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Playing Outside the Box: Banjo Tuning on Guitar

Steve encounters a new challenge: playing banjo licks on a guitar

This month I wanted to relay some real-world experience that forced me to think way outside the box for a recent gig. The guys at Activision asked me to rewrite a metal arrangement of “Dueling Banjos” for Guitar Hero to be released this month as a downloadable song for the game. The only thing about the assignment was that the original was written as a banjo/acoustic guitar duel, and what they wanted was anything but acoustic … or banjo, even though it was supposed to resemble the original in some way. After some head scratching, what seemed like the best way to accomplish the sound of a banjo on a rock guitar track was not to play banjo licks in standard tuning, but to restring the guitar just like a 5-string banjo, learn the song, and take it from there.

The best guitar for the job was my ’03 Les Paul R8—big rock tone and a great, solid neck to handle what I was about to ask it to do for me. Don’t flinch, no guitars were hurt during this experiment, but a few strings lost their lives! Matching the standard 5-string banjo tuning required pulling the 5th and 6th strings off the guitar altogether. The 6th stayed off, but the 5th was replaced with a .009 and tuned up to a high G (the same pitch as the 1st string on the 3rd fret). All of the remaining strings stayed tuned the same as normal, except the 1st string was dropped to D. That gave me the standard open-G tuning like a banjo, and since the song was in the key of A, I capo’d the guitar on the 2nd fret. Watching some YouTube footage of the song confirmed that both the guitarist and banjo player were capo’d as well.

A pleasant surprise came with the first simple strum of the newly tuned guitar. Wow, what a cool sound! Playing in simple block patterns and incorporating open strings immediately revealed the beginnings of how the banjo gets its unique sound and how classic banjo licks could be accomplished. After learning the song in rudimentary form (the idea was not to copy but to get the feel and arrange it for a completely different style) I was off and running. Probably the best part of having this unique tuning was that I could use the 5th string to create incredibly wide intervallic leaps that could never be accomplished with this ease in normal tuning. Jumping from the 5th to 4th string sounded like I was hitting a whammy pedal because of the octave displacement and allowed for gorgeous and slightly confusing-sounding lines to be played.

Another benefit of this tuning style was the ability to stay in a simple box pattern to create wonderful runs. Mixing open strings with octave-above notes played on the 14th and 16th frets sound a lot more miraculous than they are difficult. I spent quite a bit of time just learning the notes again, as it was a little confusing to try to play traditional lines and phrases due to the odd tuning. In the end, it’s not that big of a deal—it’s really just open G tuning with an octave change on the 5th string, but it sure felt different. It also took a little while to get used to the feeling of the gauge difference between the 5th and 4th strings (going from a .009 to a .028 feels weird) and there was a slight truss rod adjustment required to keep the neck straight, but it was totally worth it.

I brought this experience up this month because it’s situations like this that force us to grow as players and move away from the typical playing we do every day. If ever there was a rut-buster for me it was this experiment, and the result was a pretty cool version of the song for a completely different audience. No doubt there will be people who call this blasphemy, but I call it fun, and isn’t that why we got into music in the first place?

Do yourself and your playing a favor and try something new this month. It doesn’t have to be wild or necessitate restringing your guitar differently, but it should be something that pushes or challenges you. Maybe you favor a certain area of the neck and could benefit from moving away from that comfort zone. Maybe you rely on more gain than necessary to feel confident. It’s okay, nobody’s watching when you’re trying these things out, so go for it! Heck, if you’re super crazy maybe the idea of trying something new in front of a live audience is your way out of the comfort zone … if it is you’re braver than me!

So there it is. A change of tuning has changed the way I play, and I’ve come to respect the mighty banjo player more than ever before. What a great gig!