding my G repertoire, and every new tune I've learned sits really great in this tuning! Overall its really neat to me that my G tunes sound fundamentally different from my A tunes because they're in Old G rather than the more-commonly used Open G tuning (i.e. my G tunes don't just sound like "de-capoed" A tunes). I'm not saying this is for everybody, but I do think that this sets my playing apart a bit, and (as usual!) I hope you got something out of reading this : )
Next week, I'll continue this discussion and try and post a few audio and/or video examples of playing in Old G.
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.