An unusual but fun tuning to try is D-G-D-G-C-D. Traditional Appalachian banjo players use this tuning. The tuning has several nicknames (and
variations) such as “sawmill tuning,” “modal tuning” and “mountain minor tuning.” The open strings form the notes of a Gsus4 chord.
Here are the open strings and matching notes on adjacent strings for sawmill tuning:
The interval structure of sawmill tuning is identical to DADGAD, but moved one string higher. In other words, any chord shapes you can play in
DADGAD on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th strings can now be played on the first five strings in sawmill tuning (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th).
Here are some open-position chords in the key of G for sawmill tuning:
Here are some power chords and movable chords for sawmill tuning:
Sawmill tuning is great for playing modal fiddle tunes and banjo tunes. The term “modal” in this case refers to fiddle
tunes in the Mixolydian, Dorian and Aeolian modes, all of which work very well in this tuning. The melodies can be
played with just a few notes, while the open strings act as drones and chord tones.
Pretty Polly is a traditional banjo tune that is well known in old-time and bluegrass circles. Many of the fingerings and riffs in this example are the
same as those used in clawhammer or frailing (a technique involving strumming down with the backs of the fingernails) banjo players. The following
shuffle rhythm is built into the rhythm of the clawhammer banjo style:
You can throw in the shuffle to “keep time” whenever the melody reaches a long note. Try Pretty Polly slowly at first. If you keep your wrist loose
and use lots of “snap” when you strum, you should be able to build up the speed to a brisk pace.